Who Said Engineering Is Just For Boys

HKUST Professor Rhea Liem

During the month of March, the achievements of women are reflected and celebrated on a global scale. Although the world has seen significant advancement in women’s rights and gender equality, there is still a long way to go to achieve full equality between men and women. Engineering, for example, remains a male-dominated field in both academia and industry.

Prof. Rhea Liem, Assistant Professor from the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, is one of the female faculty members to drive the development of aerospace engineering and encourage female students to pursue engineering as she did, challenging the stereotype that engineering is just for boys.

Born and raised in Jakarta, Indonesia, Rhea went to Singapore for her undergraduate study at Nanyang Technological University after finishing high school, then MIT in the US for her two Masters, and finally the University of Toronto in Canada for her PhD. She joined HKUST in August 2015.

There are more women entering engineering, but mechanical and aerospace may still be a heavily male-dominated field. Growing up, she was not too aware that engineering was a field considered “men only”. Her early childhood memories include her father playing “boys games” with her and her older sister — playing around with magnets while he explained how they were used. He also taught them about logic, and challenged them to think about how doorknob and television worked. These are the things that not many kindergarten kids would typically think and talk about, but they perked her curiosity at such a young age.

While there was a general notion that “boys are better in maths and physics, and girls perform better in subjects that require a lot of memorizing,” it didn’t apply to Rhea and her classmates who studied in an all-girl high school. They all did well in Maths, Physics, History, Biology, Physical Education, you name it. Realizing what females would face beyond the all-girl high school walls, her school organized a five-day “Gender Studies” course for all graduating students, by inviting speakers from various backgrounds to give lectures. One key message she remembers is that: “Indeed men and women are different, but the differences are mainly physical. Those differences should not affect your talent, aptitude, and career choice. Instead, choose what you really love and want to do in your life.”

In April 2016, she gave a talk on Aircraft Design at the Asian Research Symposium at the University of Indonesia. After the talk, she was continuously approached by female students who confided in her that they were initially hesitant on pursuing engineering because many people around them kept telling them that it was not for women. To them, seeing a female engineer talking about aircraft design was an eye-opener. That experience made Rhea realize that she could not underestimate her role as a role model for girls by being a female scholar in engineering, and she wishes that her fellow female engineering faculty members can join her in reaching out to girls whenever such opportunities arise.

Although Rhea never felt being discriminated as a female, she has experienced gender bias on two occasions.

In her first job, she was the only female engineer working on a project in a team of more than 20. One day, the manager pulled her aside and asked her, “Are you sure you can cope with this engineering work, since you are a female? We never had any female engineers before.” She responded, “I have a Mechanical Engineering degree too, so how does being a female have anything to do with it?” Her manager could not answer that, and she received compliments from her colleagues and manager after completing the work.

On another occasion at HKUST, as she and other male professors from the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering were about to attend an academic conference in the Netherlands, they received a confirmation letter from the organizer that addressed her as Mrs. “All other professors were being addressed as ‘Professor’ in the letter, I was the only female professor being called Mrs. My colleagues were utterly surprised as they had already indicated clearly to the organizer that I should have been addressed as Professor. This was really bizarre not to mention I wasn’t even married.”

As a young girl, Rhea never really thought of engineering as a predominantly masculine field because her parents and high-school teachers never made her think that way. She wants girls to understand that gender stereotyping is only man-made.