Shining the spotlight on the roles of women in the industry
The women of Surbana Jurong take on a wide range of roles every day as architects, engineers, and more. They share their thoughts on fostering diversity and inclusion in the industry in this bumper International Women’s Day issue.
The engineer who leads by example
Tan Fie Chen
Principal Engineer (C&S), KTP Consultants
As a structural engineer with KTP Consultants, Tan Fie Chen deals with the analysis and design of roads and railway infrastructure developments. With 12 years of engineering experience, Fie Chen is the Project Lead for the North-South Corridor N111 project, and part of the design team designing a complex underpinning of the Central Expressway Flyover foundation for the NSC.
Her work is complex, spanning from underground MRT stations, railway tunnels, roads tunnels, deep shafts to complex underpinning works. She also projects manages the entire design process of these infrastructure projects. Apart from coordinating and communicating with various disciplines and stakeholders, she also guides younger engineers.
Growing up in Malacca as the eldest child who took on extra responsibilities to help her mother as her father worked in another state in Malaysia, Fie Chen believes that ownership is the foundation of leadership. “Be humble, be technically sound, and remain level-headed at all times,” she shared on what it takes to lead by example.
Her passion for engineering often brings her onsite between 1 am and 5 am, to ensure complex designs such as underpinning of sensitive live MRT structures are followed through with precision on the ground. She joined KTP in March 2017 was named the Most Promising Professional – Female in 2019 at the SJ Group Global Awards. She believes that both men and women have equally important roles in leadership and professional responsibilities.
“Engineers face plenty of challenges throughout the whole cycle of any project,” said Fie Chen. “When the going gets tough, I believe that what does not kill us only makes us stronger.”
Embracing diversity for better teamwork
Deputy Director, SAA Architects
With 15 years of architectural practice, Hong Fenglin has worked on critical projects such as Singapore Changi Airport Terminal 4, and innovative industrial parks such as JTC Bulim Square and JTC Pesawat.
She was also the lead in the planning, coordination, design, contract administration, and implementation of various projects like Commonwealth Towers, a 43-storey super high-rise twin tower residential condominium development; JTC Space @Tuas, a first-of-its-kind, high-rise industrial comprising mixed-type factories, workers’ dormitories, and an amenities center; and Jem, a mixed-use commercial development comprising retail space and Grade A offices. She is also working on Bay East at Gardens by the Bay – the next iconic garden at Gardens by the Bay in Singapore.
Fenglin has never felt limited by gender stereotypes at work as architecture is a very broad field and requires a good combination of technical, management, and interpersonal skills. “In Singapore, I feel the built industry is generally quite gendered balanced and the field is not dominated by any gender,” she said.
On how she would advise women keen to enter architecture, she said, “Focus on bringing results and value to the table. Being a woman does not limit you in what you can achieve.”
“Rather than looking at it as breaking stereotypes, we should embrace our differences, skills, and talents to play different roles within a team. Women should have the confidence to pursue what they want and not feel they need to challenge or conform to stereotypes. Good quality work makes an impact.”
Wanted: More women in the security industry
Juliana Binte Samad
Lance Corporal (Auxiliary Police Force), AETOS
As an Executive Protection Officer with AETOS VP-International, Juliana has to ensure the safety and security of her principal (the individual that she is assigned to protect). Her responsibilities include route mapping, identifying safe houses, preparing crisis and medical evacuation plans, and close escort duties – all to ensure the principal can go about their day smoothly and safely.
She loves the training and the physicality of her work. A highlight of her EPU role was when AETOS held a combat demonstration for a prospective client. “Staff were sparring in full protective gear. I got quite a bit of satisfaction when I saw the look of surprise on some faces when I removed my helmet at the end of the demo!”
“I embrace competition and am confident in my abilities, so I am not afraid to assert myself – be it at meetings or during training,” Juliana added. “I am comfortable with expressing my masculine side and can cultivate friendships with my male peers, who have been cool to work with. Having a good sense of humor always helps too!”
The key is to believe in oneself. “The problem isn’t that there are too many men in the industry, but rather, there are not enough women. Better representation and diversity – from the ground level to top management – would help to ease staff shortages and uplift the industry.”
Building a sustainable future, with empathy
FGM Social Development & Environment Group Southeast Asia and the Pacific
SMEC – ASEAN & Pacific
Growing up in a rural mining town called Broken Hill in New South Wales, Australia, Libby Paholski knows the remote mining life firsthand. “I can bring some of this lived experience to my work on projects and this has shaped my professional career and its focus on sustainability,” she said in a Zoom interview.
Libby’s role as the Functional General Manager in Social Development and Environment Group in Southeast Asia and the Pacific is to work with clients to design their projects to minimize impacts and find ways to manage the impact throughout the projects’ life cycle – contributing to sustainable outcomes long term.
A great example of sustainability is a five-year project in Vanuatu, which developed a sustainable road maintenance program and supporting systems. The result was a 30 percent improvement in access across rural Vanuatu, with better access to education, health, and livelihoods for the communities.
Libby started her career as a town planner in a local government in Australia, then moved into community engagement and social planning specialist roles, to running her own consultancy business for over seven years. She took on a short-term project on community engagement for SMEC but later became heavily involved in the social development projects that SMEC was undertaking for donors such as the DFAT Australian Aid, Asian Development Bank, and World Bank. “I worked in business development, providing technical input and supporting delivery of projects mainly located in the Pacific,” she said.
Libby does not have to look very far for inspiring role models in her division. “Karen Atkinson, my manager and Deputy Chief Operating Officer for Southeast Asia and the Pacific,” she said, “is a great female role model and has bought great vision, strong leadership, commitment and fresh perspectives to the ASEAN Division.” She is also energized by colleagues who bring great technical skills, collaboration, and empathy to their work; as well as junior teammates with skills that will make them leaders in the future.
On what advice she has for women seeking a secure future, Libby’s take is for these women to understand their core values as this will lead them to do their work with passion and commitment, which will contribute to a sustainable future. “Learn from people you work with – take the criticism as learning and embrace opportunities to learn, even if it might feel uncomfortable. You won’t look back with any regrets, and only with pride, at the positive change you have been part of.”
The steadfast voice you can count on
Preethi Reddy Gollapalli
Senior Urban Planner, Surbana Jurong
Preethi first joined SJ in 2012 after earning a master’s degree in Urban Design at the National University of Singapore. She has handled challenging projects in Sri Lanka, India, and is now posted to Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda. For her tenacity and her work on these projects project, and Kigali’s Imbuga Walk, in particular, she was recently named as the Young Planner of the Year 2021 by the Singapore Institute of Planners. The judges were struck by her steadfastness and tenacity in dealing with various stakeholders, from the government to residents.
For Preethi, gender is of no relevance in the workplace in the 21st century. She follows a quote by Sheryl Sandberg who had said that women need to shift from thinking “I’m not ready to do that” to “I want to do that—and I’ll learn by doing it.”
“Urban planning has had women at the forefront since the 1950s and the first name that comes to mind for every urban planner is Jane Jacobs,” Preethi said, adding there are lots more, including Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Saskia Sassen, Majora Carter, and Yu-Ning Hwang.
While she feels blessed to have supportive colleagues, Preethi noted there is still some stereotyping, especially when women leaders take a more assertive tone in decision-making. She shared, “While a firm tone gets the necessary attention the situation deserves, we tend to hear comments like ‘You were not yourself in the meeting’ or ‘You are taking your work too personally’. I bet men don’t face such comments for being assertive. I have learned to not just deal with such situations or concerns, but also educate the person on his/her subconscious gender bias and the need to evolve.”
Preethi believes urban planning is the “real deal” as women entering the field get to shape people’s lives, solve real issues and build the environment for generations. Her word to women keen to work in urban planning: “Gender has no role in here. It is crucial, however, to find a mentor who knows your strengths and weaknesses and supports your growth.”
A changemaker for a more sustainable Indonesia
Water and Sanitation Specialist
SMEC Denka Indonesia
Pawitasari Fransisca is an environmental engineer with over 20 years of experience in the water supply and sanitation sectors. She has worked in urban development projects in the field of water, sanitation, and solid waste improvement project in Indonesia and several Asian countries for the World Bank, USAID, Asian Development Bank, Indonesian Government, and a range of companies.
She is now involved in a national strategic project that seeks to convert municipal solid waste to energy infrastructure – very important as it also serves as a demonstration project for Indonesia where solid waste problems are “staggering”. “We hope that with the development of infrastructure, greenhouse gas emissions will be significantly reduced and benefit the environment,” she said.
This is why she is glad to work in SMEC, which values gender equality. “I experience equality in terms of access to the same rewards, opportunities, and resources at the company. In the early days of my career, however, in the area of fieldwork, I had to show proof that my contributions mattered. Women had to go the extra mile to be able to take a lead role.”
Nonetheless, she is glad that more women are working as engineers. And the opportunities speak for themselves. Pawitasari has been hand-picked as a Climate Change Professional Fellow by the US Department of State for a program in New York and Washington DC. She also received a scholarship for the Summer School on Integrated Water Resources Management, Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research-UFZ, in Germany. She also attended a program at the Centre for Development Innovation, Wageningen UR in The Netherlands.
“Everyone in the team shares the same vision and is dedicated to the mission,” she said. “Together, we help industries and institutions that may not have been environmentally conscious in the past to become better stewards of natural resources.”
“Therefore, to women who want to take part in developing a sustainable future through engineering, do not hesitate! We can become change-makers for a sustainable tomorrow.”
Bringing power to the marginalised
Section Manager – Power and Energy, East Africa, Kenya
With 19 years under her belt as a Civil Engineer and Project Management Professional, Florence Wambugu has worked on various energy projects in Sub-Saharan Africa, where the impact of poor infrastructure and climate change is a double whammy for vulnerable populations.
In Uganda, she served as Project Manager for a feasibility study for a 400 kV transmission line and associated substations, as well as a power evacuation analysis for a hydropower station. In Kenya, Florence served as a Senior Civil/ Structural Engineer reviewing designs and tender documents for the Kenya Electricity Transmission Company; and in South Sudan, she was involved in the rehabilitation and expansion of electricity distribution networks project.
Florence enjoys working on complex projects, developing technical infrastructure designs, honing her contract and project management skills, driving project milestones, meeting organizational objectives, and fostering strategic partnerships to deliver project outcomes. She believes that women should always be the best that they can be. “Put in the time to better yourself and take your seat at the table. Always be on the lookout for opportunities.”
Her work is challenging but Florence enjoys it, saying: “I have drawn great inspiration from my boss, André van der Walt who has believed in me. There is a concerted drive towards gender equality in SMEC, which is demonstrated through the promotion of women’s participation in infrastructure development and access at national and regional levels.”
Soft skills have a huge impact
Facilities Executive with SMM Pte Ltd, the FM arm of Surbana Jurong Pte Ltd
Aside from the routine pest control, flickering lightbulbs, and maintenance matters that are part and parcel of the work that Dawn Yip handles at a business park in central Singapore, she also handles vendor management, client management, tenant management, and supports the building’s smart solutions, namely the mobility app used by tenants and BIM FM.
Two years on the job onsite at [email protected], has taught her the importance of strong communication skills and not just hard knowledge and about different systems of a smart building.
“Being able to communicate and identify the needs of others have helped me connect with clients,” she said. “The client may not have the technical knowledge to understand operational matters, so being able to deliver the message in simpler terms has helped me to manage their expectations better.” This has resulted in better engagement with the various stakeholders and coordination among different teams.
The point is not to let gender stereotypes dictate one’s capability, Dawn said. “Each difficult situation that I have faced has turned into a valuable learning opportunity,” she said. There are always colleagues around who are willing to help. I’m grateful towards colleagues who have shared valuable experiences and knowledge with me.”
Going places in China as a master planner
Nanxi SU / 苏南溪, Design Lead, Urban Planning
Surbana Jurong North Asia
Born in China and educated in Singapore, Nanxi first worked as an architect 13 years ago before moving into the field of urban planning in 2017 in Surbana Jurong’s ASEAN division. Her fluency in Mandarin and experience in the China market made her a logical candidate for a posting to SJ North Asia last year and she now shuttles frequently between Chinese cities such as Shanghai, Shenzhen, Suzhou as well as project sites from the Greater Bay Area to the Ordos in Inner Mongolia.
Traveling constantly for work has shaped her ability to adapt. She is always game to explore different places as an urban planner and advise governments and clients on optimal development strategies. Although women are very active in the fields of Architecture and Urban Planning, Nanxi finds that women are often still expected to support rather than to lead.
“For a female architect and planner,” she said, “contractors, sometimes clients, may refuse to believe that this woman is responsible for leading the entire building design or the project’s masterplan. They don’t realize that this is not just a woman, but their architect or planner until we start to discuss technical details about the project. In our industry, I feel that we need to look ‘mature’ enough to convince the client, and this is sometimes the cause of discrimination towards women.”
“I believe it is not a question for a woman to ‘adapt’ to the culture but to ‘change and influence’ and bring our creativity, passion, problem-solving skills, and our ability to collaborate to help the field evolve. This is where our value lies.”
A passion for the beauty of her homeland
Karina Discaya, Environmental Specialist
By conducting environmental impact assessments (EIA) Karina Discaya has an integral role in a project’s life cycle – a clear view of the possible impacts of a project so that potential environmental problems can be addressed and management plans are made to make the project sustainable.
As a member of the Society for the Conservation of Philippine Wetlands (SCPW), an NGO involved in raising awareness for wetlands conservation, Karina was a passionate educator in ecological camps at high schools in municipalities surrounding Laguna Lake, the Philippines’ biggest lake and one of the country’s most important inland bodies of water. This awareness campaign has been replicated in other provinces and other water bodies in the Philippines.
Her work and passion have opened her eyes to the beauty of the Philippines, she said. “I have been fortunate to experience so many parts of the archipelago. I hope my work translates into conserving biodiversity to ensure that the different ecosystems are maintained. I want to see the Philippines prosper by striking a very difficult balance between development and environmental protection.”
In her 20-plus years in the field, she said, she has never experienced gender issues working in male-dominated institutions where she has worked, namely the National Power Corporation and the Department of Public Works and Highways, and now at SMEC Philippines, where she has worked for over 10 years. Her male supervisors and colleagues have been supportive, valuing her opinion and contributions.
For women keen to enter her field, Karina advised, it is more important to start with a sense of gratitude. “Always honor and praise God for the talents He has given you. Never stop learning about the importance of different ecosystems that contribute to sustainable environments. Do your job well. Do not be intimidated by other people and treat everyone with kindness.”
A supportive advocate for inclusivity
Advisor – Communications and Stakeholder Engagement (CSE)
SMEC – ANZ
A multicultural in Australia, Raveena Grover is passionate about fostering a sustainable team culture in workplaces, with the aim of understanding and honoring perspectives that will drive a better future. She started in 2020 as a graduate in the Communications and Stakeholder Engagement team.
“I believe sustainability means the inclusion of everyone and requires effort from us all,” she shared. “Whether we consider cultural sustainability, project sustainability, or environmental sustainability. Enabling better communication services and honing our practice as communicators is a crucial part of creating a sustainable future.”
Now involved in working with businesses run by owners who do not speak English as their native language for a sewerage project in Melbourne, Raveena and her Melbourne-based team pound the phones and knock on doors to connect with them to help them understand the impact of the project – language barriers notwithstanding. “What keeps me grounded at SMEC is my CSE team – a diverse, empowering and brilliant group of women from a range of backgrounds who constantly uplift each other,” she said, sharing that the support from her manager, Alyse Phillips, and her network have made a huge difference.
Raveena’s rich and varied background in customer service, journalism, and marketing has fostered a keen interest in learning about culture and people. She has recently embarked on a postgraduate course on public health and produces and curates an annual South Asian performance showcase in Sydney with talent across the diaspora and raising funds for South Asian and Aboriginal charities.
She believes the first step to breaking the bias against women starting in their careers is to believe in one’s worth and power. “As young women, we deserve every resource to empower ourselves, and we must also know we can empower ourselves with the tenacity to seek information and knowledge where it is not handed to us.”