40% of Engineers in Syria and Turkey are Women. Why so much higher than other countries?

In 2004 I was privileged to be involved in an EU-funded project which took me to Syria several times. I was amazed to find that nearly half their engineers were women. You may share my delight that this hasn’t changed, despite Syria’s tragic war over the past 10 years. Normally these blogs are pretty much all about women engineers in Britain so today I thought I would do one about the ‘anomalous’ engineers of Turkey and Syria and a little on their history.

young gurayman on site

This is Sabiha Rıfat Gürayman (1910-2003), believed to have been the first woman to qualify and work as an engineer in Turkey. She and another woman, Melek Erbul, graduated in 1933 in civil engineering from the Higher Engineers. School, now Istanbul Technical University, where she had been their first female student. Her first post was at the Ankara Public Works Directorate, then at the Ministry of Public Works. She designed several schools in different parts of the country and was involved in the design for the construction of various government buildings, the main building of the Anitkabir (Attaturk’s mausoleum) (she is pictured in front of this building in the picture below) and the Turkish Grand National Assembly.


She also designed many bridges, one of which was the Kemer Bridge in the Beypazarı district of Ankara, in 1935. The people of the district were not just grateful to have the bridge wanted to celebrate Gürayman, who had had to camp in tents and even wear trousers during the site work,  so they insisted that the bridge be renamed the “Girls’ Bridge”.  She married and rose in public service to become Chief Engineer. On her death she left all her money to the Fevzi Akkaya Foundation for Basic Education with the Istanbul Technical University Foundation, to provide. scholarships. (see also this Turkish blog about her)


Despite many other cultural similarities, which I will come to later, Syria did not have its first female engineers until 1950. I have not been able to find out their names, but it was reported to the 1st International Conference of Women Engineers and Scientists, that two women had been been in the first engineering degree class when Syria’s first Faculty of Engineering established in 1946, in a former colonial military barracks. The School of Engineering at that time only offered civil engineering and so, in 1950, after four years of study, those first two Syrian women civil engineers graduated. The 1964 report said that “These first two women engineers were enthusiastically received and now occupy leading positions as heads of civil engineering government departments.”

The report also provided some statistics of women in engineering in Middle Eastern countries at that time:

icwes1964 data on middle eastern women engineers

Considering that these were either brand new nations or certainly very much in the developing stage, emerging not just from the Second World War but also essentially pre-industrial cultures, those are pretty respectable numbers. I would guess that no university in Britain at that time could say they had a reliable percentage of, say, more than 2-5% each year of women in their engineering cohorts.

In 2005 and today the percentages of women engineering undergraduate and postgraduate students are both steady at about 40% and professional engineers in Syria around the 30-40% mark, varying between disciplines. In the Middle East it is usual to consider architecture as an engineering discipline so the statistics are perhaps not directly comparable with NW Europe where architecture is not usually regarded as part of engineering, but even allowing for that the following statistics are impressive for Syria and arguably shaming to Western Europe and the USA which claim to have such gender equality principles.

Percentage of women professional engineers in Aleppo Syndicate of Engineers





Civil Engineering


Architectural Engineering


Electronic Engineering


Technology Engineering


Electrical Engineering


Mechanical Engineering


So why are Turkey and Syria so successful in recruiting women to engineering?

Both nations are relatively ‘young’ in their present formation. The modernisation revolution by Kamal Attaturk encouraged women to come out of the home and become modern working women. Similarly the post-WW2 Syrian Arabic Republic, set up on socialist principles, made it illegal to pay women less than men, even before many western countries passed such laws. The only academic study of the phenomenon is a book by Berna Zengin, based on her master’s thesis: Women Engineers in Turkey – Gender, technology, education and professional life. This highly readable analysis of the ‘anomaly’ of the high percentage of women in engineering was based on statistics and interviews. However, her conclusions match those of the 1964 ICWES report and those of the interviews I conducted in 2005 in Syria for a report which the Women’s Engineering Society was compiling for UNESCO:

status quote

Engineering was and is a high-status profession valued by the middle classes for their daughters as well as their sons. Middle class women in these countries expect to be professionals and to work after marriage.

To end on a slightly more political note: let us hope that these excellent equalities of professional opportunities for women in Syria and Turkey continue despite the recent rise of misogynist fundamentalist Islam in the area.

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