Emirati engineer’s heavy lifting smashes gender barriers

Alia Al Hashimi is one of few women crane operators at one of the world’s largest aluminium producers

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When Alia Al Hashimi takes control of a huge crane overlooking blistering hot smelters producing aluminium, she sends a powerful message to other young girls: You, too, can claim a space on the factory floor.

The 24-year-old chemical engineer spends her days sitting at a vantage point, manoeuvring the crane to lift her high above the massive Kizad facility of Emirates Global Aluminium, the UAE's biggest industrial concern operating outside the oil and gas sector.

This is an industry dominated by men, and Ms Al Hashimi's family warned her at first that it would not be a female-friendly career.

"They said it was a difficult job and a job that a man does," Ms Al Hashimi told The National.

But it had been her dream career since childhood.

I’m here to show that women are capable of withstanding all these conditions
Alia Al Hashimi, one of the first women operating cranes in Emirates Global Aluminium

"It is very important for women to contribute through work we are passionate about, show our presence in the operations field, and let ourselves and others know that the field is not limited to any gender," she said.

"My presence here will hopefully inspire other young ladies to pursue roles in operations.

"It is a big responsibility and I make sure not to take it lightly."

As one of the world's largest aluminium producers, EGA is responsible for 4 per cent of global production of the metal.

Aluminium produced by the company has been used to construct landmark buildings, such as the Burj Khalifa in Dubai and the Esplanade theatre in Singapore.

Operational challenges

Emirati engineer’s experience in cranes smashes barriers

Emirati engineer’s experience in cranes smashes barriers

The American University of Sharjah graduate is among a small group of women pioneers selected for EGA's operations teams in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

Her role also involves planning the workload for a shift, discussing operations, receiving feedback and reminding workers about safety measures.

She works 12-hour shifts on the shop floor where temperatures can soar to 70°C, and she is aiming for a supervisory position to lead the people she currently works with.

Ms Al Hashimi spends six hours a day sitting in a crane looking over a 1.6km line of furnaces and replacing metal components that need regularly changing to keep the 24-hour operation running smoothly.

High-voltage electricity is continuously pumped into the smelters below to product molten aluminium, heat which often pierces through her air-conditioned crane cabin hovering above.

"When I'm replacing an anode and the pot is open, it is as if it's glowing or on fire," she said, adding that temperatures inside the smelters can reach up to 960°C.

The role can present some challenges, she said, such as warning team members of potential dangers while she's at work.

"The component weighs more than 400kg and I move that around a live area where employees are working, so I have to be really careful and press the horn to alert people," she said.

Ice breaker

As a senior technician, Ms Al Hashimi said it is crucial to win over the confidence of workers.

Last year, the company recruited more than 220 Emiratis, 100 of whom were women.

"Women have always been represented in different departments but this is the first time we have been in operations," she said.

"The main challenge is that I'm the first woman here and I'm working with a group that is used to only men in operations."

Ms Al Hashimi said it was difficult at first, because her team didn't want to ask her to do the work due to her gender.

"I had a talk with them to let them know that, yes, I'm the first woman, but we are a team," she said.

"I told them to forget that I'm a woman, that we will all work together to make sure the plant runs successfully. That broke the barrier between us."

The men were accustomed to working alongside women in factories in their home countries, but not in the UAE.

However, her openness helped break the ice with many of her colleagues, who now approach her to resolve issues.

Ms Al Hashimi said her teammates now share stories with her about women working in operations in their home countries, which she has found encouraging.

"They shared their experiences and the problems they face. They started coming to me and asking for my help," she said.

"I learn a lot from them and we started to build a working relationship."

Keeping cool

Ms Al Hashimi admitted that she was initially concerned about working long hours in scorching conditions.

However, support from colleagues, staying hydrated, taking short breaks and showering at least twice during her shift all help her to remain focused on the task at hand.

"You can feel the heat coming, and you can feel the hot air on your face as you're sweating," she said.

"But what motivates me is remembering that I'm here for a reason. I'm here to show that women are capable of withstanding these conditions," she said.

She also credited the UAE's leaders for their words of motivation.

"Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed said women have a vital role to play in society and in all fields," she said.

"That was what encouraged me to join a field that was previously male-dominated, as our leaders have strived for us to be in leadership positions in all areas."

Ms Al Hashimi's message to young girls hoping to work in operational roles is not to give up.

"Don't be afraid, and always learn new things," she said.

"I want it to become normal for ladies to work in operations. There are challenges, but you can overcome them if you have the will and dedication.

"Don't limit yourself, and give it your best shot."

Updated: August 28, 2023, 6:56 AM