When Chaman Iftikhar persuaded her boss to take a chance on her a few years ago, she didn’t know just how much her first assignment would test her mettle. As one of Pakistan’s small group of female field services engineers, Iftikhar is also one of few women in professional STEM positions in the country. But when she arrived at the location of her deployment — the remote Guddu power plant in the Pakistani province of Sindh — she was physically isolated too. She felt cut off even from the nearest small town, which was a 10-minute drive or almost an hour on foot. In South Asia, where population density is typically enormous, the experience was startling. She called her parents to bemoan her fate, but they weren’t having any of it. They encouraged her, and jokingly offfered advice: In the absence of people, just be wary of the wildlife.
The conditions were tough, but Iftikhar wouldn’t have it any other way. She knew that in order to master field engineering, she needed to experience all the job had to offer. That’s why Iftikhar had requested this placement in the first place.
In those early days, Iftikhar’s assignment at Guddu was to help with the technical modification of a GE gas turbine during a planned outage. And despite the challenges, she was determined to see the project through to the end. She helped supervise the successful technology upgrade at the plant and stayed for three weeks. “I learned how to be on my toes all the time,” she says. “I learned how to work when you’re out of your comfort zone.”
It is this brand of grit that helped the Islamabad-based Iftikhar persevere against the odds for a career in engineering — odds she has most successfully beaten as a female field services engineer in a country where women constitute fewer than 10% of STEM professionals. Iftikhar currently works as a controls engineer for FieldCore, a GE company that delivers field service capabilities ranging from installation to maintenance and repair.
When she was a very young girl, Iftikhar says, she was riveted by the 1997 film “Contact,” in which Jodie Foster plays an astronomer who builds a complex mechanical system to connect with intelligent extraterrestrials. Foster’s memorable line from the movie — “Mathematics is the only truly universal language” — would lay the foundation for Iftikhar’s growing interest in engineering. Iftikhar’s family has long been her main line of support. Her parents even encouraged their daughter to look to this unlikely role model, and they supported her every desire for extra math and science tuition as she was growing up, first in Kashmir and then in Islamabad.
When Iftikhar first expressed an interest in engineering in school, the common refrain she heard was that women were better suited for careers as teachers or doctors. “I would hear, ‘This is a man’s job; this is not what women do. Why do you want to get into the trenches and the dirt?’ ” she says. Her father, who works in construction and has long mentored women in civil engineering positions, reminded his daughter that the human body was the most complex engineering system in the universe. If women could work on the human body as doctors, he asked, why not on machines?
Eventually she won a scholarship to study electronics engineering at the prestigious Ghulam Ishaq Khan Institute of Engineering Sciences and Technology. “It was a tough decision for my family [for me to move away from home], but they are very supportive,” Iftikhar says.
At the institute, Iftikhar studied electronics engineering. She was one of only three women in a class of 80. “I felt like I was kind of a rare species,” she says. “But it made me strong, because I knew I would eventually have to work in a male-dominated industry anyway.” After graduation, Iftikhar landed a series of jobs typical of a new graduate’s path, rooted in engineering with a mix of field and office-based work. “I wanted to be out in the field and practicing engineering,” she says. In 2014, Iftikhar came across a posting on her university’s alumni website for a job with then GE Power and Water (which ultimately saw her transition to FieldCore in 2018). Her first assignment was at Balloki Power Plant, on the outskirts of Lahore.
Iftikhar’s current role in FieldCore includes extensive travel around Pakistan, and assignments have also taken her to Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Kuwait; she’s responsible for planned maintenance activities at power plants during scheduled outages. Her work also includes repairs during forced outages. It’s during these unplanned events that finding the root of the problem in a massive turbine-driven station can be like looking for a needle in a haystack — there might be miles of pipes and tubing, and a small problem at any point can bring the whole system down. “When a power plant shuts down, it just shuts down. It doesn’t tell you where the problem is,” Iftikhar says, adding that this often makes troubleshooting a high-stakes situation.
Iftikhar’s grace under fire has helped her out of such high-intensity projects. “Sometimes you come across situations when you feel like you’re drowning, but then I discover a resilience I didn’t know I had,” she says. “I am passionate about my work and love what I do. I’m just really content to be giving it my all.”
Initially both her youth and gender were a disadvantage, as she was fresh out of college when she started working as a field services engineer. At the time of the move that took her to Guddu for the first time, she was just 25 years old. She says customers would often ask, “Where is the guy who will do the job?” Iftikhar quips, “I had to say, ‘I am him! You are looking at him!’ ”
A core lesson Iftikhar has learned over the years: how to work with technicians on the ground. Up until she started doing field work, Iftikhar hadn’t interacted closely with blue-collar workers. She remembers sitting on the floor with dozens of longtime workers, all men, and teaching them how to operate various systems in power plants.
“I could tell they were thinking, ‘Oh gosh, she is so young, and she is telling us to do this,’ ” she continues, “but I learned how to break that barrier.” She does this mainly by using company-approved guidelines as cover for the protocol that she needs to be followed.
Since she is mobilized to different customer sites throughout the year, she often has to restart this process, but says things are always improving as plant personnel become more used to seeing her on the front lines. “It is also about effective communication, giving them space, being on their level and eventually making them feel that I am one of them,” Iftikhar says. “I try to understand their problems and limitations. Once you’ve helped them solve a work problem, the relationship is cemented and in turn they will always be willing to lend all kinds of help and support.”
Iftikhar’s dream is to see a much bigger talent pool of female field engineers in Pakistan. To help realize this vision, she volunteers at the Citizens Foundation, where she mentors underprivileged girls. The experience was an awakening. “Some of them were girls who used to work as maids after coming home from school,” she says. “My parents gave me everything. I didn’t have to struggle to pay my school fees or anything like that.” Iftikhar realized the girls she mentors don’t just have to overcome the gender divide — they also have to wrestle with one presented by class. She was saddened to see the girls’ struggles up close: Their ability at math alone was not enough. They lacked the ecosystem to make it beyond a prescribed path.
But Iftikhar hopes that just seeing her as a field engineer might light a spark in the girls — much like Jodie Foster did for Iftikhar when she was a young girl.