Ebru Özdemir - Inspiring the next generation of women engineers
Energy: What are the challenges that women face in leading positions - specifically for women like you, in the construction and engineering sectors? Chairing one of the largest business groups from Turkey which has successfully completed over 100 projects, the total value of which exceed 10 billion dollars, how difficult is it for a woman in business?
Ebru Özdemir: With women still pushing to reach the top in business, they are faced with a range of challenges that many of their male counterparts don’t have an idea of. Unfortunately these issues prevent many women from achieving their goal of becoming a leader at their company and diminishing their ability to get ahead in business.One of the biggest challenges is equality in the workplace. This is also relevant for construction and engineering sectors. Men dominate the executive ranks, and women face disproportionate challenges in their efforts to rise to the top. Women’s salaries are lower than men’s throughout every level of the workforce. At the C-level, the disparity between men and women is perhaps most pronounced. Building a sisterhood, garnering support from other women is the second on my list. Women in business need to support and empower each other. Women need to show togetherness, passion, excellence and enthusiasm towards laying the foundation for the progress through our work. At the C-level, we need an “Executive Sisterhood” that would operate as a catalyst to increase gender parity in the workplace. But first, we need to be together. And last but not the least, it’s not enough to be in a role or to sit at the table.
Women leaders must also speak confidently
They need make their voices heard, share their perspectives because it can help shape policies. They need to be role models for the upcoming generations.
Energy: You are known as women’s rights advocate, working continuously to empower female students. Could you tell us about your journey and what were the main challenges you’ve faced while advocating for them?
Ebru Ozdemir: Engineering has always been part of my life. I was raised in a family of engineers. My mother was the only female engineering student of her class back in 1960’s Turkey. My father is an engineer, so as my brother. I have always been surrounded by engineers. Additionally, I was brought up in an engineering business environment and to be honest: it always appealed to me. Therefore it was a ‘natural choice’ for me to pursue a career in engineering. Number one challenge is the perception, I guess. I believe there are fantastic opportunities that are out there for women and then being reminded how unaware so many people still are about the role that women play in our society. Take engineering for instance: the fact is that engineers designed your mobile phone, they’re the creators behind the electric car, and although they’re often dismissed as men.
We don’t have the luxury to discriminate women, counting 50 percent of our world, despite all technological advancement we have achieved. This is unsustainable and unacceptable. It harms technological development, holding back societal and economic progress. There needs to be systematic and sustained efforts, from schools, to universities and workplaces, to encourage women into all career options, including engineering careers. That’s not true!
Energy: Do you think women nowadays are one step ahead comparing to previous times and how much do you think their rights are being respected?
Ebru Özdemir: We still have a long way to go globally in empowering women politically, academically, economically and legally. Challenges and problems are the same both in Turkey, in Kosovo, in the Region and the rest of the world: to achieve gender equality and women’s empowerment, simply put. Therefore to define a common agenda with the ambition of promoting gender equality at worldwide and to jointly overcome barriers hindering women’s development needs to be the number priority for all of us.
Energy: With regards to the advancement of women in general, you are also the Founder and the Chair of Limak Foundation, which initial area of investment is strong and long-term advocacy of the advancement of women in engineering career. How far has your foundation been able to push women forward in Turkey?
Ebru Özdemir: One must be actively involved into change! This is the true leadership, I believe. At Limak, our business vision carried out in all the countries we operate, in Turkey, in Kosovo, in Kuwait, in Senegal is clear:
Every positive impact we create for the societies in which we operate will benefit our business and will ensure our long-term sustainability
Therefore, at Limak, we are working to ensure our business and investments contribute to generating a positive impact for the country and its people. Limak ASI. To that end, we have established Limak Foundation in the year 2016 in order to strategically manage Limak Group’s social investments. In our portfolio, we have numerous works and initiatives conducted in Turkey: Engineer Girls of Turkey (TMK), SDG Impact Accelerator, Limak Philharmonic Orchestra, TEA – Turkey’s first energy startup accelerator programme, Turkey’s largest school for handicapped children and various different programs on education, on health, on sports etc. Abroad, we are also investing to the future generations of the countries in which we operate through different types of activities. For instance in Kuwait, we are running Engineer Girls of Kuwait as well as Kuwait Women Economic Empowerment Platform. In Senegal, LAS Academy, a training center for airport services. In Kosovo, we have two separate projects: KEDS Academy and Limak ASI.
Women empowerment is an area of my personal interest, a personal ambition, a personal aspiration to me, as I have explained. Therefore through different programs in Turkey and abroad, we aim to equip young female engineers with the tools necessary to compete and succeed in the future workplace and help them envision their future careers in engineering. Engineer Girls of Turkey (TMK) is Limak Foundation’s ‘flagship’ project. We do partner with the Turkish Ministry of Family and Social Policies, Turkish Ministry of National Education, as well as UNDP Turkey.
Energy: According to you, what are the main challenges women are facing today around the world?
Ebru Özdemir: One of the challenges that underlie all of our struggles for women globally is the lack of women in positions of power. From corporate boards to the academia, from judicial system to political leadership around the world, the lack of women in senior positions continues to hinder progress on many issues from distribution of wealth to discrimination in all its forms. I believe the sooner we understand that the lack of women in leadership positions holds back not only women, but all people, the sooner we will be able to advance our societies as a whole. A second challenge is prejudices. Regardless of a woman’s experience, expertise, education or abilities, the nature of our societies fosters the perception that women are less qualified and less competent than men. Actually this is one of the reasons for all forms of inequalities we experience.
Energy: Apart from your core business, you work every day for gender equality in society. You have also found support from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) for Engineer Girls of Turkey. How do you feel when you get your voice heard at such high levels?
Ebru Özdemir: Thank you so much for those kind words. I strongly believe women leadership can change the world! This is not only in term of business, in general. Women tend to rule by consensus. They tend to welcome input from others and believe there is more to win through collaboration. They also do create a more diverse leadership style simply because they are blinder to gender, based on their own experiences. I believe the world has a lot to gain from women and women leadership. I believe we were very fortunate to have UNDP Turkey’s support for the Engineer Girls project, since its inception. As said, we also partners with two separate Ministries in Turkey, as well as other institutions (including Bogaziçi University, PERYÖN etc.). UNDP Turkey’s support brought an international as well as a global angel to the Project. We had the chance to be heard internationally, as well as benchmark our work.
Energy: What have been the key achievements you are proud of in this project?
Ebru Özdemir: As said, engineering has always been part of my life. Being raised in a family of engineers and having a mother role-model who is an engineer and firmly believing to women empowerment, I only had to follow the path provided by her and my family. Inspiring the next generation of female engineers has always been a personal inspiration to me. And I feel fortunate as well as so proud to have been able to start and realize this dream, this vision through the Engineer Girls of Turkey and other programs. I always wanted to do something good enough on this issue, I have spent longtime thinking about it. Thanks to friends, family members, colleagues at Limak and outside Limak who joined forces with me. Then we started to think: If we’re going to tackle this problem, what does it have to be? What to offer and what to expect? We have always kept an eye on the existing projects in this field around the world. Literally we designed the whole idea: like an engineer! And today we have left behind 5 years since the launch of the Project in Turkey. We have already reached more than 120 students in Turkey. And not only to students: once you realize such a project you also indirectly touch to their friends, families, instructors. Therefore the number we have influenced so far is way bigger.
Energy: What is your message to the women who are reading this interview?
Ebru Özdemir: I am personally and actively involved and working towards the vision, I have tried to explained. I believe this vision requires:
Patience - Passion - Perseverance
You need to be patient: change happens, but does not happen quickly. You need to have passion to what you do and what you envisage. Last but not the least, you need to have perseverance... Meaning that you need to work hard for your cause, you need to be stubborn and dedicated.