Home Behind the brand The Voice of Irma Khan – A Woman in STEM

The Voice of Irma Khan – A Woman in STEM

by Out and About Mag.
  • Tell us about yourself and what brought you to the UAE.

The Middle East region has always been special to me. I grew up in the United States, but my father was based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. So, while growing up in the States, I still visited the Middle East. I've had quite an affinity to the region.

And, when I went back to the States for engineering school, I always had a dream of coming back to the region and working as an adult. That dream came to fruition when I was offered and accepted the position to be the distribution manager of our company for the Middle East, based here in Dubai.


  • Take us through your career journey.

So, as I mentioned, I went to the States for engineering school, and I joined Caterpillar. directly upon graduation—first as an intern, and then as a management trainee. And from there, I had a lot of special and exciting assignments with Caterpillar, mostly in the field in Seattle, and in Toronto, where I learned a lot about our distribution network and about our customers, businesses.

Then I headed back to Illinois, and, at that time, the world of data science and analytics was exploding onto the scene. So I had an opportunity to do a lot of learning and pursue leadership opportunities there, until the time that the Middle East came knocking. Then I moved to Dubai and have had several positions here, including now in my role in e-commerce.

  • What has been your driving force?

I think that is such an interesting and special question. Actually, many things inspire me, and I'm inspired by many people. But really, I have a personal belief that each of us, as human beings, have a responsibility to pursue our potential. I really believe in that principle.

Everything that I do for my family, for my career, for my community, I'm doing it in pursuit of my own potential, and I'm also doing it to be a role model for others, especially a role model for other women.

That's another driving force that I have, especially in my adult life: a vision to see each and every single woman be financially independent. I think that is just so crucial and important for society and for us to make progress together, moving forward.

And I guess a driving force a little bit closer to my heart would be my family and particularly my father, I do things, keeping in mind, if this would make my father proud.

Irma Khan

  • What’s the most exciting thing about your job at Caterpillar Inc?

Definitely all of the people and all of the places; it is such a rich and rewarding experience. But I often get asked the question: why did you stick to corporate life, why not go into entrepreneurship?

And here's the fact of the matter, at large multinationals such as Caterpillar, I've had the opportunity to be a bit of an intrapreneur. So to be an entrepreneur within the organisation, I run my area of responsibility as if it's my own business. I'm that dedicated that I have the flexibility to make my own decisions, I'm empowered.

And then I can also pursue my passion for gender advocacy. As an example, here in Dubai, I established the chapter for the women's initiative network. And since that time, I've launched several significant initiatives that help the advancement of women in our company. It's really an exciting place to be.

  • Any major lessons you’ve learnt along your career journey?

In terms of pursuing a career, which may last 20/30 years, the most important thing for everybody to understand is that if it's not your passion, if you're not enjoying it, boy, is it going to be a long day free for you.

Not every single day is perfect, there is a good in the bad. But, overall, you have to be enjoying what you do. You have to be doing it with a sense of intention and purpose. You have to be passionate about it. And I think that one of the most important lessons is to pivot, where you see an opportunity, where you might be even more passionate about something.

And keep trying new things until you find what it is that really drives you, so that work is not work.

women in STEM

  • Increasing gender diversity and encouraging women into the STEM sector has been a topic for years, yet women  remain largely under-represented in STEM-focused roles. Why do you think this is so?

Oh, this is a topic that's been studied to quite some length. It's a complex issue, and the reasons for why women are under-represented in STEM are many, and again, complex.

It could be due to cultural reasons, educational reasons, socio-economic reasons, occupational reasons. But what we do know is that STEM is stereotyped as a masculine field. And so many women feel that they don't belong in this field. This causes a bit of insecurity, and has created what we call the confidence gap—the sense of insecurity of being in this field.

And, as a result, not many women pursue it. Also, we don't have so many role models in this field; so really, it's a vicious cycle that is happening. Those are some of the factors that are leading to the low representation of women in STEM.

  • How do you think we can get more women into STEM?

This has also been a topic that's been studied extensively, and one thing that keeps on coming up, along with all of the, 'We need more role models;  we need to encourage women to participate in the workforce'... is that we need to start early.

We need to start early, as young as grade school, and make sure STEM is represented as an attractive opportunity that is gender-balanced; the question of gender doesn't enter into it, and that needs to happen very early on. That is what will address the root cause and stop that cycle from happening.

  • What advice would you pass on to other women to help them progress in this industry?

I think if a woman wants to be in the STEM field, that's very exciting and great news. But I would tell them to be prepared and to be comfortable with being the first, to be prepared and to be comfortable with being the only woman in the room, oftentimes.

So if that's something that excites women, I think STEM is, indeed, a good career path for them. But if women in the industry want to make progress in this industry, I think being comfortable with being a trailblazer, because we are still trailblazers is what's required, even in today's world.

  • What do you do when you're in a room dominated by men?

I really believe in being an authentic leader, so I am myself; I believe in diversity and inclusion. Caterpillar is working really hard, as are other organisations around the world, to build diverse teams.

And I really believe that we cannot leverage the power of diversity until each of us brings our true selves to the table—that's really where inclusion comes in, as well.

As a leader, and again, sometimes as the only female leader at the table, I play the role of being an inclusive leader, and making sure that I feel that everybody belongs. For women who find themselves as the only woman at the table, I think being authentic and bringing the unique qualities that make up you—you're there for a reason—is really important.

And again, it's the only sustainable path in a long career. Otherwise, if you try to be somebody else, you'll be quite tired, really soon.


  • How do you look after your mental health?

I have really strong foundations in family and faith. That is the support network that I need to get me through almost anything that comes my way.

On a more daily basis, I journal; I write everything down. I like writing, it helps me to process and organise my thoughts; and, most importantly, for my mental health, it's a good release to let go of something that might have happened, and also reflect on the positives as well, that would have happened over the course of time.

I really think journaling is a positive step that somebody can try for their mental health. It certainly helped me through this pandemic, especially.

  • What’s that one quote you live by?

There's a quote which I aspire to live by and it is by a very famous African American poet, Maya Angelou, whom I've never, unfortunately, met but love dearly through her words, through her writing.

This special quote of hers that I aspire to is when you meet people, the people will quite often forget what it is that you said. They will forget what it is that you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.

So that quote, to me, is essentially empathy in one sentence; that is the definition of empathy. And it's something that I aspire to, as a leader, as a family member, and as a role model for women.



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