Trailblazing Engineering Professor Farzaneh Sharafbafi Becomes The First Female CEO Of Iran Air

When society thinks of pioneering, brilliant people who have changed the world in some capacity, names like Gates, Zuckerberg, Musk, Jobs etc immediately come to mind. There are numerous stories lauding the career trajectories of men who have had extraordinary paths to success and who become the inspiration for people the world over. While there are also numerous women who undoubtedly fit into this conversation, it’s a shame they aren’t always talked about in the same way.

Which is one of the reasons we exist in the first place – to elevate the stories, successes and pioneering work of women around the world who deserve far more attention than they are currently getting. One of those women is Farzaneh Sharafbafi, who, after reading her background, could easily be classified as a brilliant pioneer in her own right able to compete alongside the aforementioned men.

What makes her story even more incredible is that she comes from a country where the achievements of women aren’t necessarily a given in the same way they are in countries like the United States. Farzaneh Sharafbafi is from Iran, and she has just been announced as the first female CEO of the nation’s oldest airline, Iran Air. But this job, while certainly momentous given the huge lack of female CEOs compared to men globally, is not even the most impressive thing about her.

A report from India Today says Farzaneh grew up with a keen love of science, especially give that her father was a physics professor at Sharif University in Tehran and encouraged this interest. In an interview with an Iranian women’s magazine, she says she would regularly ticker with household appliances and even fix them.

“I was very much interested in technical issues. That I could repair the vacuum cleaner prompted my parents to call me ‘The Engineer’ at home. I started with simple things,” she said.

During her school years she became even more passionate about her interests and took extracurricular classes. It was there she realized she wanted to change the world, and not follow the typical path of other girls her age.

“As a young girl, I used to buy tools I needed for my studies instead of what other girls would purchase. I used to sit up to study and at times I would stop reading only after hearing the call for morning prayers,” she said.

While most women would be expected to resort to stereotypical gender roles often imposed upon women in conservative societies after marriage, not so for Farzaneh. Eventually she was admitted to Sharif University where her dad had worked, and became an aerospace and fluid mechanics student, and for her undergraduate thesis chose a scientific topic where she had to build a plane wing.

“I built the parts needed for the plane wing all by myself; I tried to learn machining because I wanted to build it all by myself. It was not easy to make a part. Thanks to my thesis, I finished first in mechanical engineering in Iran,” she said, and casually added this happened while she was pregnant with her first child. No big deal…

Farzaneh was certainly not interested in leading a regular life, and says instead of spending money on baby clothes, she bought a computer in order to have the latest technologies and keep up with those in her industry. Her first child was only 40 days old when she started a masters program studying aircraft structures, and went on to become a PhD student in fracture mechanics not long after having a second baby.

“I never skipped class. I attended my first class two days after I gave birth to my second kid. That day when I arrived late, the professor asked where I had been. ‘I just gave birth to a kid,’ I answered. They couldn’t believe their eyes. Normally a woman stays home ten days after delivery. But it was not the case with me,” said the badass trailblazer.

By this time she was also already working at Iran Air as an engineer looking for ways to make the aircraft better and improve its features. She said she chose to focus on fracture mechanics for her PhD because as part of her job, she could see the planes were aging and wanted to solve that problem.

“I wondered if I could find the cause of such breakage and prove it mathematically. It took me about three and a half years to complete it…As for the air industry, I’m seeking to find self-healing parts for planes, something which can repair itself in case of malfunctioning,” she said.

Farzaneh could potentially end up revolutionizing the airline and aerospace industry, given her new role as Iran Air CEO. She says the idea of self-repairing parts is possible if you think outside the box.

“We can copy the models God has placed in nature, for instance, human skin which has a self-healing ability. I floated the idea in a conference. I’m still following that,” she said.

She wanted to share her ideas with others but was told it wasn’t possible in Iran. Instead, she had to write an essay for the Institute for Scientific Information before getting her PhD, and had to have a foreign professor register her equation under their name. Although her family did not have the money, they found a way to scrape together £600 after finding an institution in England that would accept her paper.

Farzaneh traveled to the UK and attended the conference where she would present her paper and idea to an academic community. People were surprised to see an Iranian woman there, but were so impressed with her presentation that she received a standing ovation.

She is said to be the first woman in Iran to earn a PhD in aerospace and can now add another first to her impressive resume: the first female CEO of Iran Air, and no doubt her genius way of thinking about engineering was part of the decision to appoint her.

As Forbes reports, Farzaneh joins a group of other female airline CEOs in the Middle East. Syrian Air is led by Ghaida Abdullatif and Rasha Al-Roumi was chief executive of Kuwait Airways until April this year. It is an important milestone for Iran to have such a visible and successful female in a high position, as the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Gender Gap report ranks Iran 139 out of 144 countries when it comes to gender equality.

This is why it is so important to us to highlight the achievements of women around the world, because as the saying goes, “you can’t be what you can’t see”. And in a country like Iran, imagine the impact someone so visible like Farzaneh Sharafbafi can have on the younger generation of girls, while also becoming a revolutionary figure in the STEM field.




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