In celebration of International Women’s Day, we at the team decided to celebrate and honour the ladies of the industry. We tip our hats to the army of women in all positions that we’ve had the privilege of working with, and for this year, we chose to speak to one of the women who is at the forefront of vehicle safety, and that is none other than Zanita Zainuddin, Proton R&D’s head of safety and intelligent drive.

In case you didn’t know, it was Zanita’s team that was tasked with redeveloping the Geely Binyue into the X50 (strictly from a safety-related perspective). One of the most crucial changes was to reinforce the front floorboard with ultra-high-strength steel to prevent it from tearing during a frontal collision. Had this not been done, the X50 wouldn’t have netted the full five-star ASEAN NCAP crash safety rating, which is extremely strict on tears affecting the area around the feet.

Zanita’s team was also instrumental in the development of many Proton cars, going back to the days of the Putra and Waja. Let’s find out what the journey was like for her, shall we?

*Note: The interview has been edited for clarity.

When did you join Proton and what is your role in the company?

I joined Proton on September 1, 1995. Currently, I am the R&D head of safety and intelligent drive. Essentially, I am responsible for overseeing the development, validation and integration processes regarding all aspects of a car’s passive and active safety systems, including intelligent driver assist systems.

Why did you choose to study engineering? And then, upon graduating, what drew you to look for work in the automotive industry, and ultimately Proton?

Since I was young, I have always been interested in taking things apart and putting them back together. I treated those much like solving a puzzle, and among the stuff I’ve “disassembled” included my late father’s wrist watch, gramophones, and radio players. Then, in secondary school, I became interested in physics and chemistry (I only had to understand and learn the formulas) and add maths. I hated having to memorise things like I did with biology.

Also, at the time, I was reading a lot about the space race that happened between the US and Russia via Life magazine and encyclopedias. I was also interested in cars (what powers it, what looks good etc). So, basically, since middle school, my inclination was always towards engineering. My first few choices were either aerospace, aeronautical or mechanical engineering.

Ultimately, I decided to take up mechanical engineering, since I didn’t have much of a choice after failing BM in my SPM. It’s ironic, because my dad was a BM literature lecturer at one of the local teaching institutes. Plus, most local undergraduate programmes have a prerequisite of at least a credit in BM.

With all said and done, I graduated in from UiTM Shah Alam in 1995 with a mechanical engineering degree. I didn’t jump straight into to the engineering field, because at the time, engineering jobs were few and far between. I worked briefly as a management trainee at a Japanese retail chain, and six months later, I received a call from Proton asking me come in for an interview – it was for an engineer position at its R&D division.

I was excited, and really keen because it was a fully fledged automotive company with an engineering position, plus it was a national one at that. I secured the job, and here I am today, nearly 26 years on.

Because of your gender, did you initially have to work harder to get noticed in your role?

I don’t really understand when you meant “get noticed.” Here’s what happened to me. The position I initially got was homologation engineer. During my first year, I was tasked with homologating the Proton Putra for its entry into the Australian market. About seven months in, one of the last things to do to meet Australian regulations was to witness a frontal collision crash test of the Putra in a Sydney facility. I was hooked – I wanted to fully understand what made our vehicle “crashworthy.”

To put it simply, crashworthiness is the science applied to make a vehicle capable of protecting its occupants in the event of an impact. At the same time, Proton was in the midst of expanding its R&D capabilities, and we were developing our very own car, the Waja. I took the chance and applied for a transfer to the new lab (formerly known as the Component, Material, Safety & Strength or CMSS) in 1997 to lead the safety unit.

For me, it was more to do with having the passion and interest, as well as being confident enough to deal with the job scope and producing results, rather than gender. That, I think, was the reason I was accepted to lead the CMSS safety unit.

Can you share with us some of the experience you’ve had working as an engineer that is related to your gender, because society feels it’s a “man’s job?”

As I progressed through my career, it went from being 100% hands-on with physical tests, which involved a lot of planning and execution, plus I often had to go down to the manufacturing floor. There were the so-called desk work, too, such as data analytics and strategising.

Throughout the entire time, the only time I’ve felt a little less adequate was when we did actual, physical work. This included the various times we needed to do post-test teardown of a vehicle. Those are the only times when you need to have more brawn, per se, to physically remove the engine for the purposes of structural performance analysis. In fact, we have special tools for that and as engineers, we are not specifically trained for that except the technicians.

What makes it personally rewarding for you to be a woman playing an important role in an industry that is still skewed towards male workers?

I love seeing all the safety features we’ve formulated make their way into actual cars that are driven by the people. It’s also rewarding to me to see the next generation of talent beginning to see this often overlooked aspect of transportation in a more serious light.

For me, I’d like for people to be more aware when it comes to having children as passengers – the best place for them in a moving vehicle is in a child seat. And as technology progresses, I would be happy to see more intelligent driving assist systems in our cars to help drivers better detect Vulnerable Road Users (VRUs) such as pedestrians.

What would be your advice for other young women looking to study and ultimately work in the engineering field?

Never be afraid to pursue knowledge, and be humble when asking questions. Don’t think that even if someone regards you as an expert, you know everything. Knowledge is constantly about learning and relearning, especially in our fast-paced world that’s full of new technologies.

Start building a support network with like-minded individuals. This is beneficial for your mental health and well-being, even more so for women. We need to have a healthy work-life balance.

Knowing what you do today, if you were given a choice, would you choose to follow the same path or would you do something else?

I would most certainly choose to follow the same path. No regrets!

What would you do to ensure that women are better represented in the automotive industry?

Firstly, if I had the influence, even on a small scale, I would like to have a say in policy-making, especially in technical working groups consisting of industry and governing bodies. Also, I’d like to listen and fully understand the various issues women face in the automotive industry.

The automotive industry, especially the engineering side, has always been dominated by men. But in the end, vehicles are driven by both men and women equally. Do you think more women should be involved in the car development process, and what advantages would that represent?

Yes, I think more women should be involved in the process of developing cars. Studies conducted by Deloitte and Automotive News in 2018 showed that a conducive, gender-diverse workforce enhances innovation by 20%. Having just three female members that act as tipping points resulted in positive median gains, both in the return on equity and earnings per share.

Personally for me, women are multitaskers, whereas men tend to focus on one thing at a time. Both in themselves have strengths. Women tend to see the big picture, which is crucial to link from one process to the next, seeing from concept to fruition while having the attention to details.

In my personal experience, these traits have particularly helped me when devising strategies and offering consumer related needs in vehicles, especially in cross functional teams for vehicle projects.