Women of Proton: Breaking the mould in the Malaysian automobile industry

Yogeswary (left) and Zanita (right) says that working in a men dominated field does not bother them. — Photos by Arif Zikri
Yogeswary (left) and Zanita (right) says that working in a men dominated field does not bother them. — Photos by Arif Zikri

KUALA LUMPUR, March 7 — Passion is key when it comes to work and trying to make it in a male-dominated industry. 

This is what women who work with Proton Holdings Berhad can attest to. 

In conjunction with the International Women’s Day on March 8, Malay Mail met up with two of them, who have contributed to Proton over the years.

Having worked at the national automobile company for 25 years and being the Head of Safety and Intelligent Drive for Research and Development, Zanita Zainuddin is considered a pioneer for Proton’s passive safety.

On the other hand, Senior Engineer for Proton Lean Manufacturing and Build of Material Management, Yogeswary Velumany has been with Proton since 2011.

Engineering her first love

For Zanita, engineering has always been her first choice. 

Being a curious child since she was young, unlike her other sisters, Zanita spent most of her childhood helping her father with house chores.

Zanita has worked with Proton for nearly 25 years now.
Zanita has worked with Proton for nearly 25 years now.

The inspiration to become an engineer came to her during her secondary school years after watching a National Geographic documentary about the space programme.

Although her parents supported her decision to study engineering, she recalled that her dad tried to persuade her into taking accountancy instead of engineering during her diploma years. 

But she remained firm with her decision.

After graduating from UiTM in 1995 (known as Institut Teknologi Mara ITM at that time), Zanita joined Proton as a homologation engineer to look over Proton’s Australia crash programme.

Her first project was the Proton Putra and it had to be crash tested to comply with the Australian Design specifications. 

Her boss at the time had appointed her to witness the crash test to collect data.

It was at this time that Zanita became more interested in car safety.

Subsequently, in 1996 the then-CEO Tan Sri Tengku Mahaleel Tengku Ariff came up with a challenge to make their own car parts as in the past, Proton’s car base was from Mitsubishi Parts in Japan.

This resulted in the Proton research and development team coming up with the Component, Material Safety and Strength laboratory and Zanita was appointed as the Safety Group Leader because of her experience in crash testing.

She said there were two parts when it comes to car safety.

Active safety, which is about avoiding the impact, which is related to safety braking performance and vehicle handling.

Another is passive safety which comes into effect when impact is imminent and it is up to the car passive safety systems to minimise injuries towards its occupants.

“Being in charge of the laboratory in 1996, that’s how I got started in safety. It has to do with passive safety being items like seatbelts, airbags, seat structures, I started with that,”

“Active safety is like the brakes and your stopping distance,” she said.

“But if that fails, then it’s up to the car to save you, so passive safety is the science or energy management on how to deflect those forces coming in, away from you.”

She said passive safety was about analysing the whole structure and making sure that the system protected the passengers.

Although engineering is considered a male-dominated field, Zanita has become used to working with men. 

“I think it’s the same for other sectors as well. It’s communication. Basic challenges will be how we present ourselves and how we explain ourselves and some of it could be lost in translation so in my point of view, it’s always about communication.”

Zanita is also a single mother who lives with her parents. 

Blessed with a son, Zanita said that she was lucky to have a support system to help in taking care of her only child when she’s at work.

Although there were times that she would have to stay late at the laboratory, Zanita will always make sure that weekends were reserved for her son and also kept her work separated when she was at home.

Change after failure

For Yogeswary, the idea of pursuing engineering came after she failed her biology test during her A-levels. 

She was pursuing a career in medicine at the time and although she failed biology, she did excel in mathematics which led to a change of mind about her future. 

Yogeswary is determined to be an engineer even though her father didn’t approve it in the first place.
Yogeswary is determined to be an engineer even though her father didn’t approve it in the first place.

When she first told her father about it, he was afraid that she would regret her decision one day and he was afraid to fail her as a father but Yogeswary convinced him otherwise.

“I told my father that this was my decision, I will work for it and I will make it happen and even if I fail, I’ll take it gracefully.” She said.

Her father eventually let her pursue her dreams in engineering after an intervention from her mother.

After graduating from KDU College, Yogeswary joined Proton in 2011 and that was the year Proton was going through changes with their system.

They were entering the digital age and Yogeswary was part of the team that was working closely with the new system while they were transforming all the hardcopies of blueprints, parts and designs into softcopies online.

Having to learn the system from scratch wasn’t the only challenge faced by Yogeswary but learning about people was also important in her line of work.

“You’ve got to enter every department to see and to learn. Everything is pretty much interrelated,” she said. 

“You cannot just say what you want to say or however you want to say, you cannot do that because you have to respect their experience, their age, you have to earn their trust.

“All these things happened in the first year. All I did was learn the system and the people.”

Both Yogeswary and Zanita agrees that gender doesn’t matter when it comes to work.
Both Yogeswary and Zanita agrees that gender doesn’t matter when it comes to work.

Yogeswary is now a Senior Engineer for Proton Lean Manufacturing and Build of Material Management. 

Part of her duties is to monitor and release engineering related changes such as design change, part change and also changes in the Engineering Bill of Materials (EBOM).

“It cannot be more, it cannot be less. It has to be the exact parts.”

Being in the engineering industry for more than five years now, Yogeswary said the advancement of technology has made engineering doable for women as well.

“Those days, all those jobs were hard jobs, you needed strong men, because men were physically stronger than women.”

“But now after all the advancement of technology, it has filled in those gaps. It is no longer about your masculinity anymore. It’s about your skills, so when we talk about skills it’s equality already. “There’s no need to be gender-oriented anymore because the technology helped us a lot.”

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