From building roads to shattering glass ceilings: Meet Dorji Choden, Bhutan’s first woman minister

Dorji Choden shares her journey from engineering to politics, and why having just one woman at the table is not good enough
Dorji Choden dreamt of becoming a pilot long before airlines became operational in Bhutan. Her love for science took her to civil engineering, a “masculine” discipline, and she went on to become Bhutan’s first woman engineer, when she  joined the country’s Public Works Department in 1985. She later joined politics and became the Minister of Works and Human Settlement in 2013, becoming the first woman in the country to enter the cabinet. In this interview with Anubha Bhonsle and Pallavi Prasad, she talks about the need to design policies with a gender lens and why having just one woman at the decision making table is not good enough. 

AB: Let’s start with the beginning. How was school and what led you to studying engineering?

Dorji Choden: Back in the time, while the government was prioritizing education, the same importance was not given at the level of family or society. Many of my friends started working straight after high school. I had lost my father when I was ten, and my mother knew very little. So at home, my family wanted me to drop my education and take up a job. But I had this burning desire to pursue something in science, so I dreamt high and ended up in engineering after school – it was my love for science, and my fascination of what happened in space and with astronauts.

Even though Bhutan did not have an airline at that time, I was dreaming of becoming a pilot. I also had good science teachers, they were from India. I used to do well, and they were very encouraging.

We were lucky to get opportunities during our school days. The Indian embassy would conduct competitions in schools. I used to participate. We got to tour some big cities of India as an award. During that tour, we visited an aircraft manufacturing unit in Bangalore. I was completely fascinated. I had lots of questions (such as) “Can a girl become a pilot?” So, it became my dream that I can be a pilot, and it was my burning ambition at the time.

AB: How did you end up choosing a career in civil engineering?

Dorji Choden: Because that was the opportunity available at the time. Bhutan did not have an airline, so there was no opportunity to be a pilot. I took up engineering. It was a very “masculine” subject – much to do with structures, cement, iron rods and a very male-dominated profession. But that’s where an opportunity came – I got an offer to study engineering from the government and I took it up.

AB: You mention the profession as very male-dominated. How was that period like, at a personal level considering you were the first?

Dorji Choden: I think there were lots of challenges. The profession required a lot of mobility, traveling outside the country. As a woman you worry about safety, privacy. In fact, just going to India in a faraway college all by myself was a challenge in itself. The academics weren’t the challenge.

And then when I moved to the workplace, it was very rare to see a female engineer in Bhutan at the time. However, I got used to it because even in India, during college, I had only one female batchmate in civil engineering.

Very few women take up civil engineering but I am happy I did. Civil engineering is basic for any development – roads, or bridges or water supply. The challenges weren’t with the profession as such. The Bhutanese society is not too conservative, they are fairly open, they accepted me as an engineer.

AB: Tell us more about your work as a civil engineer, and how that work translated to improved lives of young girls in particular.

Dorji Choden: Men and women often have different needs. Sometimes equal opportunity does not translate to equal output. For example, I spoke about the mobile nature of the job. Men can pack their things and move anytime, without thinking of where they’ll halt at night, where they’ll stay. But women, if you are asked to go do a survey, you’ll think, “Okay, I have to make some arrangements. Where will I stay? How will I go? Should I drive?” These are small things but they impact women.

During my tenure in the civil service as well as later, I was mindful of these things. When I joined the ministry, there was one common toilet shared by men and women – something unimaginable now.  When I came back, after being a civil servant to heading the ministry, these were the things I had in mind.

First, how can we incorporate small details into strategies and policy policies. How do women access public infrastructure: how should the delivery room be like, are there toilets nearby. If you design an office, is there a place where you can breastfeed babies? And the second is how you treat your employees – being a working woman, when you see a working woman as your employee, you are a little mindful of the small things that can enable women to work better.

AB: You have the tag of “first” in many of your achievements. And it’s commendable, but we need many more at the table, in the decision making forums.

Dorji Choden: We don’t want to promote extraordinary people as the “first engineer” or the “first minister”. Just one woman in the cabinet is not good enough. There were just three women MPs during my time in the lower house, the National Assembly, and that is not good enough.

We have to bring the critical mass, and that is where we have to work. We need many more voices, we need stronger voices. Especially when we are legislating and amending laws related to marriage, divorce, rapes, domestic violence and issues like those.

We need more women in decision-making forums, in the parliament, at the high levels of the bureaucracy, in the corporate world. It’s very important that women are well represented.  We need the critical mass but how do we encourage women? There is no one answer – we need a multipronged approach.  We need to build our women not only for education but to make a career of that education as well. That’s important because not many women are making a career.

AB: How can we increase that critical mass of women at the top echelons in their field? What would it take for all systems to be more attractive and to clear the barriers for women and young girls?

Dorji Choden:  In Bhutan, the government has taken several steps, we also have several NGOs working on issues that affect women. The National Commission for Women is working to create awareness in children. They go to schools and create awareness about how women should be ambitious and take up a career.

We’ll also have to create measures to help women and remove some of their burdens. One initiative we took was to introduce creche centres at the workplace. I created one in my ministry, we created a few others in different ministries and offices. We’ll need to build a conducive environment as well. We will have to empower women so that they have the confidence and drive and are willing to come forward.

AB: If you don’t have the critical mass, if you’re one woman in a gathering of predominantly male ministers, there is so much burden on you to do everything. What can we do so that women are more empowered once they reach the top?

Dorji Choden: If one woman has to speak for many women, she will need the right information and knowledge and good arguments and reasoning, which she may lack in many cases. I’m also a member of an NGO called Bhutan Network for Empowering Women, and what we did was to form a women’s caucus. It has members of Parliament – both men and women – as well as women who have technical expertise on other issues. What we are trying is that the caucus should have all the resources to support the few women who are represented in different forums so that they can speak with conviction and are able to justify their proposals.


AB: You are an icon. What do you say to young girls and boys who turn to you for mentoring or for advice? 

Dorji Choden: Whenever I meet young girls and boys in a group, they often ask, “You were the first (woman) engineer, the first (woman) minister, what is your secret to success?” And I tell them that I happen to be the first because we are such a small population. There are so few women taking part in politics, so I happened to be the first minister.

I tell them please dream, because you have to dream, and hope and have ambition. Because unless you have all these, there’s no drive to go forward.

I also tell them that please don’t think of starting your career and your life full of wealth. Even the billionaires and millionaires, they started working for somebody doing small jobs, difficult jobs…these are the stepping stones. And doing all these simple and ordinary things will lead to some extraordinary achievements. There are no shortcuts – please dream, please hope, and please pursue.

(This interview has been edited for brevity)