As Somalia's capital witnesses a construction boom following improvements in security, civil engineer Faduma Mohamed Ali is hard at work, supervising male labourers twice her age and breaking barriers in the conservative country.

The 22-year-old has battled social stigma, family opposition and workplace harassment, but told AFP she never doubted her choice of career.

"I always liked buildings," she said.

When she enrolled in a civil engineering degree programme -- the only woman in her class -- her relatives were quick to cast aspersions.

"They said, how can a girl waste time to study civil engineering?... this is work for men."

The jibes continued even after she graduated and found a job in Mogadishu.

"They used to ask -- are you crazy?"

In a country where women account for less than a third of the workforce, according to the World Bank, many parents frown on the prospect of their daughters working in close quarters with men.

"I would not have (wanted)... my daughter to work at a construction site with men, this is not for women. I would rather she chose... a female-dominated profession," said Abdikafi Hassan Duale, a father of six.

"This is for their safety and protection from social harassment," he told AFP.

But attitudes are changing.

Fathi Mohamed Abdi told AFP that her parents were "very happy" and supportive of her decision to become the first civil engineer in their extended family.

"They started encouraging me in this while I was studying, and they have continued to do so now that I am working," the 23-year-old said.

They even "wake me up in the morning when I oversleep (so I can) get to work", she added.

At university, she was one of only two women studying civil engineering but her choices have paid off as construction activity picks up.

"Due to the growing investment in the construction industry in our country, we are getting so many opportunities," she said.

- 'Not for women' -

Hassan Mohamed Jimale, the deputy mayor of public affairs in Mogadishu, told AFP the government was keen to see more women in the workforce as business grows and security improves, following an ongoing offensive against Al-Shabaab Islamists.

"We encourage female engineers as a regional administration, the department in charge of city planning (employs) female engineers, and the deputy director of the department is female," he said.

Despite their growing profile, women who work as engineers told AFP they regularly faced sexism at work.

"The talk and bad impression people have of us as female engineers disappoint me most. Men keep telling us that this job is not intended for women," said Iftin Mohamed, 26.

"The labourers show insubordination when supervised by female engineers and they believe we are weak compared to men," she told AFP.

She also drew attention to a gender pay gap, particularly in the private sector.

"Men and women are not paid equally... women are paid less than men in most cases particularly by private companies," she said.

Abukar Hussein Ibrahim, a mason who has worked under Abdi before, said he enjoyed working with women but admitted that many of his male cohorts did not share his views.

"Male construction labourers find it incredible to see a female engineer supervising their work, they spend a lot of time gossiping about her... they keep asking why a woman was chosen instead of a man," the 42-year-old told AFP.

They will simply have to get used to it, said engineer Ali, pointing to a surge in the number of women studying civil engineering.

"I was part of a group training recently and to my surprise there were more than 100 girls from different institutions and all of them had enlisted to study civil engineering," she said.

"That was rare before but now things are changing."