Until recently, engineering was considered a prestigious course reserved for academically outstanding male students. This was perpetuated by the belief that men perform better in technical professions.
The landscape has gradually been changing though, with more and more female students selecting this course and excelling at it.
We interviewed seven female engineering graduates who walk us through their five years of study.
Name: Tosan Mohammed
Age: 25 years
Course Civil Engineering (Second Class Upper), Kenyatta University
What motivated you to study civil engineering and were your parents supportive of your choice?
A male family friend who is an engineer inspired me. He knew that I loved physics and math, and encouraged me to consider engineering. He went further and explained to me the various engineering branches there are. I chose civil engineering because I wanted to be part of big projects, such as designing tall buildings. My parents were very happy when I was selected to study the course.
What are some of the highlights of your career?
Last year, I was part of the team that designed Isiolo’s airport parking lot. It was a great experience, and through it, I got to interact and learn from well-established engineers. After graduating last year, I got a six-month job contract with a local company; my job involved design and supervision. Within that period, I learnt skills that enabled me to come up with structural detailing-foundation, beams, columns and roofs.
Currently, I am working on a software that generates structural drawings, guided by the use of the building, load, and soil type.
You mentor young women…
My friends and I often organise mentorship sessions in various schools located in Isiolo, where I come from. We encourage them to put more effort in sciences and follow whatever career path interests them. When talking about engineering, we tell them the truth; that unlike what many believe, studying engineering does not guarantee you a job immediately after graduation, that just like any other jobs, you have to make an effort to stand out from the crowd to get picked.
Age: 23 years
Civil Engineer (First Class Honours), University of Nairobi
Graduation Year: September 2017
Why civil engineering?
I grew up hearing about it, alongside other professions such as medicine, teaching and aviation. For some reason, I would often say that I wanted to become an engineer, even though I had no idea what it involved. One of my cousin’s, a civil engineer, later on advised me that to become an engineer, I needed to work hard on science subjects.
I performed well in those, but I didn’t perform quite as well with languages, which affected my overall grade in my KCSE exams - I scored A- (minus), thus missing a slot to study engineering as a government sponsored student, I therefore enrolled as a self-sponsored student.
Initially, I didn’t know that engineering is such a diverse field. I, however, admired my cousin’s career, and decided to study civil engineering, which involves technical design and construction of public works such as buildings, roads, bridges and harbours.
What was your first day like at the university?
It was overwhelming. I timidly walked into a hall full of male students with just a handful of women. As if that was not enough, most of the students had scored straight A’s and came from national schools. I knew then that I had to work hard to fit in. Come the end of our first year, I was the best student in the department of civil engineering.
It took me five years to complete my degree. On a typical day, we had classes from 8am to about 4pm, and took eight units each semester except for the first year, which had six units per semester.
I ended up spending most my day in class; the only time I got a chance to do personal stuff was in the evenings or the weekend. This is a demanding course, so it sometimes got overwhelming; there were lots of CATS, exams, practicals and lab sessions. What made it manageable was that we were supportive of each other.
Barely a month after your graduation, you have a job. It must have been easy for you to find one, having graduated top of your class…
On the contrary, it wasn’t. During my job search, a potential employer openly told me that it was impossible for a woman to score A- (minus) in KCSE and then top her class at the university. He told me that I must have bribed my way to my exceptional performance.
Another discouraged me, telling me that it would be difficult for me to find employment with First Class Honours because most employers will perceive me as a threat. I am thankful that I found a job with a firm that appreciated my hard work – I start my first job in a few weeks’ time.
My job will involve design, drawing and supervision of civil engineering works and structures, including buildings, bridges, roads and dams.
Where do you hope your career takes you?
My greatest wish is to gain experience and be part of big projects, locally and internationally, with the ultimate goal becoming an expert in this field. In the near future, I see myself using the knowledge and experience I will have gained to innovate.
Age: 26 years
Course: Electrical & Electronics Engineering, Technical University of Mombasa
Graduation Year: 2016
What led you to your career?
In secondary school, I was curious to know how electrical and electronic tools and equipment such as TVs, solar panels and geothermal stations worked. Studying electrical engineering, which is the study and application of electrical, electronics and electromagnetism, has helped cure this curiosity.
Were those close to you supportive of your quest to study electrical & electronics engineering?
Some discouraged me, including close relatives and friends. They cautioned me, telling me that many women drop out along the way because this is a tough course. They added that should I happen to complete my course, no one would employ me since this is a male-dominated field. I am glad that I didn’t listen because there are several female students who I have inspired to follow this path.
What attributes are necessary to have as an engineering student?
Being the only female in a class of 32 male students, I learnt to be assertive, free-spirited and self-dependent. If you are considering taking up this course, you have to be ready to put in the time required to perform well; this means that your social life will suffer since the course needs a lot of dedication and commitment.
Why do you think few female students take up engineering compared to their male counterparts?
There are not many female engineers in the industry to look up to, and most people still consider engineering as a male-centric industry, which is an outdated view. Although I was the only female student in my class, I performed better than most of the men, which itself is an attestation that women are capable. My course equipped me with adequate skills and knowledge to solve various technical challenges. Though I have not yet found employment, I am not discouraged, nor have I given up on finding a job. I have sent out my resume to various companies, and I am hopeful of getting one in the near future. As I continue with my search, I have a business to keep myself busy as I also weigh the option of going it alone.
Age: 30 years
Course: Mechanical Engineering (Second Class Upper), Kenyatta University
Graduation Year: 2015
Why do you think there is a gender gap in engineering courses?
My experience has been that there aren’t enough female engineers to look up to, and most girls in secondary schools still have no idea what engineering is about, so they are not motivated to consider it during selection. When I, for instance, say that I am a mechanical engineer, most people assume that I am a mechanic. Mechanical engineering involves designing and building machines, as well as mechanical systems.
What was your experience like, being in a male-dominated class?
In a class of about 32, there were only two women. Interestingly though, there is not a single day that I felt intimidated or regretted choosing the course. My male classmates were very supportive and treated us like they did one another, and during practical lessons, we were not sidelined from roles which some consider masculine, such as fixing broken machines - it was a great learning atmosphere. From them, I learnt not to give in to worry and also learnt to prioritise and invest in long-term goals such as saving for higher education. I also admired the fact that they seldom gossiped.
From where you stand, what is the job market like for graduate engineers?
In my job search, I have noted that most firms do not discriminate against gender, however, just like is the case with many courses, it is not easy to secure employment. This year, I returned to school to study for my master’s degree since I want to become a lecturer. My husband supports me through school, but I also work online as a freelance designer and writer.
Age: 26 years
Course: Electrical & Electronics engineering, Technical University of Kenya
Graduation Year: 2016
Were your parents supportive of your decision to study engineering?
They tried to talk me into studying medicine instead, arguing that it was a better fit for me, but I was firm about taking up engineering. They eventually respected my decision and have been supportive throughout.
Is engineering the tough course it is said to be?
Even though I was good in sciences and math in secondary school, some of the units were quite tough to crack. By the time we got to our second year, some students couldn’t keep up, and dropped the course. I hang in there, and here I am. What I learnt is that if you do not belong to a good study group, one that can help you understand better what is taught in class, you will have a hard time keep up with your studies, whether you’re male or female.
Besides a degree, what other certifications does a graduate engineer require?
Most government institutions and parastatals require job seeking engineers to be registered with the Engineers Board of Kenya (ERB). This also applies to those who wish to go into private practice.
For you to be certified, the engineering course as offered by the institution of learning needs to be accredited. My alma mater, TUK, is yet to be accredited to offer the course. This has really limited our growth as electrical engineers. I advise those keen on engineering to first check with the board which institutions are accredited to offer the engineering course of their choice. That said, what I learnt and the skills I amassed in the duration of study has made me more curious about the concepts behind what we see around us, and made me patient enough to sit out results - engineering teaches you to be zealous and enhances your creativity too.
Though I yet to get a job of my choice, I am not sitting at home mourning, I took up a job as a customer representative as I continue to look for my dream job.
Name: Augustine Okoth
Age: 26 years
Course: Telecommunication & IT engineering (First Class Honours), Kenyatta University
Graduation Year: 2016
What prompted you to go back to school to study for your master’s degree?
I admired and was inspired by the few female lecturers we had, and would often imagine myself standing in their shoes. I studied hard on my degree, and managed to score First Class Honours. Two months after graduation, I started to seek for a scholarship that would enable me to do my master’s in engineering. I managed to get one with DAAD (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst German Academic Exchange Service) to study MSc. Renewable Energy Technology at Kenyatta University. I am in the final phase of my course, which involves research; mine is on how to conserve energy through ICT.
Drawing from your internship experience, how are female engineers viewed?
Before returning to school to study for my master’s, I had interned with three different companies. Those I found that took me under their wing were helpful; I was able to actualise my potential and grow as an engineer. While working in the Safaricom Women in Technology Program, I was part of the team that came up with a database for daily reports in my department. Back at the university, I was involved in web-designing and system creation for various schools. Work experience is priceless.
You got a baby at 23, while in your third year at university, how did you manage to juggle classes, raising your son and a social life?
During my first year, I discovered that good time management skills are of essence to engineers. Even after attending lectures religiously, one still needs to revise and do lots of research on their own. Poor time planners hardly have time for anything else apart from studies. I was able to fulfil all my responsibilities by waking up earlier than most and ensuring that I completed my schoolwork during the week so that I could have enough time to spend with my child, who lived with my parents, during the weekend, and also help out in the graphic design business that I run with my sister.
How did being one of six women in a class of 60 influence your relationship with fellow female students?
It helped me value their friendship more, and over the five years that our course took, we got very close, especially because we were study partners. Three of us graduated with First Class Honours – when women come together, great things happen.
Age: 26 years
Course: Mechatronics (Second Class Upper), Dedan Kimathi University of Technology
Graduation Year: 2016
In a nutshell, what does mechatronics involve?
It is a multidisciplinary field that brings together mechanical engineering, electronic engineering and software engineering, making them work together for the study of automata, which is the study of abstract machines.
Engineering comes across as a demanding course, did it leave you with time to engage in other activities?
No matter how demanding one’s job or course is, if you plan your time well, you can do it all. I was actively engaged in university politics, and was the Academic Secretary in 2013, in my third year of study. That role required me to attend many senate meetings during the day, and sometimes, I would miss classes, which I would make up for by studying late into the night. It is true that where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Is your career path straightforward? What are some of the stumbling blocks you’ve had to overcome?
In contrast to the belief that most female engineering graduates are denied jobs due to their gender, the fact is that being a woman engineer in a sea of male engineers can work to your advantage. A month after graduation, I got an internship but continued to apply for jobs posted on recruitment sites.
A month later, I got my first job, which involved maintenance of machines. Eight months later, I got my current one – I am an AutoCAD (computer-aided design) designer of panels. I love design work, and I am learning a lot. My advice to fellow engineers is to take up available jobs even if they pay poorly so that they can gain experience. In my course of work, I have had to deal with unwanted sexual advances and distasteful remarks, but nothing I have been unable to firmly deal with.
To make it as woman in this field, in any field for that matter, one needs to be confident, forthright, and assertive. At school, my male classmates were supportive and respectful, and we would gladly help each other out in our studies. With such male engineers out there, female engineers need not worry.