For centuries, the field of engineering was considered the preserve of men. Due to misconceptions and stereotypes, women shied from pursuing it or related courses.
To date, some communities still hold misconceptions that women ought to get soft skills and engage in soft work and, probably be stay-at-home mums and take care of their children.
Despite these stereotypes, more and more women are now embracing engineering.
Faith Koome is among the few female engineers in Kenya.
In 2013, she graduated with a bachelor’s in electric and electronic engineering from the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology.
It was not surprising that there were only five females, against 90 males graduating. Her current workplace has only three female engineers.
Today, the 33-year-old works as a protection officer for Kenya Power at Eldoret 132KV Substation.
After graduating, she worked for two years with a local contractor before joining the utility firm.
“This work is not about muscles but about brains. Men and women produce equal output in this sector. This job is exciting; you encounter a problem then solve it,” says the mother of two. “It is always my passion to see things that have stopped working, work again.”
So, what made her choose engineering? She recalls that at a tender age, she would help her father do manual jobs. She slowly developed an interest in the engineering field.
“At Class Four, I used to join my father in his work and learn; I found myself picking up a hammer to fix things. He would tell me to go and perform girls’ work. . . But I intended to fix things,” says Ms Koome, who is currently pursuing a Master’s in Energy Studies at Moi University under the World Bank-sponsored project, Africa Centre of Excellence in Phytochemicals, Textile and Renewable Energy (ACEII PTRE).
And as she became older, she admired how engineers performed tasks and vowed to work hard to become one.
In high school, she chose physics “and dropped biology when most teachers thought I would pursue nursing”.
She studied the subject on her own, as the school had no physics teacher, and passed her exams.
Today, her routine entails waking up at 4am and exercising physically and spiritually. She then prepares her children for school before heading to work. Together with her colleagues, they ensure stable, reliable power supply through power system protection.
Her work involves designing protection schemes, grading protection equipment in the grid network, testing and commissioning new circuit breakers, and relaying and troubleshooting dysfunctional equipment for repair and recommissioning.
Despite progress on how society views women in the field, some stereotypes still push many women away from the engineering profession. Ms Koome is, however, not bothered by the stereotypes.
“Stereotypes are still there because, often, society sees things through gender lenses, but the choice is about individuals… I have chosen to consider myself first as an engineer and then as a woman. Whenever I am given a task, I guide my team with relevant knowledge that will enable us to provide proper engineering solutions.
“Those with stereotypes see how I perform tasks and quickly reorganise their thoughts about me. And even when I was being led, I used to always carry myself with a high level of confidence,” says Ms Koome.
Even as the world marks International Women’s Day today, it also marked World Engineering Day on March 4, with stakeholders demanding more professionalism and training for female engineers to achieve gender balance.
“People assume that most female engineers tend to be shaggy, maybe because some don’t take time to do make-up. I encourage female engineers to show their feminine side,” says Ms Koome.
Whenever she attends social events like weddings or office dinner parties, she dresses for the occasion.
“At work, we put on boots, not heels. . . I cannot have long nails but can put nail stick-ons and attend weddings.”
She notes that due to tight schedules, sometimes women find themselves paying more attention to work, to the detriment of their families.
“Most people cannot imagine that one can work as an engineer while having a stable family. Most women are successful in their careers, but at home, they don’t have stable families.”
How does she balance her work and family?
“A woman must be able to manage her time well. At home, I make deliberate efforts to become a fulltime mother and at work, I devote my energies to my tasks.”
Although there were few women in the field, in the past. she says the situation is changing and encouraging.
“For every 10 engineers, one is a female. . . During our time, there were five in our university, against 90 men. Recently, I went to Moi University and noticed that there were 20 women and about 100 men.”
Ms Koome is also a member of the Institution of Engineers of Kenya (IEK) and the Institute of Electrical Engineering of Kenya where she works in liaison with universities.
“I hope we get more women in this field because having a woman in a team brings change, different strategies, and peace. I want to advise parents to allow their children, especially girls, to pursue any course they wish. There is no course for men and women, so long as one is passionate about it.”
She is also actively involved in mentorship programmes in high schools and institutions of higher learning, to encourage more girls to pursue engineering.
IEK North Rift chairman Patrick Otuoma, says they have been mentoring more women and girls to embrace science and engineering to bridge the gender gap. He tells Nation. Africa that the institute has a women’s engineering committee that articulates women’s issues. They have also reserved some positions for women.
“As a society, we must have more women in this field because women can also contribute to the sector. We are working with schools to encourage more girls to take up science and engineering courses,” says Eng. Otuoma.