At an expansive power generation firm in Olkaria, Naomi Wangari carefully removes damaged cogs from a low-speed coupling that joins the generator to the turbine.
The damaged coupling will then be sent for repairs in Nairobi to have the cogs replaced. If the refurbishing does not work, a new coupling may have to be procured, possibly overseas.
Wangari is dressed in full gear, which includes a grey overall, a yellow helmet and black heavy safety shoes for her job as a plant operator at Kenya Electricity Generating Company, a position she has held since 2014. She does not mind the dressing or the working conditions.
“From the time I discovered I wanted to be a mechanical engineer, I knew I had to make some sacrifices in life. I have always maintained natural hair and not a fan of make-up. My job also requires that I keep my finger nails short always,” says Wangari.
She says working in this job limits the type of hairstyles a woman can wear. “It is difficult to have big braids since you must wear a helmet every day. It is also not wise to have wigs that will make you sweat, especially when it is hot. Most women I know in this profession only keep short hair or hair locks,” she says.
Wangari’s dream to become an engineer wasn’t thwarted even when she scored a B- at Mugoiri Girls School in Murang’a and was locked out of direct entry into university where she wanted to pursue a course in engineering.
After trying to eke out a living from casual jobs, and with no money for college, Wangari secured a full scholarship to pursue mechanical engineering at Eldoret National Polytechnic. She was among the first 25 students selected by the Directorate of Industrial Training in 2006 to pursue engineering courses in craft, certificate and diploma levels in technical institutions under the Female Engineering Sponsorship Programme.
The directorate has since been renamed National Industrial Training Authority (NITA).
The programme, that was implemented in Kenya with support of the Korean government, has since been narrowed down to support girls from marginalised communities. But cultural challenges and lack of awareness on diverse engineering fields continue to lock out many girls, especially those in marginalised communities from accepting this free tuition in the programme, says NITA Apprenticeships and Indentured Leadership Coordinator, Gipson Ndwiga.
“The challenges affecting female enrolment in technical fields are mostly stereotypical. Women have always believed that engineering fields are for men. And because engineering courses are math intensive, girls who grow up averse to the subject tend to shun technical fields after high school,” says Ndwiga.
He says some women who apply for the Female Engineering Sponsorship Programme lack the passion for the courses.
“Some apply it just to pass time and because it is free, but not out of passion. Luckily, the interest builds up for some along the way,” he says.
Only 270 girls have gone through the programme in various technical institutions since inception, some 12 years ago.
But even after they graduate, women in technical fields continue to grapple with society that hasn’t accepted women in technical fields. Between struggling to hold their families together, learning to cope with the egocentric males at the workplace and having to work overboard to prove their worth, thriving in technical fields has never been a walk in the park for women.
Struggle to hold families together
Wangari, a married mother of three, says her husband is a city-based evangelist. She says it is easy for people to point fingers at the reversed roles in her marriage.
“Some say I have taken up ‘manly’ duties in my marriage. There are those who feel that my husband should be the one fixing machines,” she jokes.
She adds: “But when he married me, he was fully aware of the nature of my job and he has never had a problem with it. And the fact that he is a man of faith has helped our marriage weather the opposition.”
Keeping a family together hasn’t been easy for Carol Munywoki, a technician, who works in the revenue protection unit at Kenya Power.
Munywoki’s job is to identify faulty meters in the fields and rectify or replace them. She also works with a team of other technicians to identify and report illegal connections and those that have been tampered with. This is a job that sometimes runs late into the night.
“I have had to do a lot of explaining to my husband when I was forced to put in late hours at work. It’s not fun to keep on giving excuses to your partner when you are not at home in good time because of your work,” says Munywoki.
Monica Masila, a technical supervisor at Kenya Rural Roads Authority (KeRRA) attached in Kakamega recalls the countless nights she was on the road past midnight.
“It was in 2012 and I had just become a mother. We were laying bitumen on some rough road and I remember working on the road till past midnight,” Masila recalls.
Edediah Ekiru, a control technician at Kengen in Masinga Dam says men are likely to take advantage of the few women they work with in technical fields. “Our job entails a lot of travelling in the company of men who may make passes at a woman. Women in who don’t have principles can easily fall prey to these advances,” she says.
Munywoki has also been a victim of sexual harassment from customers when she went to fix their electricity.
“We are exposed to numerous risks in the field when we sometimes have to go to people’s residences. We are then forced to have a male colleague accompanying us on such assignments,” she says.
Tough jobs in the technical field
But some challenges are those that these women have no control of.
For example, due to their physical nature, women are slightly disadvantaged when it comes to handling heavy machines and machinery.
“I have sometimes had to lift spanners weighing more than 30 kilograms. This becomes difficult when I have to climb heights with them to work on some raised surface,” says Wangari.
Additionally, fastening a belt requires a lot of strength which is quite tough for women, she says.
Ndwiga says such technical workplaces usually allocate women duties they can easily perform. These, he says, include administrative duties and lighter duties in the field. Women are also teamed up with men to assist them perform heavy duties.
“It is natural for women to tire easily compared to men when performing heavy duties. Organisations that understand this natural phenomenon allocate women duties they can easily perform,” says Ndwiga.
But being protected at the workplace works against career progression of women in technical fields, says Wangari. “I believe women should be given equal opportunities in the field. There is no way you can grow if you are continually assigned lighter duties. If one can prove themselves that they are up to the task, they should be given an opportunity to grow,” she says.
Coping with male egos
Climbing up the career ladder hasn’t been easy for Masila who missed direct admission to the university by only two points after scoring a B in the 2005 secondary school examination.
Lucky for her, it was the time that NITA was rolling out the Female Engineering Sponsorship Programme and she was among the first students selected for the flagship project to pursue civil engineering at Kisumu Polytechnic. Her attachment at a roads organisation would land her first job as a casual labourer where she was paid Sh18, 000.
She says the salary was way below than what her colleagues with higher qualifications were being paid.
“I was paid Sh18, 000 while my colleagues from the university were earning about Sh40,000 as their starting salary. I thought it was unfair because I was the one who was training them practically. They were clueless about most hands-on tasks,” she explains.
Her persistence paid off when she landed a technical supervisor job at KeRRA in 2014. However, her job has not been free of challenges.
“I have been forced to cope with intimidating men who sometimes try to bring me down even when I am chairing meetings,” she says.
Munywoki says that to prove their worth in technical jobs, women are forced to work twice as hard as men.
“I have seen uncertainty on many clients’ faces when I go to fix their electricity. They just can’t believe that a woman is up to the task. This only changes after I do my work satisfactorily,” says Munywoki.