How soon are you due? Are you going to be part of the business? Will you take a break?
These are some of the questions Tracy Shiundu, an industrial chemist by training and founder and chief executive officer of FunKe Science, was asked when she was seeking funding for her business.
It was during the post-Covid-19 era, and she was looking for funding for her business while pregnant with her second child.
She was detailing her experience as a woman in business during the recent Africa Science Week at Kenyatta University.
The event under the theme ‘Breaking barriers and enhancing scientific excellence among women’ sought to address the challenges limiting women in Science, Technology, and Mathematics (STEM).
Ms Shiundu runs FunKe Science, which seeks to spark interest in STEM among students.
“Even in the midst of engaging with some of these investors, there were very many ridiculous questions, which probably right now I am not comfortable speaking about but they were very demoralising,” she recalled.
Ms Shiundu says being in a male-dominated sector has its downside. For instance, your success is seen as “that cute science that that you are doing.”
At the event, it was detailed how fewer women get to play in what is considered the ‘big boys’ field of STEM. As such, there are also few women innovators and entrepreneurs.
The phenomenon described as the ‘leaking pipe’ by Professor Faith Karanja, the chairperson of the Department of Geospatial and Space Technology at the University of Nairobi, who was the chief guest at the launch, ends up having few women compared to men as innovators.
“When the numbers go down, there is no one innovating in the first place,” noted Grace Nzivo, a civil and structural engineer who is also the Kenyan ambassador for Next Einstein Forum.
Ms Nzivo said when it comes to innovation, it is even worse because there are very few known women innovators.
“I tried to look for keynote speakers who are women innovators, and they are very few,” she said.
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Ms Nzivo noted that’s why the theme of Africa Science Week is expected to bring out solutions to bridge this gap.
The purpose, she said, is to make the possibility of women scientists and innovators visible to students pursuing STEM-related courses and children, particularly girls, so that it can broaden their minds to not only pursue science but also become entrepreneurs.
“We want to just raise awareness that you can become an entrepreneur; you can create jobs. You should not just be thinking that I graduate and get employed. People should innovate, create jobs not only for themselves but others,” she said.
But as these efforts are being implemented, to create the next generation of women scientists, entrepreneurs and innovators, those in that space note the harsh environment, from a gender lens, they at times have to face in order to cement their position in business.
Brenda Rombo, a mechanical engineer by profession and operations manager and co-founder of Libra Engineering Services, documented her struggles in the field, saying most times women have to keep a straight face in order to assert that they belong.
This is especially if they hold positions of leadership as she does.
“In a male-dominated group, there is this notion that women in STEM are angry. It is not that you are angry, but it is the environment that sometimes predisposes you to act like that,” she said.
She said as a female leader, your orders are sometimes ignored but when the same is given by a male colleague, the work is done.
As such, a woman in this field has to be aggressive.
She gave an example of a project she was supervising in one of the establishments in Nairobi where a female mechanical engineer got no help to move a piece of heavy equipment, which ended up stalling work.
“As I am approaching the site, I see two men helping each other to carry the pump and the lady has been left alone. Then I hear one of the men saying, ‘you ladies claim to be men enough, do it yourself’. It clicks instantly that there is no teamwork. This woman is not being supported and that means work is stalling,” she said.
Prof Karanja acknowledges that there are things that happen to women that naturally would inhibit them from moving from one level to another and even enrol in STEM courses.
These include family responsibilities, whereby society seems to put a lot of emphasis on the role of the woman.
Even in her case, she recalls, she was conflicted when she got a scholarship to pursue her PhD in Germany when her son was one-year-old.
She admits that it was a challenge to take that bold step even when she was aware that she has a supportive family and partner. “You cannot achieve anything much if you leave 50 per cent of the population behind and that 50 per cent happens to be the women,” she said.
Prof Karanja gave an example of the University of Nairobi, which possibly mirrors other institutions of higher learning with fewer female students in science courses. It is only in medical courses where the participation is 50-50.
“But when it comes to engineering, where we talk about the hard sciences, that is where the problem is. And we need to look at this if we are able to address the barriers that we are talking about in science,” she said.
The trend gets worse at the Master’s and PhD levels. “The higher you go the fewer the women we have and this is the sad situation. In PhD, we do not have females graduating,” she said.
Prof Karanja notes that the lack of mentors also plays a role to entice women to take part in this field.
“Women are unique. We have our own unique challenges. we need to surround ourselves with people who are going to bring out the best in us,” she said.
She said women need to have confidence, particularly in fields like technology which is male-dominated.
“Sometimes you need to hold your head high and speak up,” she said. She noted that as chair of the department, in a field that is male-dominated and before she pushed for more ladies who are now pursuing PhDs, she was the only woman.
“Some of my male colleagues were my professors when I was doing my undergraduate and masters,” she recalled. “Imagine now you call a staff meeting and they are there. You have to remind them that at this point in time, you are the chair of the department so that they do not look at you through the gender lens.”
She said women making their voices heard does not mean being rude.
“You just talk what you need to talk and respectfully. What I realised the moment you have your stuff correct, you know what you are speaking about,” she said.