They are just as skilled, competent and capable as their male counterparts in the same field. And yes, they too are soft, beautiful and feminine - they have both the wits and the style.
Maureen Okomo and Venessa Onyullo, are mother and daughter working as aircraft engineers in a male-dominated industry. How have they managed to shine and continued to break barriers?
Kicking off the sit-down, Venessa explains that her background is in aeronautical engineering, specifically airframe and engines. She has a degree in Aviation Maintenance Science with a concentration in Aviation Safety.
“I am licenced to fix the body of the aircraft and the engines. That is within the American system or FAA (Federal Aviation Administration). Each country has their own aviation body- so I studied within the American aviation system,” she says.
She adds: “Currently, I am practising as a reliability analyst. So I am deep in excel sheets and tonnes of maintenance data. I control the Maintenance Department. We have a maintenance programme, and if there are any changes to be made to it based on our operations and mine and my co-workers’ data analysis, then I make the changes to the maintenance programme.”
Her mother beams as she watches her child speak about her career. She describes the feeling of seeing her daughter’s career thrive as “exciting” and “a proud moment.”
“It has been a long journey and it feels good to know I have someone who was appreciating what I have been doing all along - and enough to take the challenge to be an engineer,” Maureen says
“I am proud of the fact that she can do her thing and she can hold up to the challenge.”
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Speaking about her own work and experience, Maureen says that the country has come a long way.
She marvels at the fact that back in her university days when she attended JKUAT (Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology), the female engineering students were so few that they could not fit in a ladies’ hall on the campus.
“In fact, we cannot really call it a ladies’ hall. The whole ground floor was converted to be an additional men’s hall. I have been in this field for a long time, I was the first female licensed aeronautical engineer in the country.”
She studied electronic engineering at JKUAT and secured a job during an attachment while in her final year of school.
“The programme would always send us out to do attachments in the industry to put what we had learnt into practice and learn how it is applied. While in my Fourth Year, I took up a three-month attachment with Kenya Airways. They were looking for engineers to employ at the time,” she says.
“I remember the supervisor there saying ‘we are running interviews and I think this would be a good place for you to step in”.
Although hesitant because she did not have her degree yet, a young Maureen took the plunge that would mark the start of her career as an engineer.
“They were willing to consider me with my school transcripts as we awaited proper documentation from the university. Dressed in a shirt, jeans and sneakers, I went in for the interview and that is how my journey started. I have enjoyed every step of the way. Even in my next life, I will fix planes,” she says.
She describes her roles in the industry as those related to the avionic system of the aircraft- that she is somewhat of a guru when it comes to understanding all of an aeroplane’s systems.
“These are the systems that deal with electrical power generation, its distribution, the indication, communication and navigation systems. We have to understand all the aircraft systems.”
“I would describe myself as an Avionic Engineer. We talk about categories of licences, so I am a Cat R standing for Radio Systems and also Cat X- electrical.”
Venessa says that her mother was her motivation in pursuing engineering. She says she was brought up finding the concepts of engineering normal and a constant part of life.
“It was my normal for us. For other people around, when you talk to them about aeroplanes or engineering, it seems like it is completely out of reach. But for us, it was like tea and bread.”
“Mum was not afraid to tinker with the car engine. When our old car would break down, she would be under the car’s hood doing God knows what, and to us it was normal - we thought, ‘this is what mothers do’’.
Venessa is the firstborn in a family of three, with a younger sister - a biochemist and a brother who is studying architecture at university. Her father is also an engineer.
Speaking about making a marriage and family work while trying to build successful careers, Maureen says it is important for a couple to give each other support and space.
She and her husband had a long-distance relationship earlier on when he had travelled abroad to pursue engineering.
“We raise the children knowing we have to support each other with what makes that person feel complete and happy. When a person feels supported, then you gel together even better.”
She adds it is all about commitment. “When you are getting married, you are making critical decisions about who do you want to be the father or mother of your child, where you are now and what you want to give your children.”
Chiming in on the conversation, Venessa points out that being in the engineering field does not mean she has to sacrifice her femininity and girlish nature.
“My mum told me, never think that you have to sacrifice your femininity to do what you need to do. If you enjoy doing your hair, or nails do it,” Venessa says.