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Women in Kenya closing gender gap in science and tech

A woman scientist
A woman scientist at work. FILE PHOTO | NMG 
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The number of women in science and technical professions in Kenya has increased steadily, raising hope of bridging the gender gap in a segment skewed in favour of men.

In 2017, there were 21,400 professional women employed in the science and technical fields. This represented a jump of 10.88 percent from the previous year, even though their male counterparts were still more than double at 52,400 professionals.

“Things have really changed. More women are getting into Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (Stem). They are getting more into IT and maybe some into engineering. There is actually the will and the drive from women to get into this industry because it is only us who can create an environment to accommodate ourselves,” says chemical and process engineer Emmy Soy-Butaki.

Still, more needs to be done to expose women to opportunities in Stem fields. As a software engineer at Mark Zuckerberg-backed start-up Andela, Joan Ngatia today works with a company in New York city to build websites and applications that are on the cutting edge of the technological space, which can be used by millions of people everyday.

“I stumbled upon my current field of practice merely as an extension of the previous job that I had. I am initially trained in Geospatial Data Sciences so in my work while trying to handle a couple of queries and interacting with several software I thought this is something I could do,” says Ms Ngatia.

“I started learning Python on the side during my breaks at my old office. In programming there is an exact flow to how things came up similar to how we do things in real life. If you want to make a cup of tea there are all these steps you need to follow so programming in the same way has all these steps that you need to add sequentially to get your desired result and that interests me,” says Ms Ngatia

However, even after women work to secure the requisite education to work in Stem fields, they are having a hard time getting employed in the industry.

“Getting a job is a bit harder as a woman because your employer is looking at so many things. For example most of the time the woman is the one in the family who has to sacrifice to take some time off if you have a child who is unwell or your house girl disappears on you. Those are some of the aspects that I feel really affect the relationship between women and their employers especially in engineering,” says Ms Soy-Butaki

Of the four women in her university class of 36, three got into banking instead of pursuing a career in engineering. The number of women enrolled in universities in 2017-2018 was 215,048, a dip from 234,120 the previous year. The ratio is worse in Stem courses.

Some women reported that male employers demand sexual favours to offer them job opportunities in the field, reflecting sexual harassment claims that plagued the industry in 2017.

Discrimination in the workplace is also evident in a discrepancy in salary. Data on Kenya’s gender pay gap shows that only 28,072 women earn more than Sh100,000. In comparison, men in the same income bracket are more than double that number at 48,733.

“At my previous job, I was able to use some of my characteristics like being outgoing and a bit of a perfectionist to climb up the career ladder until one point when I was pulled out of the fieldwork and reassigned to the office because I was the only woman. This meant that my salary was a bit reduced and I did not get as many allowances as the other people in the field did,” says Ms Ngatia.

Further, some of the discrimination comes even when they leave the physical workplace to engage with the society in their professional capacity.

“At times you would go for field work to a far flung area and the locals don’t believe that you have been sent by a particular company. One time a guy kept following me and repeating the measurements and calculations I was doing. If I had gone there with another gentleman as a surveyor to help me, he would have gone back to his house and come back for just the final results,” says Ms Ngatia.

“Once I had to go with a man for particular fieldwork which was basically subdivision of land to make it look legitimate because the old men would have caused frackers if I had appeared alone,” she adds.

“You might go through terrible experiences as a woman where you are discriminated because of what you have done or who you are. Take it in and actually deal with it, don’t ignore it. Hang out with a friend. Take a step back and relax then tomorrow tell yourself I am better today than I was yesterday,” says Kagonya Awori, lead of Human Experience and Design at Safaricom Alpha, the innovation arm of Safaricom.

“What is most important is how do you view yourself. When you feel not confident put your hands up in the air and do the victory sign. I am good. I am great. I am gonna make it today,” she adds.

Increased literacy and retention rates of women within the education system could also be a trigger for the increased entry into the Stem sector.

Data by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics shows that although the annual intake of boys in Standard One is still higher than that of girls, more boys drop out in the eight years of primary school calendar. In 31 counties, the completion rate for girls is significantly higher than or at par with boys.

Ms Linda Kemoli who worked as a camp counsellor and supervisor for a technology workshop for teenagers called Tech Republic says: “I found there was actually balance between the male students and female students. You find that the girls were also very proactive and creative in terms of the solutions that they built in things like storytelling and game production. In fact, we conducted a competition and it is a girl who won and she got a tablet and an opportunity to be trained further.”

Women in the different sectors, however, decry their treatment within the education system.

“In a class of about 60, we were 10 of us and every time we had group projects to work on, you would notice that you weren’t expected to do actual practical heavy lifting. The boys would hurdle among themselves and insist on setting up the equipment,” says Ms Ngatia

Ms Awori who was the first African to get a Masters in Human Computer Interactions from Carnegie-Mellon University (CMU) before earning her PhD in Melbourne says although she did not experience much discrimination within the academic bubble, today people are prone to disbelieving her academic qualifications when she introduces herself as Dr Awori.

“When you get the title doctor, that is when people try to really undermine your PhD, and it is not that getting a phD in a field like sociology is not a good thing but the title doctor on a woman with a PhD in computer engineering comes with a whole gamut of experiences, mostly positive but some of them are negative,” says Ms Awori.

In a country where a significant number of the best funded technology start-ups are led by foreigners, it is interesting that many women point out discrimination by foreigners because of their race.

“I have never felt discriminated within the academic circles but because of the coupling of gender and race, as an African I felt my perspective is very different because you appear and you are black and you are labelled even before you open the mouth so I experienced a lot of that,” says Ms Awori.

Many of the women cite mentorship programmes as some of the means by which they have catapulted themselves forward within their careers.

“I love the way we are encouraging more and more women to go into Stem. At the same time I would like to say that it is fine for a woman to choose where she wants to go,” adds Ms Awori

“What we should do is really open up the options that women have. We should celebrate the woman but also realise that the woman can choose to be whoever she wants to be. If you don’t want to be in Stem it’s fine. If you want to be in Stem then please go ahead and be the best that you can be,” she adds.

Ms Ngatia is passionate about mentorship and since 2016 has led the Django Girls workshop in Nairobi targeted at girls as young as 16 and women as old as 40 who have zero understanding of programming but have ideas for technological solutions they would like to build such as applications to book buses or websites to make a craft shop.

“I feel bad when sometimes there are opportunities and no woman applies. I do Django Girls because it feels nice to spark the same realisation in other people that I had that I could actually do this,” says Ms. Ngatia.

Many of the women she has trained go on to successfully apply to Andela and other technological firms.

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