A new generation of young women engineers in the East African country of Tanzania is challenging the deeply rooted male-dominated engineering profession by pursuing careers in what was once a no-go area for undergraduate girls.
A group of engineers is being taught on a rolling basis to challenge men’s dominance in the technical area as part of the women-only Structured Engineering Apprenticeship Program, which is co-funded by the governments of Tanzania and Norway.
The initiative, which began in 2003, served as a stepping stone for graduates and has helped to increase the number of women engineers, as well as inspire schoolgirls to follow in their footsteps when the time comes.
For decades, the country’s engineering profession was perceived as a man’s arena, discouraging women from entering. According to the government’s statistics, Tanzania had only 2,595 professional engineers in 2010, with only 96, or 3.7% of them being women.
Gender imbalance is a serious problem that affects every sphere of human activity. While some countries have taken a big step to quash it, others, such as Tanzania, are still grappling with balancing the pendulum.
In a bid to address the challenge, the Engineering Registration Board, which is responsible for regulating engineering practice, sought financial support from the Norwegian government to train women graduates and help increase their number registered as professional engineers.
Honing technical skills
Veronica Ninalwo, an assistant registrar for the Structured Engineering Apprenticeship Program, said the initiative, which began with a $2 million grant, has helped more than 400 women engineers improve their technical skills over the last decade or so.
“We have taken serious measures to bridge gender imbalance in the engineering profession because the prevailing state of affairs did not reflect the vision of our organization,” Ninalwo said as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science was celebrated on Feb. 11.
According to her, the program was created to train women graduate engineers and double the number of registered engineers in the country.
“We have given a preference to women so that they can acquire the requisite professional qualifications before taking on additional family responsibilities,” she told Anadolu Agency.
Few women hold technical engineering positions ostensibly due to a lack of motivation and a common misconception that engineering is man’s field, analysts said.
Jackline Kimaro is a women engineer working in a men-dominated field. There were only a couple of girls in her class of 45 students at the College of Engineering and Technology in Dar es Salaam.
“I enjoyed being in that class and I knew I would succeed because my teachers were very supportive,” Kimaro told Anadolu Agency.
At a time when most young women in her hometown of Rombo were encouraged to help their mothers to milk cows or tend crops, Kimaro, who is gifted with a distinctive analytical mind, was attempting to break men’s domination in the profession of engineering.
“I developed a strong interest in solving mathematical issues, which was the driving force behind my decision to pursue engineering,” she explained.
Shoulder to shoulder with men
Kimaro attended a premier girl’s school while growing up in Moshi, in the country’s northeastern region, which may explain why she felt confident enough to rub shoulders with boys at university.
“There is a false belief that some fields of study or jobs are only suitable for men, which girls are taught from a young age, and we must reject it,” she asserted.
“We need role models who can motivate girls to pursue careers in engineering and build a bright future for themselves,” she said.
For Agatha Kessy, 32, the biggest hurdle of her job as a civil engineer is not about making complex decisions, rather the stereotypes she encounters while working with men colleagues.
Kessy, who supervises building projects in the capital, has to deal with a lot of disobedience from the men she leads.
“When I instruct them to mix concrete in a certain ratio, the casual laborers often question my decision,” she said.
She does not receive the respect she deserves from her men colleagues, she alleged, suggesting that “we need to get rid of that state of mind … Women are capable of doing anything.”
Shouting above a crane on a busy construction site, Kessy is getting used to her work and mingles freely with casual laborers some 20 years older than her.
Dressed in a shiny orange safety jacket and a hard hat, she feels confident because none of the men she supervises has a university degree.
“Those who ignore my instructions often end up doing their work twice, because my standards are high and there is no room for error in construction,” she said.