33 year-old Engineer Grace Onyango is the Technical Director at Digital Drawing Solutions in Kenya. Holding a Bachelor’s Degree in Electrical and Electronics Engineering, her specific functions include establishing market needs with regard to technical sector, providing solutions to technical problems that may arise and also cater for training with regard to Design Software.
Q. Growing up as a young lady did you always want to be an Engineer?
A. No, I wanted to be a teacher until I broke my parent’s TV set to satisfy my curiosity of how the people in there were talking from there. I was also good in Sciences and my father nurtured my love for the Sciences and here I am, as an engineer.
Q. What challenges, if any, does a lady face while undertaking her engineering career? Which ones affected you the most?
A. The gender imbalance in the Engineering sector is a challenge. Well, my first job as an Engineer; I worked in the Ministry of Public Works for about five years. I was the only lady working in that Department and I felt had to deliver about 110% in my work. The challenge is with regard to gender, there are few ladies in the industry and you can’t wait to be recognized, but have to work for it; work to being different.
Q. Why do you think over the years there has been a low number of female students taking Engineering courses?
A. I think there’s a perception. You know it actually starts in High School, there’s a general perception if you look at both, that Maths is hard and the Sciences generally, but more so Maths and Physics is difficult and you’ll find a lot of ladies shy away from that. So, when you go to schools, you know when you choosing your options you’ll find few ladies choosing Maths and Physics because then the careers that go with that are just Engineering and some of the technical ones. So from High School there’s just a different perception. And then, when they get to University then they can’t qualify for the technical courses given they didn’t take the technical options from High School. You’ll get very few ladies, maybe two or three in a class of 70, and in first year, they can be very many but by the end of that year, you’ll find that many have dropped out and taken other options. And not only that, there are those who go until the end (of their study) they finish and graduate but they’ll never take up a technical job in the Industry; they will end up in different sectors but not engineering jobs. So, it’s just a perception.
Q. Will this change anytime soon?
A. Yes, It’s changing because there a lot of Women Organizations that are coming up; Women in Science, Women in Technology that’s for IT (Information Technology), there’s one called STEMAfrica, which is going round encouraging ladies to take up the technical subjects. They talk to students in High Schools, students in Universities that kind of thing. Even in the IEK, they’ve set up the Young Engineers Chapter and the Women Engineers Chapter. The latter is encouraging ladies to come up and take up Engineering.
Q. Would you encourage female students to enroll for engineering courses?
Q. Do you have any specific reasons for this?
A. I’m actually mentoring some and because there’s too few of us. You know I was the only lady in the Electrical and Mechanical Engineering Department for about five years. The other one was much older than I was but a Technician. So, if I wanted company, I had to go to the next department, the Civil and Structural Department, where there were two ladies. So, sometimes it gets a little lonely but anything a man can do, a woman can do better. And it’s not hard, once the mindset changes, then it is OK.
Q. What role are (1) Engineers in general and (2) female engineers playing in driving Kenya’s visions 2030.
A. I’ll tell you a challenge first then I’ll tell you what needs to be done. In the Engineering Board of Kenya (EBK) where I also seat, there’s the Secretary of Higher Education, Science and Technology, which is now the Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Technology. He told me the main challenge they have is in the various sectors especially the technical sectors, Science and Technology. You know there’s that 30% gender equality basis for women in the Constitution, but now women are lacking in this sector. But now, it’s coming at a time when most women, if you’re an Engineer you’ve gone into other Sectors like banking, so how again will you pull yourself out from this sector and go into the technical one? One of the things they’re trying to do is to encourage women to come up. I think there’s even a programme they’re trying to roll out for ladies; Masters and PhD, to make sure the women are trained. So that they are able to fit into this sectors as well as suit the Constitutional requirement. He asked me, “Where are the women?” They are very few and scattered, that’s why the Women Engineers Chapter is trying to bring the women together and tell them what is happening in the industry. Also world over there’s a lot of forums for women in technical careers that are coming up and women empowerment now is becoming a main thing. Last week, I attended a function called Women in Technology, that’s more for women in the IT sector. They get speakers and now they’re going to schools just to help ladies realize that there’s really potential and that if you’re in it already, the opportunities that are there. I was recently elected to be the chairperson of the East African Federation of Engineering, the Young Engineers Chapter in the East African Federation of Engineering Organizations. Now there’s a lady from Uganda who was elected the Women Representative in the same organization. Given we’re both young, you know, under 35-the qualification for a young engineer, with forums like that, when people see it’s encouraging. The other thing I’m doing is, going around various organizations and Institutions and most of the time, everywhere I go there’s just men because I’m also trying to bring up the young engineers. So, I wonder where the young ladies are. It’s because a lot of them got lost somewhere or they ended up elsewhere.
Q. Do you believe we have internal capacity as a country to achieve the goals specified in this vision?
A. Yes, we do. I’ll talk about engineering. It’s believed that Engineering is the mother and father of Industrialization in any Country. If you look at Japan, China most of the Countries in Asia and some of the newly industrialized countries, most of the key positions in Government are held by Engineers. There’s a study that has been done by the EBK, called The Engineering Manpower Assessment, which helps to align Engineers the demand and supply and what Vision 2030 is trying to achieve. We are churning out fewer engineers than the demand currently in the country. So we do have the capacity, there so many sectors that have not been explored. Now we’ve discovered oil, it’s engineering that will drive that, from extraction to the time it gets to the market, but most of the beneficiaries-the companies that are doing that are international companies. You see, we need to train engineers (local) because we are undersupplying and again our training curriculum is really not to the international standard. Therefore, you’ll find that when engineers get out of the university it’s difficult to get a job because I think they’re not being prepared well for the industry. You’ll find that when somebody comes into the sector, the employer has to train them more on what the expectation is. So, one of the things we’re doing as Digital Drawing Solutions is selling software from Autodesk. Autodesk do Software for Architecture, Design and the likes. They have free engineering software for Universities, so I’m linking Universities to Autodesk. I’m actually taking the educational software to the universities because you’ll find an engineer who goes maybe to a consultant’s office, does not have any idea about how to use a design tool; everything is being done on software and students don’t know. So, we have the software and we’re taking it to the universities so that students are able to learn.
Q. What has been your path to where you are now?
A. I worked at Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) as a Casual worker, calculating income tax from 2004 to 2005 then I moved to the Ministry of Public Works in 2005 where I started off as an Assistant Electrical Engineer. Later on I assumed the position of an Electrical Engineer and by the time I was leaving the Ministry in 2010 I was the Acting Super-intending Engineer. In the same year, I worked as a technical Manager at Ultimate Engineering Limited until March this year. Since March I’ve been working as the Technical Director at Digital Drawing Solutions.
Q. Any major highlights you can outline in your engineering career?
A. When I registered, I was told I was the youngest registered Engineer in the Country and I did it in record time; from graduation to the registration. Being the first young engineer elected as a member of the Institution of Engineers of Kenya (IEK). Also being the Chairperson of the Young Engineers Chapter in the East African Federation of Engineering Organizations.
Q. What do you do when not on duty?
A. I read a lot. My current read is, As Silver Refined by Kay Arthur. I’m born again, so I do a lot of Church work. I was the Secretary for my National Youth Work for my church all over the country. I teach Sunday school; my classes are from about 3-12 years old children. At times we have children coming from Mama Ngina Children’s home; they’re my babies as well.
Q. What would be your advice and parting shot to upcoming lady engineers?
A. Ladies should not fear the technical careers, there’s a lot of opportunity. If I went for an interview today for example, I think because of gender, what I have achieved and being registered as well, I’d probably be picked over my male counterpart. So, it can be done, it doesn’t really matter. So, they shouldn’t fear.