There are more women joining the STEM workforce which for the most part may involve field visits, construction supervision, installation works and sometimes operating large equipment like cranes or forklifts. While these roles are quite empowering for women, there exists some key lessons to learn for those new in these fields.
Here are some hacks and tips based on my seven years’ experience working as a female engineer at construction sites in electricity infrastructure development.
1. Safety first
Since their introduction into mainstream construction, safety gear has not been designed with the female form in mind. Although, most recently innovators are coming up with gender inclusive designs, the norm for most sites is to use the readily available safety gear. The boots are bulky and quite heavy, make sure to wear comfortable airy socks, if you are a fast walker this could be the time to slow down at site (also for your safety and risks presented by the surroundings). Get boots that are one size bigger, especially if you are working in a hot climate, your feet will swell as the day goes by and as you spend more time on your feet, you’ll need more comfort. I have big feet, I’m a size 43 on a good day, and I am often forced to wear men’s safety boots since they don’t make the female boots in my size. I remember my first pair of boots hurt so bad because I got the female size 42 which was the biggest size. This limited my ability to walk around site and do my work, and I developed a deep loathing for the boots until I told myself “you know what woman, we are getting the male size 44“and my site life was never the same. Choose your safety and comfort always! The helmet is a very important part of your safety gear, but not all hairstyles will work with a helmet. My African sisters with braids, if you have to style them in an up-do, you’ll run the risk of not having the helmet fit properly and therefore not protect you as it is meant to do. Wear your hair down or in a bun to make sure the helmet fits well.
2. Comfort is key
The kind of clothes you wear at site could limit your productivity. The African climate is mostly hot and dry but could be rainy in some seasons. I prefer khakis or comfortable jeans and tees for working in hotter climates and more absorbent tops that will keep me from sweating like a desert mule (I don’t know what that means, just sounded like a fun analogy). While working in windy and dusty climates, like the Suswa substation where I have spent most of my year, I use a scarf and glasses to protect my face from the dust. I make sure to use a scarf that’s just long enough but not too long that will compromise on safety by getting attached to equipment of work gear. As a safety standard, outdoor installations aren’t recommended in the rain as that presents a fall risk. Please do not accept to work in unsafe conditions! Refuse unsafe work!
3. Consult – Don’t be afraid to ask for help
The biggest favour you could do for yourself while in doubt is ask. Asking for help is a show of strength, not weakness. Asking for help is an investment in your career growth and shows proactivity. I have worked in infrastructure development for seven years now and even with that experience I consult across the board, I even ask for help from my juniors who have a year or two experience, there’s the “fresh eye” advantage that juniors have that those so engraved in the system may not possess. None of us know everything and there is no master of all knowledge, learning is a process and in this field, technological trends change all the time. However, it is important to know when it is ok to deny unsolicited help. There are those who will interject themselves into your work and try to render you redundant. Some may show a lack of faith in you just because you are a woman. I’d recommend using a tone that is respectful and just say “I got this”, ‘‘I can handle it”. Have the confidence to express the strength is your abilities.
4. Set boundaries
Unfortunately, sexual harassment is experienced by one in every three women who work in male dominated spaces. There’s a misconception that African culture allows for an increase in harassment, but this is not entirely true. Statistically sexual mis-conduct is a global issue that requires stringent policies in the workplace. Be aware of your organisations sexual policy, question it, understand it and propose improvements on it. This will help you know what channels to follow if you ever had to report violations towards you. Beware of over familiarity with some colleagues at site, the occasional hand on your behind when you’re going up a ladder or snarly comments about your competence can be avoided by setting healthy boundaries upfront. Socialise selectively!
5. Remote work
While travelling away from your station to a different station for the start of a project, some organisations will provide accommodation in a camp while for others you will have to find your own accommodation. In both cases you will experience some form of gender imbalance. If feeling unsafe, ensure you have company security on speed dial or stay at a place where other team members are. If finding your own accommodation, research on the environment, safety issues and what the hotels provide. It is better to stay as a team or with other female colleagues for herd safety and also for easy travel logistics to and from site. If you are set up at camp, you have the option of preparing your own food and it is easier to establish a routine, however there is a chance that you will experience unsanitary conditions and, in some cases, shared washrooms. It takes time to get used to this experience but you can make little adjustments to make it more liveable. I usually bring my own bedsheets, sandals, bathroom slippers and sanitary products. I also carry some dry snacks and juices to snack on once the food gets monotonous.
6. Mentor and support others
“A mentor is someone who allows you to see the hope inside yourself.” — Oprah Winfrey
While there are more women joining the STEM workforce, the imbalance in gender representation is still quite large. We all stand on the shoulders of the great women who came before us and who paved the way for inclusivity. Mentorship provides the same hope to the younger generation of African women who face barriers that inhibit their vision in joining the male dominated workforce. I am involved in mentoring female engineering students at my alma mater, the University of Nairobi, and I have previously worked with other private organisations such as Akili Dada in group mentorship programs. You can read more about my mentorship programs here:Mentorship and Volunteer work
Mentorship is actually a two-way street, by mentoring others we also learn about ourselves, our in-capabilities are brough to light and our strengths are magnified. We also get new and fresh ways of thinking from a generation that is experiencing different biases and challenges than we did in our time. For example, one of my mentees introduced me to different applications of virtual reality, which happens to be a passion of hers, and we got to working together in some projects to further develop that idea. Another who had online exams due to covid restrictions had me help in coming up with the best revision practices to counter the inaccessibility to group discussions which is a very effective tool in exam revision.
7. Be wary of non-inclusive and/or chauvinistic language
There are some degrading remarks, tailored as compliments that you will receive constantly in these fields. “You’re too good for a girl” is such a remark. The same kind of remark wouldn’t be delivered to a male colleague which makes it sexist. I have always been deliberate about engaging in a full conversation about how gender does not influence my ability to do a job well. In other scenarios, you will be excluded for being a girl. In one such experience a senior member of staff indicated that women cannot be power system protection engineer because a woman’s husband would not allow her to leave the house at odd hours if there was a system fault that she was expected to recover. Such comments are ill-intentioned and degrading and could hinder your choice of specialization or generally bring down your morale. I joined the power systems protection department anyway, and yes, to prove a point but also to make sure that I was pursing the specialization that I was truly passionate about despite what everyone else thought. You need to understand that you belong, and have a strong network of support around you for when you need to vent about these challenges. I’d also recommend speaking up whenever you are faced with these attacks as they help to create boundaries on how you’d like to be treated and respected in the work place.
Photo credit: african globe