‘Women in STEM, believe in your brilliance’

Photo credit: EABL

By Victoria Ariho

“I didn’t raise you a boy or a girl; I raised you to work hard!”

That was my dad’s remark after I once complained that I was a woman doing a man’s job. The statement got me resetting my mind, and from then onward, I told myself that there were no feminine nor masculine jobs. There were simply jobs to be done and whoever was up to the tasks could go ahead and do them.

Women have made some of the greatest contributions in history and continue to do so in the advancement of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields. There are several examples around us. My favourites are Dr Lindiwe Sidali, the first female cardiothoracic surgeon; and Baratang Miya, a self-taught coder and founder of GirlHype, which provides programming and app development training for girls and young women.

Still, we remain underrepresented.

My initial encounter with this reality was during my first role in manufacturing. I realised there weren’t many women within that space, and my question then was: Who are the relatable women succeeding in manufacturing?

Also, on many occasions, I have pondered over what could be done to retain women in STEM once they have joined the programmes. Studies have shown that women leave STEM careers at disproportionally higher rates than men. An article by Susan Sibley in the Havard Businness Review, states that approximately 40 percent of women don’t stay long in the profession.

This is a clear indication that although progress is being made, we are not yet there and a lot more must be done.

First things first: What is it like to be a woman in STEM? The fact that every woman’s experience is particularly unique makes this a difficult question.

My personal experience as a woman in STEM has been an adventure of self-discovery and learning. And yes, I have faced challenges. One of them is finding relevant female role models – those who have exceptionally excelled in this space.

Early in my journey, I learnt to embrace the available role models (males in STEM and females in other disciplines) by connecting through social media, combining the learnings and applying what made sense to me.

The bias within the workspace is another challenge that at first tested my confidence. It is easy to give in to the bias and accept it as the status quo. It was one of the reasons I had given when speaking with my dad about leaving the job, and the fact that I was the only woman working on nightshift at the time. Hence his strong response.

With a renewed mind-set after that talk, I learnt to listen to my own voice and to affirm myself. I learnt this from an African proverb that goes: “When there is no enemy within, the enemies outside can do you no harm”.

There have also been gratifying opportunities, such as the ever-growing push for more inclusive and diverse workplaces, and employers that are putting in deliberate efforts to provide women with skills and experiences needed to excel in the STEM space.

Working with EABL has been a blessing in the sense that the environment allows and supports women in STEM. The business values and initiatives such as the STEM apprenticeship programme, have provided a platform for women and girls to appreciate this field. This is in addition to intentional recruitment, where women are encouraged to apply and are given equal employment opportunities.

My experience so far has also led me to understand the struggles that other women face, and to show empathy and look for ways to change what must be changed.

I would like to challenge women in STEM or those contemplating joining this field, to believe in their brilliance. Like Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman astronaut in space once said, “Don’t let anyone rob you of your imagination, your creativity, or your curiosity. It’s your place in the world. It’s your life. Go on and do all you can with it, and make it the life you want to live.” 

Find relatable role models by connecting with people who are two to three steps ahead of you; people who have paved unique paths for themselves. But remember that it’s not always easy to find a perfect role model in your industry. Therefore, it’s important to also seek common ground, depending on your passion and ambitions.

Lastly, pay attention to how their struggles relate to yours, because more often than not, people who share the same struggles can really show us what is possible.

Victoria Ariho is the Kenya Breweries Limited Site Manager, Kisumu.