The girl has become a giant in architecture

University of Nairobi (UON) Valedictorians from left: Naomi Kamau -Class of 2018, Asya Essajee - Class of 2017, Christine Nzilani-Class of 2015, Linda Nkatha-Class of 2010 and UON Chairman Department of Architecture Musau Kimeu.

Photo credit: Pool | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Department of Architecture and Building Science at the University of Nairobi started in the 1950s, with severe gender disparities.
  • In 2020, the Department has 187 female students and 12 female lecturers.
  • Prior to that, it was common to find classes with no female students, especially in the 1970s and 1980s.
  • The first Kenyan female lecturer joined the department in 2008 as a tutorial fellow, breaking years of male prevalence.

The Department of Architecture and Building Science at the University of Nairobi is among the oldest at the institution of higher learning, having begun as Royal Technical College in the late 1950s.

In spite of this, the department had severe gender disparities for decades until the turn of the millennium when this begun to change. As a result of deliberate efforts among the teaching staff, the department now boasts a near 1:2 gender ratio, a huge leap from lows of up to 0:1, in favour of men. 

“Female architects were very rare when I joined the Department of Architecture in 1997,” Dr Margaret Macharia,  a lecturer at the department says.

Only two female students had been admitted into her First Year class of 27. Then, the entire department had less than 10 female students out of about 170.

“There were no female lecturers, and the only female architects I ever encountered were wives of my lecturers,” she adds.

Rapid rise

Twenty-three years later, the numbers have improved greatly. In 2020 the Department has 187 female students and 12 female lecturers.

The increase in the number of female architecture students at the University occurred rapidly from the year 2000. Prior to that, it was common to find classes with no female students, especially in the 1970s and 1980s.

In fact, in 1976, the department had no female student from First Year through to Fifth Year. Male student numbers remained stable. The few female students who joined the department fell off, or repeated classes or changed courses all together due to the length of the course.

During the earlier 7-6-3 system of education, the Architecture degree course took five years, while other undergraduate courses took three years at the university. Under the current 8-4-4 system, architecture takes six years.

“We were ignorant about what the course entailed,” Ms Macharia recalls. “Some joined believing it was pure science-oriented, only to find that it was technical.”

The first Kenyan female lecturer joined the department in 2008 as a tutorial fellow, breaking years of male prevalence.

Immediate employment

“The department has been male dominated for years except for a few foreign female lecturers who came for short-term periods,” says the Chairman of the Department, Architect Musau Kimeu.

In September 2010, then Architecture student Linda Nkatha Gichuyia graduated as University of Nairobi Class of 2010 Valedictorian, prompting then vice-chancellor Prof. George Magoha to announce her immediate employment at the Department of Architecture and Building Science. This was followed by a similar sterling performance by Christine Nzilani Mbai, who graduated as University of Nairobi Class of 2015 Valedictorian.

These developments brought great public awareness of the programme and the fact that the girl child had come of age. This was an obvious catalyst in the rise in number of women faculty and students at the department. Both Dr Nkatha and  Nzilani are part of the new team of women lecturers in the department.

Deliberate effort

For years, all the heroes and gods of architecture across the world were predominantly male; no wonder many women presumed architecture was a preserve for men.

“When I joined the department as a part-time lecturer in 2001, the situation looked bleak,” recalls Kimeu.

He had just returned from Cambridge University with a Master’s Degree in Environmental Design in Architecture. He joined hands with fellow lecturers and decided to start working with the First Year students, inspiring and encouraging them to enjoy the course and perform better.

Additionally, they made steps to increase the female student population. They started mentorship of the girl child and secondary school outreaches.

The department encourages visits by schools and individuals who want to learn more about architecture.

“These interactions have helped the young ones understand the field of Architecture, leading to low dropout rates,” says Mr Kimeu.

Female lecturers

Peer influence has also helped boost the numbers. More female students join when they see fellow women excelling in the course.

The female students get academic and psychosocial support when they join.

“Having the female lecturers has helped a lot. Girls come in with many challenges for which they need the support of fellow women,” stresses Mr Kimeu.

He adds that conscious efforts are made to ensure the girls are “in good hands. We want to produce holistic graduates, and not girls who come out behaving like boys because of lack of appropriate mentors and role models.”

Architect Samantha Ponda, who joined the teaching faculty in 2018, adds that they fill in the gap that lacked when lecturers were predominantly male.

“Due to the design of the course, there are many mentorship opportunities… I am glad when I can guide beyond academics.”

Stellar performance

Women carry incredible talent, creativity and ability that often go untapped.

“The girls stand out, they are performing better than the boys,” asserts Mr Kimeu.

In  the last 10 years, the Department of Architecture has produced four University Valedictorians, who are all women. In addition, many female students continue to graduate with first class honours.

Ms Ponda  believes architecture is diverse and offers space for varied people to express themselves.

“Women are a powerhouse in our 2020 graduating class,” Mr Kimeu reveals, insinuating that an even better performance is expected.

“The girl has become a giant. How can the boy follow suit?” poses the departmental head.