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Dr. Kuthea Nguti: Retaining women in STEM

Dr. Kuthea Nguti (middle) with her supervisors, Prof Ruth Kiraka (left), Strathmore University, and Prof. Aihie Osarenkhoe, University of Gävle.

Dr. Lucy Kuthea Nguti felt the wetness of snow for the first time when she travelled to Germany in 2018. She carried the raw data that would feed into her thesis, a work in progress then, to the city of Mainz on the Rhine River, where she and two other Kenyan lecturers involved in the DAAD project NetzwerkHAW Kenya had been sent on a mission to study the ins and outs of the University of Applied Sciences system in Germany. She sailed back to Strathmore with a wealth of insights to transform the Kenyan university sector as well as with a completed thesis in hand. With this thesis on how to retain women in STEM, she added a prestigious feather in her cap when she graduated this year with a Doctorate in Marketing.

What was your main task in the DAAD project?

Kenya in collaboration with the German government is looking into the establishment of an East African – German University of Applied Sciences (EA-GUAS). We were immersed in the system in order to provide first-hand experience and learn more about the University of Applied Sciences system, a system that is well known in Germany for teaching professional skills and collaborating closely with local industry, and ensuring education is aligned with labour market needs.

At the end of the six months we provided a critical review of the Kenyan academic and industry needs and made recommendations on what is and is not likely work in the Kenyan system. This model would go a long way in aligning education with market labour needs in Kenya.

How does it feel to be called Daktari?

I am still getting used to it. It is quite surreal, a reality that is still sinking in. Maybe if you ask me that in another year, I may have more to say.

Did you see yourself doing a PhD?

It never was an ambition for me. I dreamt of getting into marketing as I loved figuring people out and at the same time, solving problems, planning and making money. My idea of success was working in a high-powered multinational but it didn’t work out that way.

How did it work out?

I worked for one year in a marketing agency; the first three months were exhilarating until it became increasingly difficult to go to work. After taking time to reflect, I realised I was bored as I wasn’t learning anything new. I needed to go back to school. This was quite a shock to me because I didn’t enjoy studying in the past; I couldn’t wait to finish my undergraduate studies! I therefore applied for the Graduate Assistant position at Strathmore and pursued the Master of Commerce (MCOM) degree, an experience which helped me discover my love for research. Upon my graduation from MCOM, I was offered a second scholarship to pursue a PhD in Marketing.

Why your choice of thesis?

I have always looked at marketing as more than selling goods and services. It is a discipline that can be used to solve societal issues. I therefore wanted to use marketing tools and concepts to understand better why women were leaving STEM careers. Data shows that there are less that 30% of women pursuing STEM careers in Kenya. I did not believe it was due to lack of ability. I wanted to figure out what influenced their decision to leave and if we could come up with a solution using a marketing perspective.

What did you discover?

It is a complex problem. A part of me expected to discover that silver bullet that would solve the problem; but there are a number of inter-related issues that influence the decision to leave. A systems approach is needed to understand the issues and their relationships with each other and the problem of retaining women in STEM careers. You need to look not only at the woman but at her macro-environment: her family background, friends and the organisations she has worked in.

It was noted that women in the study who were persisting in STEM had found various ways to create or re-construct their STEM career to allow them balance their multiple roles in life and meet their unique needs.

What are their reasons for leaving STEM and where do they go to?

Many of the women who were interviewed who left STEM careers chose to pursue either self-employment or employment in a variety of non-STEM careers.

One of the reasons stated was lack of work – family balance. The issue that caused difficulty in balancing their roles at work and in the family was not necessarily the long working hours but the inflexibility of working hours in the organisations they were in. Those who went into self-employment still worked long hours but they were able to create time to interact with their families when they needed to and that brought them immense satisfaction.

Another reason that was raised for leaving the field is lack of a sense of belonging. Most of the women felt as though other players in the STEM fields, colleagues, employers and clients, did not embrace their presence as STEM professionals.

What has been your Strathmore experience?

As a student, one thing that struck me whilst pursuing my Masters’ course was that teacher’s came to class on time and consistently. This challenged me as a student to be present, engaged and to give 110%. While pursuing my PhD studies, I especially appreciated the guidance of my supervisors, Prof. Ruth Kiraka and Prof. Aihie Osarenkhoe. Through their expertise and unfailing support, my research skills were immensely enhanced.

As a lecturer, the attitude of excellence within Strathmore influences me to better appreciate the dignity of work and motivates me to join in the pursuit of excellence in all I set out to do.

How would you describe the challenges you encountered throughout your PhD journey?

The PhD journey is an uncertain journey; that uncertainty causes instability, which in large doses is not good for anyone.  I learnt, in the course of the journey to ask for help, and to reach out for support from colleagues, family and friends. I also learnt to trust and rest in the providence and faithfulness of God.


This article was written by Wambui Gachari.

If you have a story, kindly email: communications@strathmore.edu