Aisha Ali Macallin is busy supervising construction workers on a building site near the seafront in Mogadishu’s ancient Hamarweyne district. She makes sure they are laying bricks in straight lines, picking her way through the chaos of iron bars, wooden planks and sacks of cement.
The sight of this 25-year-old civil engineer in her hard hat, hijab and long black dress is an unexpected one.
In Somalia, working in construction is considered the exclusive preserve of men.
Nobody could quite believe it when Aisha said she wanted to be an engineer. Girls are expected to study the arts, social sciences or health-related subjects, especially nursing and midwifery.
“My family was divided,” she says as she treads confidently across the half-built roof of the apartment block, her bright yellow high-visibility jacket striking against the blue of the sea and the sky.
“They knew I was passionate about engineering. Some said I should pursue what I love. Others insisted I study something more ‘female’.”
Aisha defied expectations by excelling in highly competitive exams to win a place on Hormuud University’s engineering course. Her favourite module was design and construction.
Now she is realising her dream despite facing significant challenges related to her gender. She has been involved in eight building projects so far, three of which she was in charge of from start to finish.
While most of the buildings she has worked on are residential, she spent the whole of 2020 working on a construction project for the maritime forces funded by international donors.
Aisha has faced major difficulties working with labourers on site, all of whom are men. They refused to take her seriously, doubting that she was a qualified civil engineer. In the end, she decided to bring along a male colleague as the workers respected him and followed his orders.
“The workers questioned my authority,” she says. “They said ‘How dare you give us instructions? Send a man to talk to us’”.
Aisha got so tired of the prejudice she faced that she decided to set up her own construction company. It is called Bilan Home Services and employs seven people. Most of them are women including an architect and an electrical engineer.
By working alongside such highly skilled women, the male employees of Aisha’s company are starting to find it normal to work alongside females in the construction sector.
One of Aisha’s colleagues is Engineer Abdullah Gambo.
“Men, from the manual labourers to senior engineers, tend to discriminate against women working in this field,” he says.
“They often ask how a woman can know anything about civil engineering or management and refuse to follow her instructions. Some clients are astonished to see a woman working in construction, asking ‘How on earth can a woman build my house?’”
Although attitudes towards women engineers are changing slowly, Bilan Home Services has struggled to win contracts despite Mogadishu’s construction boom.
“Potential clients say men not women should win contracts”, says Aisha.
She says the longer she and the handful of other female engineers work in the sector, attitudes towards women in this traditionally male-dominated field are improving.
Women such as Aisha are inspiring girls to study engineering and there has been an uptick in female engineering students during the past two years.
“People are getting used to the idea of girls studying subjects traditionally viewed as reserved for boys,” she says. “I am happy societal attitudes are changing, with more tolerance towards women studying engineering and working alongside men.”