21 September 2011

Uganda: Uphill Struggle for Women Computer Scientists

Kampala — Aspiring female computer scientists in Uganda face a string of obstacles, including a society that considers the subject too difficult for them, families that fear the independence that success might confer and negativity from male student colleagues, a survey has found.

Interviews with women studying computer science at Makerere University, Uganda's premier institute of higher education, also found that families in rural areas -- where most of the population lives -- are reluctant for their daughters to study far from home, which confines their choices to non-science subjects.

The study, published in the International Journal of Gender, Science and Technology, looked only at women studying computer science - but commentators said the results could be applied more broadly.

James Ochwa-Echel, a researcher at Eastern Illinois University in the United States, surveyed 200 undergraduate computer science students at Makerere University, where women represent just under a quarter of students in the subject.

He found that women on the course tended to have highly educated, high-income mothers compared with the men on the course.

Two-thirds of the 50 women who completed the survey said that people had tried to discourage them from signing up by saying it was a difficult subject, whereas only a tenth of the 150 men on the course had been told this.

Dorothy Okello, a lecturer in the department of electrical engineering at the university, said: "There is no career guidance to let potential students know about computer science, the course requirements and career prospects".

In a smaller, focus group discussion, all the women said they felt they did not have the support of their spouses.

Ochwa-Echel declined to be interviewed about his study, but wrote in his research paper that husbands feared that a wife with an elevated earning potential might leave the household.

Goretti Zavuga Amuriat, a gender and information and communications technology policy advocate, said: "Due to our gender socialisation, from birth we are socialised as caretakers and rarely exposed to things that compel us to [study] science".

The findings are similar to those of the Female Education in Mathematics and Science in Africa project, which has looked at the reasons for the low number of girls studying science at university level.

Julianne Sansa-Otim, acting head of the department of networks at the School of Computing and Informatics Technology at Makerere University, said that policy changes should focus on rewarding women scientists and on funding science projects in low-income primary schools.

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