February 13, 2019

"I had to overcome social stereotypes in Uganda to become a scientist"

Daniella says female science graduates find it tough to secure research posts

Photo credit: Daniella Akelott

Daniella Akellot

Global Youth Ambassador from Uganda

In the week of International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we talk to one of Theirworld's Global Youth Ambassadors about careers in STEM.

What is your educational and employment background? 

I have a Master of Science in Public Health from Oxford Brookes University in the UK and a Bachelors in Biomedical Laboratory Technology from Makerere University in Uganda. 

I am currently working in two research roles as the Research Coordinator at CoRSU Rehabilitation Hospital and Research Consultant at Kumi Orthopaedic Center, where I am responsible for conducting research studies about disability and orthopedic conditions respectively.

Is it difficult for female science graduates to secure research posts in Uganda?

Yes it is. For a long time, scientific roles, including research-related ones, have been dominated by men. Social stereotypes in my country assume that arts-related fields are for women and girls while science is for males. 

I am reminded of my science class make-up. I took physics, chemistry and biology in A Level, where we were only 13 girls in a class of 48. In the first term of my studies, I recall receiving negative comments from our male classmates, insisting that girls should be in arts classes and not sciences.

With the opposition faced in lower education levels, it is no surprise that there are few female scientists. 

Acquiring research roles in Uganda is equally difficult for females, as many employers prefer to hire male researchers. It took me about three years after graduation from my second degree to acquire my first research job. 

I attend many research-related conferences and I find that there are few women present compared to males. So, yes, I believe there are few opportunities given to women in Uganda to work in research positions after graduation.

Have you struggled as a female scientist to progress your career?

Yes, I have struggled as a female scientist. When it took me three years to secure my first research job, my friends and family members encouraged me to seek alternative sources of employment in other fields. 

I remember attending an interview for a research position where I was politely told that I was overqualified. I have to work twice as hard as my male colleagues and have to constantly prove myself before attaining respect from colleagues as a scientist.

Daniella is conducting research studies about disability and orthopedic conditions. In 2017 she helped to organise a sports event to raise awareness about rehabilitation services provided to children with disabilities

Photo credit: Daniella Akelott

Why do you think the STEM gender imbalance exists in Uganda? 

In my view, the gender imbalance exists because girls and women are discouraged by friends and family from pursuing STEM courses. The perception in Uganda is that girls eventually will marry, have children and cook for their families. 

They will not have time to pursue STEM careers which are very demanding both intellectually  and physically. It is assumed that women will not be able to balance work and family hence are forced to sacrifice their careers in favour of family obligations. 

Has the government actively pursued policies to encourage more girls into STEM?

Yes, the Ugandan government has taken steps in developing policies that encourage a higher female intake in STEM courses, especially at secondary and university level. 

Affirmative action has been implemented - as female students enrolling for university education are given an extra point to help them qualify for the courses applied for.

What more needs to be done to give girls the opportunities to excel in STEM? 

Girls need female mentors in STEM to help encourage them to pursue careers in this field. Personally, I look up to some female scientists who are pursuing successful careers in STEM. 

Furthermore, there is a need for both professional and programme support to assist women to meet both career and family obligations.

Who are the Ugandan female STEM pioneers to watch right now? 

Dr Olive Kobusingye, Lorna Maria Aine, Betty Kituyi, Zilla Mary Arach.

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