Interview by Hastings Ndebvu
As we continue with the #womeninSTEM campaign, we talk to Hellen Nakawungu, Systems Engineer at the Research and Education Network of Uganda (RENU). Hellen has worked in the Technical Department of RENU transitioning through different levels. She is currently the Head of Department, Systems and Software and the Coordinator for the Cyber Security Team. She is a computer scientist and passionate about Artificial Intelligence. Hellen is a member of ISOC-Ugandan Chapter and registered member of IEEE. We sat down with her and she shared with us her experiences on being a woman in STEM.
Why did you choose your STEM field? Were you inspired by someone?
For me, it was not a choice but a passion! I knew from my secondary school I would follow my passion. So on choosing courses at campus, with the help of my father (who knew what I was passionate about), Computer Science was not a hard choice to make. On top of that, I always found science subjects easier for me compared to arts subjects.
Your team at RENU has played a key role in the set-up of Metro eduroam, which has connected over 300 hotspots across Uganda to help students, researchers and university staff to access the campus Wi-Fi in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. What are some other really innovative and inspiring things that you get to do in your everyday job as a Systems Engineer in an NREN?
Well, coming up with new and innovative ideas and learning from others drive my day-to-day work. Apart from the Metro-eduroam project, there are other projects and services that I have been involved in including managing the Cloud Service, Video and Web conferencing, eduroam, Identity federation(RIF), eduVPN (the very first in Africa), Webhosting, IdP (in pipe line), Learning Management Systems – specifically Moodle, among others.
Do you still see a lot of gender discrimination across your STEM field today? How do you think African NRENs can encourage more young girls into the field?
Well, I will say “yes.” Women get slim chance to prove their intellectual ability; in order to match their male peers, they have to double their efforts. In cases where women are working directly with their male peers, they are given lighter tasks that do not help them learn a lot as compared to their male counterparts. This hinders women’s long-term career growth. Also, when it comes to contract bargaining and payments, in most cases you see women being given a very little room for bargaining, and eventually little pay, simply because the employers assume they have less responsibilities as compared to their male peers.
How do you think African NRENs can encourage more young girls to join the field?
Having more women in positions of influence would allow young girls to know that it is possible for them to be successful in any field they decide to enter including STEM.
Finally, if you could give young African women passionate about pursuing careers in STEM with one piece of advice, what would it be?
Well, they need to work hard. They should not shy away from tasks and should not be afraid to get their hands dirty. They are equally as intelligent as the men are.