If this don gets her way, women will reign in maths

The fallacy was stereotypical. The fallacy was prejudiced. And, at more institutions of higher learning in Uganda, the fallacy was discouraging most of the female students from mathematics and other core sciences.

The fallacy is: mathematics is complicated. The subject is abstract. And if you were a female looking to graduate, the discipline certainly was not for you. Men could dare it, just not so much the women.

“No one knows exactly how it started or who started it,” said Dr Fulgensia Kamugisha Mbabazi, a senior lecturer in the department of mathematics and deputy dean for the faculty of science and education at Busitema University, Uganda.

“It is that form of societal construct that, unfortunately, is biased against the girl child and females, handicapping them in maths and other core sciences,” she said.

But one female mathematician is doing all she can to counter the fallacy.

First woman maths professor

Dr Betty Kivumbi Nannyonga is a senior lecturer in the department of mathematics at Makerere University in Kampala and the don has made it her personal business to change society’s perception of the subject and encourage more females to go into core sciences.

Nannyonga, who will become the first female professor of mathematics in Uganda after the appointments board at Makerere University approves her application (she qualified for a professorship in 2019), organises maths seminars and workshops to talk about the importance of the subject and to show women students how they can pass it.

She has also formed the Uganda Women Mathematicians (UWM) network and teamed up with 23 women to recruit and retain more women in the core sciences.

Nannyonga and the team have organised maths camps and outreaches in Mayuge, Kalangala and Kampala districts in Uganda and encouraged more than 50,000 females to pursue careers in the subject. The team has mentored an additional 200 women university students in the discipline.

Apart from the UWM network, Nannyonga has also formed the Eastern Africa Network for Women in Basic Sciences (EANWoBAS).

This organisation consists of students and staff members in mathematics, physics, and physics education from universities in Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia. And its aim is to empower women in core sciences in the region.

Equity for women in basic sciences

“Dr Nannyonga is passionate when it comes to women in basic sciences,” said Dr Rebecca Muhumuza Nalule, a lecturer in the maths department at Busitema University and member of the network.

“We couldn’t have asked for a better leader. She wants equity for women in basic sciences and is always encouraging females that we can do it.”

Nannyonga has supervised more than 20 students at masters level since receiving her doctorate in 2012 and is a mentor with the Mastercard Foundation.

When she is not talking maths, she is doing research in disease prevention. She is also part of a scientific committee that uses modelling to predict and prevent COVID-19 cases in Uganda.

Born in Kirumba, Masaka, Nannyonga attended St Clement Primary School, Ntusi and Blessed Sacrament School in Kimanya for her primary education before joining Christ the King SS, Kalisizo, for her secondary education.

But as a child, she had a problem pronouncing certain words and could not spontaneously express herself, so she gravitated towards mathematics.

“With mathematics, it was easy,” Nannyonga said. “I didn’t have to talk a lot. I just had to focus and work on my numbers.”

So, by the time she joined A level at Trinity College Nabbingo, she knew what her priorities would be – physics, chemistry and mathematics.

She enrolled for a bachelor of science degree at Makerere University in 1992, majoring in maths and physics. In 1995, she registered for a master of science in mathematics at the same institution.

She started her doctorate on the subject at Makerere University in 2008, supported by the East African Universities Mathematics Programme.

But by this time, she had already decided to become a maths teacher.

Mentoring the fears away

“It was a decision I made during my undergraduate programme,” Nannyonga said. “All our lecturers were male. So, I said to myself that I was going to teach mathematics at university to represent the females.”

After receiving her PhD in 2012, Nannyonga attended a two-year postdoctoral programme at the department of mathematics at Uppsala University in Sweden, which ignited her passion to support women in basic sciences.

She returned to Uganda in 2013 and right away started organising maths seminars and workshops within lecture halls at Makerere University, aimed at attracting and retaining more women into mathematics and other core sciences.

She took the few women studying mathematics at the university under her wing, listened to their challenges and fears and showed them a way to cope.

But she could not continue all this work by herself.

So, she started the UWM network in 2013 and enlisted 23 women who had ‘excelled’ in the subject and had either a masters in the discipline or taught the subject for 10 years, to help her.

With UWM, Nannyonga started organising maths camps and seminars to recruit and retain more women students in the subject.

During the camps, Nannyonga and her team talked about the opportunities that awaited the women after completion of their programmes, such as careers in computing, business mathematics, and space science.

They also mentored the students and showed them how they could excel at the subject.

In 2016, Nannyonga won the International Science Programme’s (ISP) Gender Equality Activity Grant to support the success and retention of women in basic sciences at Makerere University for two years.

Teamwork bears fruit

After the ISP programme concluded, Nannyonga and her women mathematicians started to organise marathons each March 14, on the international day of mathematics, to celebrate the importance of the subject and raise funds to reach more women in basic sciences.

Since 2018, Nannyonga and her team have held marathons in Kalangala (2018), Mayuge (2019) and Kampala (2020) districts and reached more women students in mathematics.

“[Because of the coronavirus] we are organising an e-marathon this year,” Nannyonga said. “Everything is ready, the kits, the participants … We shall have some physical participants, but others will attend online.”

To counter the fallacy and, in addition to the seminars and marathons, Nannyonga and others also organise maths camps where they take the subject outside the lecture rooms to local secondary schools and show students how they can succeed.

“A number of female students fear mathematics because the people around them have said the subject is hard and because of the abstract way in which some teachers teach it,” Mbabazi said.

“Most of our communities are patriarchal and think only the boy child has potential. Some parents think girl children cannot do sciences.”

Cultural perceptions a challenge

“So, we talk to the students and teachers and find a way to talk to parents whenever we organise maths camps and visit local schools,” she said.

“We talk to the students so they can tell us why they think mathematics is hard, and to the teachers to find out how they are teaching the subject. Of course, we talk to the parents because their perception of maths can have an impact on the girl child’s perception of the subject.”

Mbabazi said that some parents think their children will be poor at mathematics because they were poor at the subject themselves.

“Some still think educating a girl child is a waste of money. We have to correct these perceptions,” she said.

But Nalule said the problem is also related to how teachers at the lower education institutions are taught and called on the government to champion the drive to encourage women in basic sciences.

“We still have gaps in our teacher training institutions and have to bridge them so teachers can have a more hands-on approach when teaching maths and the other core sciences,” she said.

Nannyonga said the women mathematicians had to get outside lecture rooms to secondary school classrooms because universities get most of their students from the lower-level institutions.

“Mathematics is so important we cannot afford to continue to leave the girl child behind,” said Nannyonga.

“The subject is the main ingredient in almost every science. Be it physics, chemistry, or space science. We are advocating for equity, and we want to see more women excelling in the subject.”

New initiative starts roaring

In 2018, after the UWM network proved a huge success, Nannyonga created another linkage that included physics as well: that was The Eastern Africa Network for Women in Basic Sciences. Its aim is to promote women in maths and physics and the other core sciences in the region.

And her efforts are paying off already.

Nannyonga said that, before the start of the regional network, many women would major in maths or physics and another discipline such as economics or computer science. But now more female basic scientists opt to major in mathematics and physics.

Whether Nannyonga and her team can successfully erase the fallacy and create equity in the number of females in maths and other basic sciences remains to be seen, but the mathematicians are doing all they can to effect change.