Rutendo Chibvupe achieves her dream of developing software for social impact

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She overcame several obstacles to obtain her IT qualification and is now inspiring others to follow in her footsteps.

By Prof Brenda Scholtz, Department of Computing Sciences at Nelson Mandela University

With the fourth industrial revolution fast evolving into the fifth industrial revolution (5IR), the demand for skills within the field of computing is rising, providing scope for many opportunities for employment in South Africa. CIOs such as Denish Haripal of enX have stressed the need for more youth in computing fields – which include amongst others, IT, computing sciences and software engineering. According to data from the US Census Bureau, women are largely underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and maths (or STEM) jobs.

At Nelson Mandela University, several employers of graduates from the Department of Computing Sciences (CS) concur with this data and continually emphasise that they cannot fill the large number of vacancies for software developers with the right skill set. CS encompasses the discipline of both computer science and information systems and these skills are highly sought after.

The odds are stacked against women 
Finding women graduates, in particular, is like finding hens’ teeth. One of the reasons for this shortage is that girls still have to break through several barriers, including gender stereotypes, in order to gain and sustain interest in these fields and to feel confident that they can be successful in them.

To address this need for women in the CS industry, several initiatives have been undertaken globally and in South Africa. Some of these initiatives are girlcode.co.za, women-in-tech.org/sa and womeninit.org.za. Within the Nelson Mandela University CS Department, the Young African Women in Computing (YAWiC) initiative was launched in 2015 and has run several successful events in the Eastern Cape.

Despite these initiatives, many South African scholars are still not choosing to study degrees in CS fields, and of those who do, only a very small percentage are women. The South African girl child faces problems of poverty, sexism, racism and the increasing digital divide, which compounds the situation.

Once the small group of females apply and get accepted as computing students, they sometimes face additional challenges to those of their male counterparts, resulting in a fairly high percentage of university dropouts.

Overcoming it all
Many of our women students who have graduated and are employed in the industry, have made their mark as the unsung superheroes of the workplace. They have managed to overcome their challenges and to use their STEM education not only to provide global opportunities for themselves, but also enable economic and social benefits for their families and communities. BSc computer science and mathematics graduate Rutendo Chibvupe is one such woman.

Rutendo was born and bred in the beautiful country of Zimbabwe. However, instead of this being an asset, it became an additional challenge to overcome when she decided to study in South Africa.

She describes herself as “loving to laugh” and a hard-working person who strives to achieve perfection and brilliance as much as she can. She is currently working as a project analyst for an international digital health company and finally fulfilling her dream of both working with technology and of making a positive impact on society.

It was not always an easy road for Rutendo. She started off studying electrical engineering to fulfil her father’s dreams, but later realised that it was not the career for her. One of the positives of studying engineering was that she had to do a compulsory programming module, and it was from that module that her passion for coding was born.

After overcoming some financial problems, she managed to get accepted at Nelson Mandela University and move to Gqeberha, which was quite a risk for her and her family, and a big move from Zimbabwe. During her university years, 90 percent of the students in her classes were male, which was sometimes a struggle for her.

She experienced some situations where the “girls” were treated differently to the male students. Most of the female students would be afraid to speak up and ask questions, or even volunteer an answer asked by the lecturers. Rutendo also had some racism issues in the classroom to face. In spite of the fact that many universities have a zero tolerance for racism in their institutions, there are still some pockets of subtle racism in the classroom.

Rutendo also carried the additional burden of being a foreigner. She tried to make light of it by saying: “We are the trifecta: the foreign, black women in tech”. But she believes that with a strong mindset and clear focus, these challenges can be overcome. Her advice to young female students is to avoid failure by speaking up when necessary and asking questions, even when you feel that it might be a stupid question. Another skill she found that helped her to persevere was focusing on self-care, and taking time out to relax to manage stress and workload.

When Rutendo finished her degree and got the news that she had passed, she was sitting at her communal office. She didn’t want to portray herself as an emotional person at work, so it was hard for her to hold back the tears of joy that were welling up, and she had to go to the bathroom to recover.

It was a moment of strong emotions for her because obtaining a BSc computer science degree is not an easy feat, and the sense of satisfaction and achievement she felt was worth all the effort – she now had a qualification that would open many doors for her.

Her degree has given her the ability to be employed in the company of her dreams and to create software that impacts positively on health in the communities of Africa. Rutendo believes that you have to love what you’re doing, be motivated to do it and be intentional about it, otherwise you will struggle.

To be successful in the industry Rutendo believes you have to work consistently hard to produce good quality work. You also need good managers who will train and support you, allowing time to learn, make mistakes, and correct them.

One of the most satisfying moments in her current role was when she managed to solve a problem at work that even her manager could not see the solution for. Even though it is her job, it really boosted her confidence and helped to remove any self-doubt that was still lingering from previous negative experiences.

While there is clearly still work to be done to encourage more young female scholars to study degrees in CS, they also need to be provided with support to complete their degrees successfully. Leaders in the field need to reflect on their responsibility towards these women, and to spend time and resources on improving the situation.

I believe that awareness goes a long way to understanding, and once we have greater understanding, collaborative efforts can be made to find solutions that make a difference in the lives of these women.

Ultimately the industry will grow and diversify, and our economy will benefit from this growth in the IT market and the resultant technologies that can impact society in a positive way.

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