Fulbright Forward - A Diversity Podcast

Racial and Gender Inequality, Tech and Higher Ed - Ronda Železný-Green

February 11, 2021 FulbrightD&I Season 1 Episode 8
Racial and Gender Inequality, Tech and Higher Ed - Ronda Železný-Green
Fulbright Forward - A Diversity Podcast
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Fulbright Forward - A Diversity Podcast
Racial and Gender Inequality, Tech and Higher Ed - Ronda Železný-Green
Feb 11, 2021 Season 1 Episode 8

Ronda Železný-Green, a digital learning and technology policy expert, and EUR Diversity Coordinator Susanne Hamscha talk about the intersection of race and gender in (higher) education, technology as a tool for achieving  equality, and the underrepresentation of women of color in higher education in the UK. Ronda acts as a consultant to the US-UK Fulbright Commission and from 2013-14, she held a US Fulbright Student Grant to conduct research for her PhD in Kenya.

Show Notes Transcript

Ronda Železný-Green, a digital learning and technology policy expert, and EUR Diversity Coordinator Susanne Hamscha talk about the intersection of race and gender in (higher) education, technology as a tool for achieving  equality, and the underrepresentation of women of color in higher education in the UK. Ronda acts as a consultant to the US-UK Fulbright Commission and from 2013-14, she held a US Fulbright Student Grant to conduct research for her PhD in Kenya.

Susanne Hamscha  0:04 
February 11 is the United Nations International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Last year, UN General Secretary Antonio Guterres remarked on this occasion that we need to harness our full potential to rise to the challenges of the 21st century. This includes the dismantling of gender stereotypes and requires that the careers of women scientists and researchers are supported, he said.

Gender equality in science, technology and innovation is vital for the achievement of the internationally agreed development goals, including the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The empowerment of women and girls is one of the core concerns of this decade next to the fights against poverty and climate change. One of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals is gender equality, because we have long realized that this is a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world.

Welcome to another episode of Fulbright Forward - A Diversity Podcast. I'm Susanne Hamscha, the Diversity Coordinator for Fulbright in Europe and Eurasia.

Over the past 15 years, the global community has made a lot of effort in inspiring and engaging women and girls in STEM-related fields. Yet women and girls continue to be excluded from participating fully in science, technology and innovation. At present, less than 30% of researchers worldwide are women. According to UNESCO data collected between 2014 and 2016, only around 30 to 35% of all female students select STEM-related fields in higher education. Globally, female students enrollment is particularly low in ICTs at 3%, natural science, mathematics and statistics at 5%, and then engineering, manufacturing and construction at 8%.

It's undoubtedly gender stereotypes and cultural expectations that contribute to the under representation of women in STEM-related fields. But what about the underrepresented within this underrepresented group? What are the particular challenges and barriers for black women who want to build a career in technology for instance? This, and much more, I will discuss with my guest Ronda Zelezny-Green, who is a Digital Learning and Technology Policy expert. Ronda is a consultant to the US-UK Fulbright Commission. And from 2013 to 14, she held a US Fulbright student grant to conduct research for her PhD in Kenya.

Hi, Ronda, it's good to have you here today. I always ask my guests to introduce themselves in their own words and share about their work and what got them interested in their field of work. What is it that you would like to share about yourself?

Ronda Zelezny-Green  2:40 
Oh well, I would say that I am now officially 10 years into my career in technology. And I can say that, you know, for me, one of the the most brilliant things about what I do is that I get to combine two areas of passion that I have around technology and around education. And I think that with Fulbright being that my research grant was the first of its kind for edtech, I felt kind of like a pioneer, a trailblazer.

And you know, since that time, almost seven years now have passed. And I think that it's good to kind of reflect on what has since happened in the world. And I think for me, seeing the many changes, seeing how the digital divide in some ways has shrank but also actually grown in other ways that the the pandemic has exposed. These are the things that have been occupying my mind as of late and you know, they say that there were pandemic winners and losers. And certainly, people in my field, I guess can be classified as winners. I've been inundated not only with consulting requests from a digital learning perspective, but also the AI perspective and of course, also the tech perspective. And so for me, I've just felt like, you know, my calling, particularly in the last few years is to speak my truth, to say the things that people have been saying, of course for years, but now that people are really listening to help contribute to those voices and to amplify them.

Susanne Hamscha  4:18 

Thank you Ronda, I'd like to cut right to the chase if that's okay. You're an expert in educational technology, especially mobile learning, in gender, and in teaching and training. Now it's International Day of Women and Girls in science, but in the US, it's also Black History Month, of course. So I think it's only fitting to talk about the particular barriers women of color face in higher education and especially in STEM-related fields. When you look at the different cultural contexts in which you've studied and worked, how from your perspective, does the intersection of race and gender affect the educational experience and the careers of women of color?

Ronda Zelezny-Green  5:00 
So, I mean, that's a big question. But I think, you know, one of the things I have to start out with are the positives. So within the United States, black women are the most educated among the populace in terms of the number of terminal degrees, how far they've gone within the education system, but the converse side of that is that they are also the most burdened by student debt. And for many black American women, in particular, when you start out, needing to, to prove yourself pretty much at every turn. I mean, I think under normal circumstances, I might not have ever earned two Master's and a PhD. But my philosophy has always been that I never wanted anyone to tell me no, for any reason. And so you know, we have this education, we have this talent, but we also have the burden, the financial burden, but then also, this expectation of, you know, pretty much perfection. I can say that, you know, within my career, I've noticed it so much, where peers who were not black, and were not women, were given the grace to make mistakes, were given the grace to fill upward, as the tech culture likes to say, or to fill fast. And, you know, black women are not given this grace, you can write a book about the stories of the differential treatment that people say is just unconscious bias. But this is one of the things that I've been pushing back on for over a decade, there is no such thing as unconscious bias.

And we've seen the rise of right wing populism throughout the world. And one of the defining features of this has seemed to be not just a virulent strain of racism, but also very upfront and in your face, misogyny. And so at the intersection of that black women sit and you know, the term misogynoir was coined for that reason, because the pernicious acts that are committed against black women tend to be particularly bad. And as an example, you know, one of the things that has emerged, as social media decided, finally, okay, they made all the money that they could from people like Trump now they will ban him. Um, one of the things that, you know, people keep going to in the research is that it was black woman, who very early on suffered a lot of, you know, abuse, racist abuse, misogynistic abuse, misogynoir abuse, through social media channels through technology. So I think we have, you know, a huge problem on our hands. And of course, because we are who we are, we're creative, we're survivors, we thrive. But it would also be nice to just be able to be an average citizen, instead of always having to be a superlative.

Susanne Hamscha  8:07 
Oh, yeah, absolutely. So let's talk about gender equality, or gender inequality, in access to education - which persists around the globe, but we know that in a number of countries, in Sub Saharan Africa, or Western Asia, it's been particularly difficult to achieve gender equality. You spent several months doing field research in Kenya, on your Fulbright, and you published on the links between girls mobile learning and school attendance in Kenya. And I believe that one of your key findings was that mobile phones can contribute to achieving gender equality. Can you tell us more about this? Can you tell us more about your time in Kenya and your research? What did you take away from the time you spent there?

Ronda Zelezny-Green  8:54 

Sure. So, I pretty much worked lived and research in Kenya, between 2012 and 2015. And for me, it was an incredible experience that, you know, undoubtedly changed my life.

One of the things that I want to start with is that whenever you are a researcher from the west, going into spaces where you are, you know, working with people who are, you know, in any way different from you, it's always an interesting power dynamic that emerges. So I worked with secondary school girls, when I was in Kenya and was trying to understand, number one, what challenges they were facing to attend school, and how technology was - if at all - mitigating those challenges, and that was in my master's level research. And then for my PhD research, I basically looked at "All right," you know, I can't force tech into this even though this was my entry, so I said, "All right, what is it that is saying?" and when I looked at the data, after having interviewed several different stakeholder groups, I saw that every single stakeholder group, parent, student, teacher, staff, community leader, said that the one thing that they really wanted for the the girls was to have access to books after school. So access to textbooks is a huge problem in Sub Saharan Africa. So what you essentially see is that what girls can learn in school is pretty much all they can learn because they don't have access to any further materials outside of school. So I said, "All right, well, let's see if there is a way to try to address this challenge."

World Reader is an app that's available on feature phones, which are the step just before a smartphone. And, and also available on smartphones. And so I developed a partnership with World Reader through which I would I could get access to the girls' user analytics data of the app, of course, with their permission and their full awareness that I was doing this, to see how after I introduced them to the SOP, where are they using it? Did it have any kind of change on their life? What were they reading, and so forth.

So what I started to see in the data is that, my goodness, the girls read and read and read. And so I introduced the app just before a school vacation. So many of the girls in the study actually asked me, Hey, can you...we were still not sure how to use this, can you do another session explaining it to us. So they came, you know, on their school vacation, they came back to school, to learn better how to how to appropriate this app. I monitored this. And then even when I returned to the United Kingdom, I continued monitoring remotely, to see what was being done, and they continue to use it. But what was interesting was that not every girl continued to use it. And as I had fieldwork done, further fieldwork done with my research assistant to find out why that was, the reasons actually had nothing to do with money. It turned out to be different circumstances that were gender related. So in the case of one girl, her brother assumed, Oh, she must be using this phone to speak with guys. And that's bad. So I'm going to have her you know, not have her on the phone. But pretty much after that initial six month period, a lot of the girls, a majority of them still continue to use this app. And so for me, it kind of pointed to two things, the study. Number one, it was a tool that was certainly underutilized in Kenya, because mobile phones, I think, to this day even remain banned on school grounds, I had to have special permission to do what I did from the government. But another thing that I noticed, even for myself - and I need to correct that, there's three things - so another thing that I noticed for myself is that parents are such a key component of this work. For me making sure that any kind of educational intervention really involves the parents as much as possible, was another key learning. And then number three, I would say is time. And so as I did ethnographic research, mobile ethnographic research, walking home with some of the girls being in their homes, observing their family life during the after school hours, it was clear that my God, we're creating interventions for for people who don't have much time to themselves, you know, starting the day at 5 or 6am, walking to school, cleaning up the school grounds, starting their classes, ending school, staying after school for after school activities, walking home, coming home to do care, work, cooking, or whatever. And one one of the girls that I worked with looked at me as I was in her home, she's like, Ronda, how can I ever get anything done? Like my mom's having to go do these errands to the store. And so by the time they get, you know, prepared to study, it's 10, 11, possibly even midnight. If they're lucky, they have electricity, they can continue on, but in the many cases that they do not, what then?

Susanne Hamscha  14:30 
Thank you so much for this, Ronda, and can I jump in right there and ask you if the digital divide has become more pronounced due to the COVID-19 pandemic? Or are there any positives that have come out of this health crisis in terms of access to technology?

Ronda Zelezny-Green  14:46 
In terms of awareness of the digital divide, it was a positive that people finally realize it is a huge problem. We do not have the ubiquity and access to meaningful connectivity and when I say meaningful connectivity, I mean it in the sense of the Alliance for Affordable Internet's definition, where you have the, you know, the device, you have a meaningful, good speed, you can afford it, and it's widely available.

And what we saw in the United States was that people were realizing, particularly for people in rural areas, we do not have ubiquitous access, despite being the richest, wealthiest country in the world, there were several instances that emerged during the pandemic of children going too fast, who driveways to sit and do homework, because that is where they could get internet access. Even in the UK, one of the things that we saw was that there were some children in Southwark Council in London - London! One of the richest places in the world - that could not access their school teaching because of a lack of a device or lack of meaningful connectivity. And the government was being sued about this. And so what we see happening is that with all of this, many governments were caught flat-footed and particularly in countries where, you know, the assumption is that, Oh, of course, everyone has this access. And so you saw, you know, telecom providers starting to give free connectivity. But some in the US decried this because the connectivity they were getting access to was not meaningful, because it was so slow, so as to not be helpful. Similarly, in the UK, you seen the all of the mobile network operators and BT as well, providing people with access to the internet. And so the scramble that we're seeing has been absolutely shameful for these wealthy countries. But it's been nice to see everywhere else, including in Sub Saharan Africa to see telco companies, for better or worse, also stepping up to zero rate educational content to zero rate things that are for the greater good, helping out health workers who may need access to the internet, and so forth.

Susanne Hamscha  17:03 
I'll have to make a hard cut right there, but I would still like to talk about the structural issues that underlie gender and racial inequality in higher education in the UK. Now, in November 2020, an inquiry by the government's Equality and Human Rights Commission, the EHRC, found that universities were failing to address 10s of 1000s of racist incidents every year. And as a consequence, Universities UK, which represents 140 institutions in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, called on their senior leaders to acknowledge and address problems of racism at their institutions, the understanding and awareness amongst staff and students of racism, racial microaggressions, white privilege and white allyship needed to be improved. That's what UUK said. And they also said that real action was necessary, not just words. The report "only" talks about race, but not the intersection of race and gender. So I would like to ask you what you think some real action steps universities could take would be to create an inclusive environment and guarantee gender and racial equality? If it's possible to guarantee this at all.

Ronda Zelezny-Green  18:19 
Sure. So I don't think guaranteeing it is possible, I think you can work to ensure things and to put in place the proper protections. Black people in the UK represent a very small minority, like, for example, I learned in a geography department about international development, where they were only two people of color who were actually there teaching. And that was shocking to me. And, you know, we we said things about this, like, how are you telling us about international development, and you don't have people reflecting here? Their voices are not here. And that's a problem. You know, throughout the UK, I mean, I think we can almost count on two hands, the number of black female full professors within the UK, maybe a bit more if you get down to lectures or at more more junior levels. And so in terms of what universities can do, I think number one, you know, again, that that famous saying, You can't be what you can't see, why aren't there more people in higher education, who are black, who are brown, were, you know, a member of a minoritized group? Why is that? You know, why do people feel threatened by having the presence of these other people in the universities? So I think we need to address that. Number two, I think we actually need to admit that there is a problem in higher education in the United Kingdom with racial relations. I can think of really no university that is doing focus, sustain work, to address the issues related to educational access and inequality. In fact, you know, Stormzy, the rapper had to donate money to I think it was Cambridge, in order for there to be a specific scholarship created so that black people could could have financial support to attend the University. You know, these are storied institutions that have, you know, a great deal of wealth. And you don't see that being funneled to the people who have historically not been able to benefit from these types of opportunities.

And so what can universities do to make these their their spaces less hostile? There needs to be actual focus work around this, what does this mean supporting your black and brown employees? Having serious ongoing training related to diversity, equity and inclusion. Doing systems reimagining. Heck, why aren't there funds to study racial inequalities in the UK? Maybe there are and I don't know about them. But given that the government itself only last year did a survey asking people about the different areas of racial inequality in the UK, it just seems to me that, you know, this is an idea whose time has come. I often say that in terms of racial relations, the UK is a few decades behind the US in terms of the types of conversations we're having, it seems to me that people only started to really recognize black people exist after this summer with the the vicious murder of George Floyd. And I think, you know, we need to do better, the wealth is there to be able to do it. My best advice to universities, including my own, is to stop making excuses to take more responsibility, to make change. The UK is going to suffer from not having EU students matriculate. But guess what, you could have more students of color matriculate right in your own backyard, if you made your university safe spaces for us to do so. And until that happens, you're not going to see many of us attending in the numbers that that should be there.

Susanne Hamscha  22:07 
It sounds like you would agree with Sara Ahmed, that diversity and inclusion at universities is very often not more than lip service.

Ronda Zelezny-Green  22:14 

That's right. And I feel very bad for my professional colleagues in the United Kingdom, because I know they've been called on, you know, the past six months to really contribute and to do all of these things. But then six months from now, where will we be? You know, I think it will be something that's a fleeting trend that people you know, are wanting to be keen to take in a proper stance on, but in many ways it will just be superficial.

Susanne Hamscha  22:44 

I know we could keep talking about these things forever, Ronda, but we've run out of time, I'm afraid. I always like to close with a personal and sort of forward-looking question. And I'd like to ask you about your transition from working as a teacher to working in tech, a transition, which many people I guess would still consider very unusual, and which may seem like a very difficult and daunting endeavor, but you succeeded at this. So I would like to ask you if you have a piece of advice for women who are trying to make a similar transition?

Ronda Zelezny-Green  23:18 

Sure. I would say that, number one, don't be afraid to make the leap. You know, I wasn't afraid of making that leap. I didn't know how exactly it was going to play out. But I was like, Well, you know, I think I'm smart enough to be able to do it. And so I did. And then I would also say that make sure you also identify women who can be sponsors or champions or mentors to you. In my case, I had two incredible women at the top of the tech field related to gender, and then also gender and policy. And so working with these two women, having them see their space for me at you know, high level events, having them refer me for opportunities, consultancies, jobs, and so forth was something that opened up doors for me that I would have probably never had been able to open myself. So that was huge. My first job in tech as a Telecommunications Research Analyst, I had no idea about the tech sector, but my mentor sponsor Sonia Jorge was like, well, you can write so let's see if you can write about telecoms and she she gave me a chance, you know, that I might not have gotten anywhere else. And that led to my starting my career. Finally, I'd like to say that when you make that decision, don't forget to help other people. I have encountered quite a few women, though not every woman, who actively tried to work against me, who don't try to help, who don't really want you to join them because they're afraid of their own territory as it is. And I'm not like that at all. I think, you know, one of the things I was proud of, there was a time in my career where one of my mentees was earning more than I did. And it was through, you know, the advice I have been giving her to accelerate her career. And so I feel like you know, you want to be successful and you don't want to be lonely at that success. There's room for everyone. So make sure, similar to what Michelle Obama said about Barack, you know, when you go through that door of opportunity, reach back and make sure you're helping others through that door. And so that those are my three pieces of advice for people who want to make that transition. Never forget where you came from.

Susanne Hamscha  25:42 

This podcast has taken us from the US to the UK and Kenya. Wherever we look, access to education - school education and higher education - is the key to achieving gender and racial equality. Ronda's work and research shows how technology can improve access to education and contribute to the eradication of structural inequalities. Only time will tell if the digital divide will shrink or become more pronounced as we continue to navigate this pandemic. Thank you for listening to another episode of Fulbright Forward - A Diversity Podcast. Please join us again next time.