‘Technology is an essential component of gender equity’
Ensign, however, is also doing her part to bring about positive change. Driven by a calling to help every child to access quality education, she transitioned from politics to education, a sector in which she has been actively working to broaden higher education access to women – during the past few years in Africa, in particular.
Among other projects, she has been involved in efforts to provide education to women in Nigeria who had been kidnapped by Islamist terror group Boko Haram, but were released or escaped.
In September 2022, Ensign became the vice-chancellor of the United States International University-Africa (USIU-Africa) in Kenya, a university that has dual accreditation in the US.
University World News spoke to her about gender equality, especially equal access to education, healthcare and employment, in a digital and technological context.
UWN: What does the idea of power mean to you?
ME: Power gives you the ability to work for the common good.
UWN: Do you consider yourself to be a powerful woman? How?
ME: I am privileged to influence the lives of students here in Kenya, and previously in other countries, to work with world-class faculty, and to conduct research that illuminates the truth and may have a positive impact on policy, improving lives and the future.
We have approximately 6,000 students from over 60 countries. Previously, I was the president of the American University of Nigeria for eight years, as well as the President of Dickinson College, established in 1783, the first university established after America became an independent country.
UWN: What do you think is your biggest achievement as a university leader?
ME: I think the most difficult challenge was what we faced in Nigeria when Boko Haram began to terrorise the population in our region. Our students and faculty rallied to support the 300,000 refugees who came to our town, fed them and educated many, using technology in very innovative ways.
We launched something called TELA – Technology-Enhanced Education for All – funded by the US, which educated more than 25,000 young people.
We also brought over 200 of the Chibok women who had been captured by Boko Haram, and either escaped or were released, to the university, for world-class education. A number have graduated, and this shows that education is not only the foundation of a society, but can fundamentally change the lives of the most vulnerable, especially girls and women.
I am also proud of the USIU-Africa’s partnership with the Mastercard Foundation, which is educating and nurturing 1,000 African students. Many of these students are refugees and students with disabilities and we are very proud of all of them.
This work started before I arrived, but we recently received additional funding to develop 15 online programmes that will be offered to students and universities throughout the continent.
UWN: What challenges have you encountered as a vice-chancellor with USIU so far and how have you handled them?
ME: The first challenge was to refocus our strategic plan to ensure we are aligned with all the new challenges we are facing, not only in Kenya but worldwide. I am so pleased that it was a community effort; students, faculty and staff all had the opportunity to participate in this important undertaking.
This collaboration is an essential part of community-building and as a result of this, I think our new strategic plan is most responsive to the new and very challenging world our students live in.
We educate them to ensure that they acquire knowledge, skills, courage, and confidence to solve complex global challenges. I am confident that the students from over 60 countries here at USIU-A are the future leaders of the countries where they come from.
UWN: Earlier this year, the International Women’s Day theme was ‘DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality’. What comes to your mind when you hear that theme?
ME: Gender equity is not only a basic human right, it is a smart development strategy and it also includes equality in digital access.
It is also very clear that access to technology is an essential component of gender equity and sustainable development.
Unfortunately, data from the International Telecommunication Union shows that, worldwide, 66% of women did not even have access to the internet in 2022. This is an issue particularly in Africa and an enormous challenge.
Education, health, and financial access are increasingly digital, and not having the skills or access will only increase gender inequity. Access to digital technologies is now a basic human right.
UWN: Do you think digital innovation and technology can champion gender equality?
ME: Access to technology can change individual lives and societies very quickly. It’s, therefore, imperative for every country to provide technology tools to their citizens.
We are living in a time of rapid technological change and those societies that do not innovate and adapt will find it harder to innovate, educate their citizens, reduce poverty and grow their economies.
UWN: What do you think universities and other institutions of higher learning should do to foster gender equality through innovation and technology?
ME: Universities need to ensure inclusivity for all students. This means having more female faculty as role models and mentors.
There is also a need to ensure that girls are encouraged and mentored to study STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and STEAM (incorporating art, creativity and design as well) subjects when they are young and while still in both primary and secondary schools. (STEAM Education is an approach to teaching and learning that combines science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics to guide student inquiry, discussion and problem-solving).
UWN: Have you ever encountered a situation in which you felt women lagged in innovation and technology?
ME: I experienced this when I was looking for a job after completing my PhD, in the early 1990s. My dissertation used artificial intelligence [AI]-based methodologies, obviously at the beginning of this field.
When I was interviewed at a major American university for a faculty job, I was told that AI was really not a serious topic and that I would be hired if I focused on other areas! I have often asked myself if a male candidate would have been told the same thing.
Additionally, there are many structural barriers to equality for women in many countries and regions of the world. The data speak for themselves – the majority living in poverty as well as facing violence and discrimination around the world are girls and women. The biases against girls and women in technology are many, and some are due to a lack of mentors, stereotypes, unequal pay, and many other factors.
A recent report from the Pew Research Center in the US documented that, “50% of women said they had experienced gender discrimination at work, while only 19% of men said the same”. A 2020 report from Statista found that women are only 28%-42% of the total workforce at the five big tech giants – Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft. Let’s ask ourselves what these data mean, and what they tell us about society.
UWN: What message do you have for female students pursuing innovation and technology courses across Africa?
ME: Never, ever give up. Believe in yourself, support each other and, when you become successful, be sure to mentor those who are coming after you.
UWN: What inspires you as a vice-chancellor?
ME: These words about what education can do were written by one of the Chibok women who escaped from Boko Haram. These words inspire me every day. “Education gives me the wings to fly, the power to fight, and the voice to speak”. I want every child in the world to feel that way about their education and the future.