Interviews, North America

Dr. Jenny Grant Rankin – Fulbright Specialist at U.S. Department of State and Lecturer

I was aware I could do my job as a woman in tech, but it would have been so much easier if a man like this also knew that women belong in tech, not just answering the phones but leading projects and designing innovations. We need to pursue boys as much as girls when we push our gender equity agenda.

Jenny Grant Rankin, Ph.D. is a Fulbright Specialist and Mensan with two doctorates who has delivered approximately 200 keynotes and lectures (such as for University of Cambridge, TED, and national research associations). She has written 11 books and over 140 papers and articles, enjoyed a media spotlight, and been honored by the U.S. White House for her work.

In a nutshell, tell us a bit about your job, and what role technology plays in it?

I write books (my 11th comes out in a couple of months) and do a ton of public speaking, so I use technology extensively: to research, write, craft slides, build handouts and resources, and more. Since my biggest research area is helping people (academics, educators, and others) share their ideas with wider audiences and more effectively so their findings can benefit more lives, I also use tools like social media to share information that can help others in those endeavors.

Where did your professional journey start and how did you get to where you are now?

I took a circuitous route, and I find that the random things one learns (in terms of acquired knowledge but also in terms of better knowing one’s passions) along the way contribute to what I do now. My undergraduate degree is a B.A. in Art Studio, and my career began as a junior high school English teacher in which I developed a fascination with the best ways to present information (including data) while serving as the technology coordinator and integrating tech.

When we interact with technology extensively, this interaction helps to shape shifts in our brains.

This led to other roles in public education where I got to advance that passion: teacher on special assignment (like an instructional coach for my colleagues), assistant principal, district administrator, and chief education & research officer of an educational technology company. I stepped out of that last role to write books and make most of my money public speaking (delivering conference keynotes and plenaries, lecturing at universities like University of Cambridge, training at school districts and government agencies, etc.). In every role I have relied on technology extensively, and many of my books relate to how to use technology to better visualize data and communicate information.

What is the greatest transformation in technology you’ve witnessed in your career?

The greatest transformation I have witnessed is (due to our increased reliance on technology) the degree to which technology is now changing the way our brains develop, and thus how we think and act. Though most brain development occurs in our younger years, our brains continue to grow and change our entire lives, even in our elderly years. For example, scientists recently found thousands of new neurons in the dentate gyrus (a part of the brain where memories are encoded) of adults up to their 90s.

When we interact with technology extensively, this interaction helps to shape shifts in our brains. For example, older adults are likely to draw on memory when they encounter something new (to consider anything similar they have seen before), whereas kids and younger adults (who have grown up in environments more tech-heavy than mechanics-heavy) are more likely to immediately interact with the new scenario and try out different things to see what happens. One major area of tech-related change involves social skills. Researchers have found a rise in narcissism amongst today’s teens (attributed to social media use) and poorer ability to read emotions from facial expressions (attributed to reduced face-to-face time). The same problems can be seen in adults but develops more slowly. Even so, those who posted many photos and selfies on social media experienced a 25% increase in narcissistic traits over a 4-month period.

When you think about ‘women’ and ‘technology’ what comes to your mind first?

Overcoming obstacles and stereotypes.

We always hear there are not enough women working in Tech. What needs to happen to change that, which steps should be done to achieve gender equality in tech?

Change-makers have been pushing to expose more girls to tech opportunities, female tech mentors, and female tech images (like in the media). All of those endeavors are crucial, but we can’t forget that it is just as important that we are also exposing boys to these same paradigms. Otherwise women will continue to enter the workforce eager to be involved in a playing field where men continue to enforce the same obstacles we are used to (many due to blind bias).

For example, when I was chief education and research officer of an ed-tech company, a position for which I was highly qualified, a fellow company leader explained to me that the only other female leader they had employed in the past “only worked out because she knew her place. Your problem,” he said, “is that you don’t know your place.” I surpassed this man in education and expertise in the task I was hired to perform, so the obstacles he continually (and unnecessarily) put in my way as I performed my job meant the product suffered.

I would expose girls to a variety of types of tech roles. We need more female coders, but tech does not have to involve coding. Some girls who do not feel passion for programming should have chances to work in other roles in tech industries

I was aware I could do my job as a woman in tech, but it would have been so much easier if a man like this also knew that women belong in tech, not just answering the phones but leading projects and designing innovations. We need to pursue boys as much as girls when we push our gender equity agenda.

If you had 1 Million € to invest in women, what would you do?

I would expose girls to a variety of types of tech roles. We need more female coders, but tech does not have to involve coding. Some girls who do not feel passion for programming should have chances to work in other roles in tech industries, or to connect with a product design so passionately that they are then driven to code to build it, only to learn along the way that coding is worth the time investment to build what they dreamed. In other words, if coding doesn’t initially ignite tech passion in a girl, then we shouldn’t stop there.

What and who were the influencers of who you are today?

My father always had so much enthusiasm for anything I did. He always got so excited about my dreams, creations, and ideas, and his consistent belief that I could do anything helped me to imagine I could do anything, too.

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your 14-year-old self?

Don’t try so hard to please people. Just be your enthusiastic, love-filled self and “do your thing” without worrying about what naysayers think or say.

Jenny Grant Rankin, Ph.D. is a Fulbright Specialist and Mensan with two doctorates who has delivered approximately 200 keynotes and lectures (such as for University of Cambridge, TED, and national research associations). She has written 11 books and over 140 papers and articles, enjoyed a media spotlight, and been honored by the U.S. White House for her work.

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