Leading and Learning in Pandemic Times — Steps towards more feminist and more decolonial research leadership practices
Written by GeDIA member Dorothea Kleine // Professor in the Digital Technologies, Data and Innovation (DDI) group at the Sheffield Institute for International Development, University of Sheffield.
GeDIA’s grant application wore its values on its sleeve and stated: “In digital literacy, Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D) and digital-related service design […] women are frequently seen as “hard-to-reach”, relatively passive participants who need special encouragement to be included. This network seeks to shift this paradigm and instead position women as active agents in their own digital futures. We unite leading women change makers, and their male allies, in a network […] to develop digital action research with women (alongside men) as central actors.”
When we were told, in February 2020, that we had been successful in the highly competitive GCRF funding process, we were elated to have the opportunity to work together, and yet concerned what the recent spread of Covid would mean for our project. We could not have foreseen just how challenging the grant period (1 May 2020- 31 Oct 2021) would be.
In the time that we have worked together, individual members of GeDIA have been affected by one or more of these circumstances: Covid care responsibilities, home schooling, own Covid and other illness, caring for the ill, worry, grief over loved ones lost, mental health challenges, political unrest, damaged economies, internet shutdowns, recovery from a racial abuse incident, from a homophobic abuse incident, sudden lockdowns, separation from loved ones, furlough, restructuring and job losses at organisations, sudden research funding withdrawal, expanding workloads, research interrupted, PhD commitments, job insecurity, fires on university campus (2), new ways of teaching, locked out of offices, reimagining our working lives and work spaces…
We sought to support each other throughout. All of us experienced the pandemic differently, and none of us would emerge from this time quite the same person we were in 2019. The pandemic is not over, and we have only begun to digest what has happened.
I experienced being Principal Investigator of GeDIA as both a leadership challenge and a great privilege. Here are some key lessons I take away:
(1) Centering women: GeDIA’s project architecture was designed to match our mission: We believe in seeing women as changemakers shaping digital futures, and the project centered women as leaders. All bigger strategic and financial decisions on the project were taken by a team of five female co-directors, of which three were from Africa and two from Europe. Of the five, three represented universities (Sheffield (UK), Makerere (Uganda), University of Cape Town (South Africa)), and two represented partners (Asikana Network for Women in IT, Zambia) and Oxfam (UK)). All three themes were co-led, with at least one woman in each set of theme leads.
(2) The power of We: GeDIA’s project architecture meant that there was no way a PI made decisions, alone, that would apply for the whole group. I have a personal preference for consultative leadership and participatory approaches anyway, but in Covid-times, this was simply the only responsible way. Our networks stretched across Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Zambia, South Africa, Sweden, and the UK, each with radically different pandemic timelines and with GeDIA members in different situations. All decisions — including questions of individual team members checking out and then in again for personal reasons, or setting deadlines appropriately — had to be calibrated very carefully. Collective intelligence helped get more of these decisions right. With a no-cost extension of six months from the funder (UKRI’s Global Challenges Research Fund), GeDIA did successfully conclude all its deliverables, and collectively we did so in a way that made it clear no deliverable was worth putting undue pressure on colleagues amid personal struggles in a global pandemic.
(3) Making space for male allies: GeDIA as a project is committed to ensuring women (and non-binary people) have an appropriate say in the digital futures which are currently being imagined, designed, offered, enforced, and researched. From this vantage point, it was appropriate and refreshing to work with a group led by five female co-directors and with a majority of female network participants. This was an experiment, an interim utopia on a way to a gender-balanced world. We invited male allies from the start to be part of the journey, and man did they come through for us. From our Project Manager (minutes, photos, website administration, design, organizational work, involved in management) to our Theme Co-leads (e.g. building a bridge to the amazing Data Science Africa community and encouraging them to run this year with the theme of “Women in IT”), our male allies acted like feminists, even though often they acknowledged that they did not know what the right terminology, the right gender theory etc. was. I will take that every single day. Our male colleagues took the same amount of airtime as others on our calls, gave credit, volunteered for some of the unglamorous tasks, showed vulnerability, admitted uncertainty, and demonstrated a desire to learn. In a gender-just future all people should be able to live the life they themselves have reason to value, to not be limited by unhelpful notions of masculinity and femininity. There lies the real utopia.
(4) Building trust through continuity of encounter: In the original grant application, we had envisioned two workshops, one in Zambia and one in Uganda, where these amazing researchers and partners would have come together — the encounter in real life would have been electrifying and profound. As month after month passed, it became clear that the Covid situation would not allow for any of that. Instead, what we did have were eight half-day workshops online, with different participatory elements, four hosted from Zambia and four from Uganda, spread across the months. This allowed us more deliberation time to digest the literature reviews we had commissioned, shape our research agenda, and also ask more questions about how knowledge is generated. It also meant that when different members of the network were in lockdown, among their steady online contacts were also the team from GeDIA, who every 1-2 months would come together. When it came to envisioning future collaborations, drawing on these continuous encounters had created a sense of trust.
(5) Bringing your whole self to the research: This is an old feminist demand, and for me it was omnipresent in GeDIA. The paradox was that while our meetings were mediated and seemingly disembodied, it was very clear that each of our researchers was also busy, as a whole embodied person, navigating their personal, family, friendship, and community commitments amid a global pandemic. The experiences differed tremendously. It was never more important to check-in with each other at the start of calls to hear how people were, to build in optional elements in workshops for sharing, about pets, family, weekends, and music. In the workshops we shared Zambian dance moves and Ugandan recipes in participatory ways. In GeDIA we sought to engage with each other as people first as an ethical imperative. Further I believe this made us better at our job as researchers.
(6) Working on decolonising our minds: Thankfully there are now many initiatives focusing on decolonising epistemologies, curricula, and structures (including at Sheffield university, co-lead by SIID). Corporate equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) initiatives have been embraced by some and criticised by others as not going far enough. In any case, we should ensure that such EDI, or decolonisation work does not rest on the unpaid volunteer labour of the very groups who have been, or continue to be, structurally disadvantaged. GeDIA paid for bespoke training and facilitation on “Decolonising our Research Practices” workshops run by African practitioners and scholars, helping make progress on this long journey of rethinking our positionality and our possible contribution in a future more decolonial, diverse, and equal landscape of knowledge production. I see this as a necessary and ongoing process and alongside other steps I will, on the capacity building side, be writing funding and time for it into project grant applications. The trust we had built, and the human vulnerability of each of us which had become visible, allowed people from very different positionalities (gender, age, culture, race, class, marital status, sexual orientation, care responsibilities, discipline, career stage etc.) to learn from each other, starting from the premise that we all have so much more to learn.
GeDIA will be with me long after its funded project period ends. These are early reflections, to be extended and revisited. I would like to end this piece by thanking everybody on the project for what they brought to it, and for what, collectively we helped to build. An extraordinary project in extraordinary times.