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Society & Culture

A PhD Student Giving Voice to the Voiceless in a Push for Gender Equity

By: Ben Seal

October 30, 2017

School of Education PhD student Leona Donaldson

Growing up in Japan’s patriarchal society, Leona Donaldson was told there were limits to what she could accomplish and the careers she could pursue. When she came to the United States, she experienced sexism, racism and discrimination based on her native language and socioeconomic status. The weight of it all leaned heavily on her. Now, as she works on a PhD in educational leadership in Drexel University’s School of Education, she’s determined to do everything she can to liberate young women from the restrictions she once felt and ensure they can see forward into a future of endless possibilities.

Donaldson, who came to Drexel last fall after a close friend told her about the strengths of the program and faculty, is studying gender imbalance in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) occupations. She wants to see diversity in professions where little exists now, so more people like her are able to follow their dreams.

“Racial and ethnic discrimination — and also discrimination based on parents’ educational backgrounds and gender and socioeconomic backgrounds and class and everything else — influences individuals’ educational achievement,” Donaldson said. “From what I’ve learned, we have to focus on giving more attention to marginalized people in order to make a more just society.”

In Japan, Donaldson said, an exceedingly small proportion of STEM jobs are held by women, in part because occupations are gendered. Engineering is considered a male job, while women are expected to serve as kindergarten teachers, in service industries or as flight attendants, for example.

When she was young, she was interested in math and science. In high school she was forced to choose between an academic track focused on either literature or math and science. She wanted to choose the latter, but the school’s culture engrained in her the sense that math and science were for boys — only a very small number of the students in that track were female. As a result, she chose the literature track. Following her passions seemed like a dream out of reach as long as she stayed in Japan.

“I had never imagined moving to the United States,” Donaldson said. “I was always thinking I’m going to be in Japan for the rest of my life. So when I was thinking about a future occupation, I couldn’t think about anything because I had never seen anyone who was female in math and science or working in the technology fields.”

As soon as she arrived at Drexel, after receiving a master’s in education from Portland State University and spending time as a high school Japanese teacher in Oregon, Donaldson threw her weight into making a difference for young women facing similar obstacles.

Donaldson got involved with a pedagogy training program that works with preschool teachers in the West Philadelphia Promise Zone to help them teach their students social and emotional competence — developing prosocial confidence helps students achieve better academically, she said. As a volunteer in Camp Play With Data, a program based in Drexel’s Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships that aims to turn college-bound, female high school students into data-savvy citizens ready for the technological world, she collaborated with professors from the College of Computing & Informatics, as well as Penny Hammrich, PhD, professor and associate dean of academic affairs and graduate studies in the School of Education. And at Women’s Campaign International, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit, she is program director for the Global Advocacy Leadership Series (GALS) program, running a weekly session on women’s empowerment for female students at First Philadelphia Preparatory Charter School. Lessons from notable guest speakers have covered topics such as public speaking, journalism, body positivity, leadership development, financial literacy and responsibility and community advocacy.

Donaldson’s strive to help others learn doesn’t stop there. She also teaches adults Japanese at the Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia, meaning that in just the second year of her PhD program she’s already engaged with students from preschool to adulthood.

Donaldson wants to be a professor down the road, with an eye on issues relating to social justice, gender and global education. Regardless of where she ends up, her work is all aimed in the same direction: improving educational experiences for people who might otherwise be disadvantaged.

“I want to give them a voice,” Donaldson said.