Partnership to advance gender equality, women's leadership in Armenia

April 1, 2013

Arizona State University is one of five universities in the United States selected to participate in the new Women’s Leadership Program announced March 21 by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and Higher Education for Development (HED).

Each university will partner with a higher education institution in Armenia, Paraguay, Rwanda or South Sudan to promote gender equality and female empowerment. (Official press release here.) Victor Agadjanian, Georganne ScheinerGillis, Mary Margaret Fonow, Steve Batalden Download Full Image

With funding from USAID totaling approximately $8.75 million, these critical higher education partnerships will promote and develop curricula and opportunities for women in business, agriculture and education in the targeted countries, thus supporting key national and local development goals aimed at fostering the advancement of women and girls. 

In addition to Arizona State, the partnering U.S. universities are Indiana University, Michigan State University, the University of Florida, and the University of California Los Angeles.

ASU’s component of the program, funded by a $1.3 million award to the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences' Melikian Center: Russian, Eurasian and East European Studies, leverages a decade of partnerships between ASU and Yerevan State University (YSU) in Armenia.

The award will establish a Center for Gender and Leadership Studies at YSU that will develop new curriculum in women and gender studies, promote career advancement for women university graduates, conduct outreach activities, and advance public policy research on issues related to gender equality and women’s leadership.

Over the course of the three-year partnership, eight YSU scholars in areas related to women’s studies will be in-residence in ASU's women and gender studies program within the School of Social Transformation to participate in courses and develop syllabi and action-oriented research goals. The scholars also will be engaged in courses in the School of Public Affairs. The first cohort of scholars will arrive for ASU's Fall 2013 semester.

ASU’s partnership director is Victor Agadjanian, the E.E. Guillot International Distinguished Professor in the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics. A speaker of Eastern Armenian, Agadjanian has done pioneering research on social change in the former Soviet Union – including rural Armenia – and serves on the graduate faculty for the gender studies doctoral program at ASU.

Mary Margaret Fonow, co-director, is a professor of women and gender studies, director of the School of Social Transformation, and an internationally recognized scholar on women’s leadership and labor issues.

Stephen Batalden, co-director, is the Melikian Center director and an authority on Eurasian cultural history, the newly independent states of Eurasia, and the religious and cultural history of modern Russia. 

Alexander Markarov, the YSU deputy vice rector and head of the YSU International Cooperation Office, has served as principal investigator on other ASU-YSU grant partnerships and will serve as YSU’s partnership director for this program. 

Batalden says that the partnership goals are very much inspired by the vision of former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for successful development, articulated in USAID’s Gender Equality and Female Empowerment policy released in March 2012.

“A hallmark of Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State was policies recognizing that long-term peace and prosperity around the world are possible only when women and men enjoy equal opportunity to reach their potential,” he notes. “Since being folded into the State Department, USAID’s new policies on gender equality and female empowerment emphasize building high-impact partnerships, harnessing innovation, and conducting rigorous program evaluation.

“In each of these regards, the partnership really is a made-for-ASU kind of effort, bringing a lot of innovation and cross-disciplinary expertise to the table," says Batalden.

In October, professors Agadjanian, Batalden and Fonow visited Yerevan State to conduct a needs assessment. The partnership leadership team convened at ASU in January, including Gohar Shahnazaryan, associate professor of sociology at YSU and founding director of the Women’s Resource Center of Armenia – the largest NGO serving young women in post-Soviet Armenia and an important community partner in the new grant project. Shahnazaryan was also recently named director of the new Center for Gender and Leadership Studies at YSU, which will celebrate its official launch on May 7.

“Gohar Shahnazaryan has done wonderful work to establish and grow this NGO, and we’re delighted she has taken on the center directorship at Yerevan State,” says Fonow. “They are doing important advocacy in Armenia and the region in educating, organizing and mobilizing people around gender issues and violence against women.

“Reducing gender-based inequities locally, nationally and internationally informs our scholarship and teaching in women and gender studies at ASU, and we appreciate that this partnership will also bring insights to our own faculty and students,” she notes.

More than a third of the partnership budget is allocated for institutional capacity building at YSU. With 1.1 million residents, the capital city of Yerevan is home to more than a third of Armenia’s population, but the partnership will also support efforts to expand women’s access to higher education and leadership mentoring in rural communities.

Agadjanian says Armenia is a good social laboratory in the region for developing innovative initiatives to benefit women economically, politically and socially.

“Though Armenia is a fairly traditional, patriarchal society, it is open enough to absorb new ideas, to try new social experiments, if you will," Agadjanian says.

“Like many post-Soviet societies, Armenia once saw quite a rapid advancement of women under the Soviet system, as women joined the labor force and pursued higher education on a large scale over a few decades," he says. "After Armenia's independence in 1991, women's participation in household and community decision-making has also been fueled by necessity. With many Armenian men having to migrate to Russia for employment, women are taking responsibility for leadership in their homes and communities.

“But these changes haven’t solved the fundamental problems of gender inequality,” he explains. “And, in many ways, they have only added a new burden to women as they’ve assumed additional roles beyond the household duties without conditions being created to balance the pursuit of family and professional goals.

“Our collaborators want to build on and complement this early impetus with new models of empowerment for women that are compatible with local traditions and culture – integrating what’s positive and constructive (Armenia’s constitution, for example, includes specific protections for family, motherhood and children) and taking that respect for family and motherhood to a new level, by creating an environment where women have a real choice about their lives and the same opportunities and rewards that men enjoy.

“Of course, you can’t really change women’s lives unless you change men,” Agadjanian emphasizes. “So this partnership will also be about working with men – raising awareness about gender equality and getting leaders in education and NGOs on board intellectually, psychologically and culturally about the benefits of working on women’s leadership and advancement issues.

“In the end,” says Agadjanian, “our comparative advantage as a university-based initiative is our ability to help build research-driven outreach and advocacy. The YSU faculty who come to ASU for training will gain the understanding and practical skills to go identify, study, analyze and produce recommendations and interventions based on robust research to address concrete problems facing their society.”

Maureen Roen

Editorial and communication coordinator, College of Integrative Sciences and Arts


Alum taps InnovationSpace for mobility product development, improvements

April 1, 2013

In 1999, when D.J. Todd graduated from ASU with a Bachelor of Science in Design in Industrial Design and a Bachelor of Science in Management he embarked on a career path that would circle the American West, from design firms in Boise, Idaho and San Diego, Calif., to graduate school to earn an MBA at San Diego State University. Little did he know then that he would double back to his hometown of Phoenix, to a job as vice president of marketing at Vantage Mobility International (VMI), located just 10 minutes from his alma mater.

In fall 2012, Todd made a second homecoming. He returned to ASU, not as a student, but as a consultant to InnovationSpace, a sustainable product-development program for undergraduate seniors in design, business and engineering created as a joint venture by the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, the W. P. Carey School of Business and the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. VMI specializes in converting minivans for use by people with mobility impairments. The company, however, is exploring new concepts for wheelchair users on the go that dramatically diverge from the standard product line. To help VMI probe the possibilities, Todd reached out to InnovationSpace whose mission is to teach students how to develop products that create market value and serve real societal needs with minimal impact on the environment. Together with volunteers from the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA), he has helped guide three student teams to develop product concepts that enhance independence, mobility and access for individuals in wheelchairs. From left to right: Eddie Urcadez, Kim Salem, Alban Shemsedini and Jen Zielinski Photo courtesy of Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts Download Full Image

“I initially contacted InnovationSpace because VMI was looking for potential sources of disruptive thinking,” Todd points out. “Because InnovationSpace students are not familiar with the restrictions, limitations and biases of our company and industry, they are able to think more freely about solving key customer problems. Their fresh perspective has the potential to unlock truly disruptive innovation.”

As the InnovationSpace students discovered, the field is flush with opportunity. Take wheelchairs, for example, which are largely considered a medical device rather than a personal means of locomotion. Despite the invention of new, lightweight materials, many wheelchairs still are clunky and institutional looking. And few fully serve the needs of their users, whether it’s incorporating new technologies for personal communication or health monitoring, providing handy storage options or expressing something as simple as a customized stylistic flair.

The three VMI-sponsored teams spent fall semester combing the internet for relevant books and journal articles and interviewing wheelchair users. And they conducted their own firsthand research. Some volunteered for the Phoenix-based organization River of Dreams that provides recreational opportunities for people with disabilities. In one activity, they rolled up their sleeves and headed to an ice arena to play a punishing round of sled hockey.

Others like Kim Salem, a visual communication design student and member of Team Link, logged long hours on campus in a wheelchair on loan from the PVA. “I was in it quite a bit because I liked going on adventures,” she says – and on some misadventures. Were it not for a helping hand from her teammate, electrical engineering student Alban Shemsedini, she may not have made it to the top of the steep ramp that separates the Design North and South Buildings on her maiden voyage in the chair. Later, she was nearly trapped in one of the buildings’ bathrooms while trying to execute a tricky three-point turn to escape. And she got a painful lesson about inadequate storage in wheelchairs after her cellphone slipped from her lap and fell to the ground. While trying to retrieve it, she rode over the device with one of the chair’s wheels. The cellphone survived but “it opened my eyes to what people in wheelchairs have to go through every day,” she observes with undisguised admiration.

After intensive research and ideation, each team exhibited three preliminary design concepts in an exhibition at the end of the fall 2012 semester. The students came up with a wide range of ideas from a sensor ring on shower heads that deflects water when temperatures become dangerously hot and smart cushions that incorporate programmed flexing throughout the day to prevent pressure sores to wheelchairs that “stand up” when users need to retrieve items out of easy reach. Team PACR even designed a concept for a chair that’s made out of recycled cardboard fibers. Strong, lightweight and ultra affordable, the chair folds to the size of a small suitcase when not in use, minimizing precious storage space in cars and vans. This spring semester each team is tasked with developing one of these product concepts in depth complete with a detailed product design, engineering prototype, business model and brand strategy.

If they’re successful, some designs won’t be visible at all. Team Link, for example, focused on the challenge of empowering the independence of wheelchair users. In the process, they entertained hundreds of ideas, most of them related to physical rehabilitation, wheelchair storage solutions and personal care. They finally settled on designing a healthier, more discreet and user-friendly catheter system. “One of the things associated with independence is having a job,” says engineering student Shemsedini. “If you need help going to the bathroom, it’s highly unlikely that you’re going to be able to find a job. So we thought that the catheter system would have the biggest impact on increasing independence.”

And as the team discovered, it’s also an area with tremendous room for improvement. As undergraduate business student Jen Zielinski points out, people who use intermittent catheters empty their bladders about six times each day. The one-time-use devices – and their packaging – are bulky and create lots of waste.

For Eddie Urcadez, an industrial design student, the project poses an interesting design challenge. “Most things are made to be seen,” he points out. “But we’re designing an object that needs to be discreet.”

Team Link has passed many long nights in the InnovationSpace studio combing the medical literature, studying human anatomy and discussing the pros and cons of hundreds of potential solutions. But for Urcadez, who wants to work in healthcare design after graduation, the late nights working with his team on the thorny problems has been worth it. “I see a lot of students nowadays who want to design electronic products that are meant to be mass consumed, like really hip, hot cellphones and TVs, things that get used and thrown away eventually. I’ve always thought that it would be really interesting to use industrial design for things that are usually glossed over.”

Shemsedini agrees. “Ever since I can remember,” he says, “I’ve always wanted my input in the world to be about making products that help people. The good thing about this group is that we all have, if not the same, then very similar goals. At the beginning of the year, we all said, ‘This is not just a class. We want to learn the process of making something that will help people.’”

Todd praises not only the students’ creative ideas but also the tenacity and thoroughness with which they approached the task of understanding the needs of people with physical disabilities. He first learned the importance of design research as an industrial design student at ASU and continues to devote long hours at his job to conducting surveys, focus groups and ethnographic research with customers and VMI dealers. “Wheelchair users have unique challenges and problems that 98 percent of the population cannot even fathom,” Todd observes. “I applaud the InnovationSpace students for identifying and tackling their critical issues.”

written by: Adelheid Fischer

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