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Outstanding graduate explores role of technology in gender-based violence

Toby Shulruff, an outstanding graduate with a master's degree in public interest technology, stands in front of a green, forest background.

Toby Shulruff got her master's degree online in public interest technology after her work experience led her to question the function and future outcomes of technology in society as it is currently used.

November 29, 2022

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2022 graduates.

Toby Shulruff doesn’t consider herself the “typical” college student, although she’s not quite sure if such a thing exists.

She earned her bachelor's degree from The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, about 25 years ago. She worked in the professional world for several years before coming back to school with a goal of obtaining a master's degree in public interest technology from the School for the Future of Innovation in Society within the College of Global Futures at Arizona State University.

“I began working at the intersection of technology and gender-based violence about 20 years ago,” Shulruff said. “I was seeing the harms and risks of technology play out in individual people’s lives and communities, but at the same time, I — and so many others in society — also have a great love of technology.” 

This inspired Shulruff to explore how technology could be used as a vehicle for positive change instead of contributing to the harmful practices she was seeing in regard to gender violence. Shulruff graduated in summer 2022 and will continue her work at the intersection of technology and gender-based violence but also take on a new project that looks at the privacy and social justice impacts of “green and digital transitions.” 

It’s impactful work, and Shulruff said that the holistic and supportive environment at ASU made coming back to school at this point in her life possible. 

“I have two kids and a pretty busy life even without the addition of school,” Shulruff said. “I’m thankful that there are resources and flexibility to this program, because it really became a benefit, and not a barrier, to my life.”  

Question: What inspired you to choose your major? 

Answer: While I was working in the professional scene with gender-based violence and technology, I started to really step back and say, "What is it about how technology has been designed that has led us to this point? What is it about the technology that we've inherited from the past 100, 150 years of decisions that have created these conditions in which instead of helping, technology is largely accelerating and amplifying these kinds of harms? And can it be different?" So I was looking for a place where other people were asking similar questions and where I could be guided by faculty who shared similar interests. This new public interest technology program opened up, and I realized that was really a very close fit. 

Q: You mentioned that this program became “a benefit, and not a barrier” in terms of getting your education while also raising a family. Can you elaborate? 

A: I had a largely online experience, but I’d come to the school in person for a few things here and there. And, you know, I brought one or the other kid with me to a number of meetings with other students and with faculty, and they were welcome and included and even inspired in those meetings. It was such a cool way to inspire them that a university environment is a way to learn. They wanted the ASU swag because it is such a fun community to participate in. The flexibility of the program made it workable, and the interactions my kids had while I’ve been enrolled made it really special. 

Q: As you look back at your time as a student, what is something you’re exceptionally proud of? 

A: My applied project focused on looking at trust and safety work in technology companies. Trust and safety workers are the ones who would respond to posts that are flagged as hateful posts or disinformation. They’re the ones who would respond to that content once it’s flagged, who would build the systems that automatically flag and address that content, who would find users who were creating multiple different accounts to hide their tracks but continue their behavior. So these workers have really started responding to those things and cleaning up the problem afterwards, but over time, they’ve been shifting towards trying to be more proactive. These workers are also now getting into those design spaces to proactively counteract the issues that could go wrong with technology before it does. I was able to research and present on that field, and I’m quite proud of that.  

Q: If you had unlimited resources to address just one problem that exists in your field, what problem would you focus your attention on? 

A: I would say the heart of this question of who exactly gets to design the technology we use is really key. So I would see the process open up for more voices far earlier in the process of the design of technology and decision-making about technology. I think including more people and perspectives earlier would benefit the field tremendously. 

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