Reflections of a President: 40 Years of Women event summary

by Hannah Gilbert (1993, Arabic) - Chair of the SJC Women's Network – 20 October 2021
After the disruption of the last 18 months, it was a real joy to meet, in person, to round off the year of celebrations for 40 years of women at St John's College.

Hannah GilbertThe sun was literally shining on us as more than 60 women from the MCR, SCR and every decade of alumnae gathered in Garden Quad for a day of reflection and discussion. We were also celebrating the sheer oomph that Professor Snowling, Maggie, has devoted to putting women on the agenda during her time as President. 

In my opening remarks I borrowed a metaphor from the late environmental lawyer, Polly Higgins. In her book "Dare to be Great" she describes a virtual electric circuit of connections. Every woman of St John's is a spark within the inter- and intra-generational circuit of our community, connecting with other bright sparks.

Professor Lina McDowell, Emeritus Research Fellow in Human Geography, whose research has focused on gender, employment, and migration provided some apposite opening remarks. Her perspective on the changing working lives of women over the decades and the starkly gendered aspects of COVID-19's impact on employment were reminders that much has changed, and yet much remains the same. I was particularly struck by Professor McDowell's observation that as women our aspirations and experiences can be painfully different to that of our own mothers. 

WN auditoriumThe morning sessions on transitions (motherhood, early academic careers, leadership) and diverse notions of success were held in small, discursive, participatory groups. Professor Zuzanna Olszewka, Dr Lucy Cragg and Dr Catherine Wheatley facilitated the session on early academic careers; Alex Bollen on motherhood; and Dr Kate Molesworth, Gillian Baxendine, Lizzie Lockett and Isobel Pinder on transitioning to leadership. In the diverse notions of success session, facilitated by Dr Louise Ashley and Natasha Wood, we explored the roots of our definitions of success in family, school, peers and wider social norms. A topic to explore further is the notion that women's broader set of responsibilities and networks can provide more resilience in the face of adversity such as a redundancy.

Women were invited to share: what they were most excited to share; what they will take away; and what remains unresolved. The resulting plenary session, chaired by Professor Zuzanna Olszewka, Fellow for Women, highlighted some common themes across the sessions: imposter syndrome; not needing to be perfect; the importance of saying no and careful choice of partner seemed to transcend themes. 

WN race sessionThe first of the afternoon sessions focused on Race and Diversity. Rasha Barrage, whose book Say no to Racism has just been published (and is available from Blackwell's with 15% off for all alumni), Tabassum Rasheed and Dr Mishka Sinha, provided academic, personal and practitioner views on race and diversity. Dr Sinha's observation that we become aware of our category when we are the other, the minority, was striking. Dr Sinha shared a TedTalk by Michael Kimmel on privilege which can be seen here.

WN President's sectionAs Professor Linda McDowell highlighted in her remarks, the Women's Network is one of many initiatives the President galvanised to foment greater equality and diversity. Professor Snowling's own reflections on her decade as President touched on many changes in College and remarkable women that have been part of the story from the creche to august Honorary Fellows. As well as the sound reminder to nurture our own wellbeing, I jotted down "Don't apologise; don't ruminate and don't procrastinate"! Advice I have taken to heart and implementation. 

May those new connections between bright sparks continue to illuminate new pathways and opportunities. 

In the conversations over lunch, dinner and in many of the panels there was much discussion of the situation in Afghanistan. I wanted to share this article from The Economist on the link between women's rights and prosperity across a wide range of countries following those exchanges. 


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