Reflections of a Chair

by Hannah Gilbert (1993, Arabic and Islamic Studies) – 15 September 2023
Transitions have been a recurrent of Women's Network discussions during my time as part of the Steering Group, initially as Decade Representative and then as Chair. So, it feels apt to share some reflections as I pass the baton of Chair to Dr Kate Molesworth.

Hannah Gilbert

When I succeeded Robin Gorna, Founder Chair, in the autumn on 2020, it was the midst of the COVID pandemic. I was working part-time for a FinTech company and I had just submitted my MBA dissertation so I anticipated having more time to volunteer for the Women's Network.

The binding constraints and uncertainty of COVID provided opportunities to host online events and reach a geographically disparate audience. Attendees were able to listen in while making dinner or catch up and replay a talk later. While no substitute for in-person events, it was easier to schedule early evening online with speakers and a less onerous commitment to attend. We even used virtual networking software to run the 'Not the Milk Round' event for students to quiz alumnae about less conventional career paths!

The core of the Steering Group itself become tighter knit - an accelerated formation as out anecdotal circumstances reflected the uneven impacts of working from home and home-schooling on women. The engagement with the JCR and MCR members also deepened - possibly due to a diminished pool of alternative engagements! However, it has the positive outcome of more vocal and active JCR and MCR representation on the Steering Group. The Steering Group and wider Network has been enriched with greater intergenerational diversity at subsequent events.

I truly cherish the inter as well as intra-generational conversations and connections that I have made during my time on the Steering Group. It is humbling - as well as exciting - to hear MCR members talk about their research. I enjoyed sharing what insights I can from my own work experiences and life choices. These conversations have provided fresh perspectives on my own choices and interactions with work colleagues.

As we emerged from COVID, there was a renewed appreciation of in-person events. One of the first was the delayed celebration of 40 Years of Women at St John's in September 2021. With a considerable amount of contingency planning and collaboration between the Women's Network, The President's, Academic and Alumni Offices, we had a full programme of small group discussions, plenary talks and discussions followed by drinks and dinner. Alumnae with a range of academic and practitioner perspectives discussed themes including diverse notions of success, race and diversity and transition - and engaged audiences further enriched the conversations. The event was a fitting start to Professor Maggie Snowling's final year as President, as she has championed the women's contribution to College, past and present, throughout her time. From my vantage point, it seems that equality, diversity and inclusion are a much visible part of the College community and committees.

As well as regular anchor events, the September dinner, Not the Milk Round, Women's Leadership Programme and London drinks, we have run some talks on personal finance, careers in tech and sustainability so women can spark connections around themes that interest them, personally or professionally. Most recently, a lively discussion in the pub after Professor Myles Allen's talk on Net Zero at Gresham College.

My own connection to College has also deepened. I have a deeper appreciation of the complex challenges College faces maintaining the Inspire programme, enhancing the diversity of admissions, continuing the tutorial system and looking after an extensive, ageing, and energy-inefficient stock of architecturally important buildings.

So as a closing thought on what the Women's Network and College means to me, I return to words from environmental lawyer, Polly Higgin's about bright sparks that I shared at the 40 Years of Women event, "Like a multidimensional virtual electric circuit that connects up, down and sideways as well as through time and space, each of us is a spark - only each of our sparks do not disappear, instead each spark flows through the circuit. Each spark leaves a trail like a neon tail-light and each time we connect with other bright sparks, out lights burn even more brightly to ignite our pathways as we move forward." Dare to Great, Polly Higgins, 2020.

So farewell and see you at a College event soon!


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