When you start a programme at Oxford, you’re convinced you know what the hardest part will be. Surely, it will be the exams, you think. Oxford-level exams will be the toughest I’ve ever seen.
Or maybe it will be speaking up in class. How will I ever work up the courage to raise my hand and say something when I’m surrounded by a roomful of gifted minds who, I suspect, have already considered my simple idea but quickly moved on to more clever things?
Both of these things have been challenges, at least for me. Our cohort just finished the classwork for Module 3 (in November 2020) and, indeed, our assessments and class participation have made my heart race.
But I was in for a bit of a surprise. What’s been just as hard as the assessments was something I never anticipated.
It’s been hard to lose some of my classmates.
No, no, we don’t have a high mortality rate. Thank goodness, no! Covid-19 has been hard but, knock on wood, everyone that I know of is alive and well.
But our class has had a number of deferrals, mostly colleagues who were either concerned about or unable to travel, or simply people who wanted to return when the full, amazing in-class experience becomes possible again.
Losing these classmates has been so much harder on me than I ever would have expected. I didn’t realise that I’d become so delightfully attached to these smiling faces. I had no idea how much I’d look forward to being with these witty and warm people once every few months. Simply put, they inspire me. They model how to lead.
There’s another part to the story, which is deferrals that have been higher among women. At the start of the programme in February, pre-Covid, 45% of my cohort was female, which was lovely. But that number has dropped. Whereas approximately 1 in 8 of the men in our original cohort decided to defer, approximately 1 in 3 women made the same hard decision.
Those numbers might sound alarming, but they’re actually echoed in many organisations, not just at Oxford. McKinsey & Company just released its annual Women in the Workplace report for 2020. They found that 1 in 4 working women were considering either downshifting to work part time or leaving the workforce altogether. Working mothers are finding it especially hard. Two of the crucial support structures that previously enabled mothers to work full time and still bear most of the childcare responsibilities – namely school and childcare – have been disrupted.
The Oxford Executive Diploma in Organisational Leadership class of 2021 is lucky – they’re getting some truly incredible people next year. But how does our cohort, the class of 2020, cope with the loss?
I don’t know how the men are coping (sorry, guys!) but I can tell you what the women are doing. We started a Female Leaders Networking Group, or FLiNG, as I like to call it. I launched the group back in April, when I saw the first trickle of women deciding to defer. We meet once a month on those months when we don’t have class. We meet for an hour on Zoom, and all of the women from our class, even those who have deferred to next year, are invited.
Each meeting, we have a designated topic. Sometimes I suggest a topic and other times we vote on what to discuss. One month we talked about decision-making, each of us sharing a tough decision we’d made recently as well as a tough decision on the horizon. Another month we talked about what we’re most proud of in our work and where we each need help. In our most recent call, we discussed times when a superior has doubted our commitment to our work and how we responded.
The result? It’s subtle but strong. Our network hasn’t led any women who deferred to change their minds and suddenly re-enrol in the 2020 cohort, but that was never the goal.
The goal was to bring us together. We tell stories and we share what we’ve learned. We discuss how we’re each coping with the pandemic, though that’s never been the main focus. The focus, every time, is ‘here’s where I shine and here’s where I run into challenges’. We listen thoughtfully in the group and many of us connect one-on-one afterwards. We ask for the support we need and we give it in return.
Even though I am sad that I won’t get to graduate with all of the wonderful people that started the programme with me, I’m incredibly grateful for this silver lining. This Female Leaders Networking Group has been a gift. These women have turned what could have been the hardest part of the experience and said, ‘not on my watch. Let’s band together’.
Now if only the assessments were easier…