By Kelsey Murrell
This week, 22 current women Rhodes Scholars gathered in Oxford to discuss their experiences of being women in the Rhodes and Oxford communities. They shared specific actions and policies that left them feeling excluded or unheard. They discussed what factors caused impostor syndrome, and explored the actions everyone in the community can take to make the Rhodes community a more inclusive and supportive place for everyone—especially women. This list grew from that discussion.
1. Don’t always be the first—or the only one—to speak.
“If you don’t speak first, you won’t be heard.” This quote captures the dynamic in the Rhodes and Oxford spaces including lectures, Rhodes house discussion groups, and Q&A sessions. This is a problem not only because women are less likely to be the first to speak in the group, but also because Scholars felt this dynamic leaves little room for thoughtfulness. One scholar cited a positive example within the Rhodes community. At a Bon Voyage Weekend discussion in D.C., participants were encouraged to listen carefully, pause and reflect, and then respond.
Scholars also stated that often the same few people—regularly, men—tend to dominate conversations. One Scholar spoke of having had a professor who gave everyone a post-it each time they participated in class. The goal was that everyone would leave the class with at least one post-it and that no one would leave with more than two or three.
2. Consider others before filling a role or space.
Rhodes Scholars, and indeed most Oxford students, are keen to be involved and to lead. However, Scholars expressed a desire that individuals would give more consideration to others before volunteering to fulfil leadership roles such as convening various Rhodes groups or serving as class representatives. Scholars stated that they often will not immediately volunteer for something, not because they lack the confidence to do so, but because they want to be sure that they are the best fit for the role. They also want to consider others who may feel strongly about the opportunity.
Scholars also stated that, often, the same few people fill many leadership roles. To be more inclusive, Scholars could consider whether others may want an opportunity to lead and whether having more diversity in the leadership in the community might be beneficial to everyone. One scholar put it simply, “Some people just take up a lot of space.” Scholars may want to consider whether doing so leaves room for others.
3. Reward a variety of models of success, leadership, and confidence.
Many Scholars felt that very narrow models of success, leadership and confidence are rewarded within the Rhodes and Oxford communities. One scholar said she did not want to have to speak over others or act before thinking an issue through completely in order to be successful. This would be counter to her values. However, this type of measured approach is often interpreted as a lack of confidence or ability to lead. Many felt that to be successful in Oxford or to lead meant to “take” power. One scholar said the community needs to stop talking to women about how to be more powerful and instead change their definition of what it means to be powerful.
4. Provide facilitator/moderator training.
Scholars feel that many spaces in Oxford and the Rhodes community are not as inclusive as they could be, and this may simply be because those who facilitate such spaces are unaware of the problem or unaware of how to remedy it. Scholars expressed that their community would benefit from receiving facilitation training. For example, one thing facilitators can do to be more inclusive to women in a mixed sex group is to call on a woman first; research shows this will make other women more likely to contribute. Many Scholars are more comfortable in a smaller discussion or one-on-one setting. Large group facilitators can build opportunities to break off into smaller groups or engage with those sitting next to them into the format.
5. Check in with incoming classes of Scholars.
Scholars who had older Scholars check in with them as they adjusted to Oxford felt more confident and supported. One scholar said, “Having someone who has been here a while say, ‘I felt that way, too, and here’s what I did’ really helps.”
6. Provide incoming Scholars with media training.
When asked about times that they struggled with insecurities or impostor syndrome, one scholar said she felt this way before she even arrived in Oxford due to the way she was characterized in the media. This prompted nearly everyone in the room to share their negative experiences of misrepresentation or even being attacked in the media following their election. To the extent that the Rhodes Trust or selection committees can prepare Scholars-elect for the media storm that often follows their election, they should. However, Scholars expressed that they would also appreciate media training in Oxford to ensure that similar experiences do not occur again.
7. Give Scholars greater control over their stories.
The process for creating scholar bios and publicity varies across constituencies. Scholars who were not able to write their own biographies sometimes felt misrepresented. Allowing Scholars to control their own biographies or representation whenever possible provides an opportunity for Scholars to regain control over their own stories.
8. Encourage and affirm each other.
Research shows that recognition and affirmation are important for leadership development, particularly among women. This is especially true during periods of transition or liminality which many Scholars experience in Oxford. When asked what has helped them overcome sexist behaviour from others or insecurities and fears, many Scholars cited times that friends or mentors built them up and affirmed their strengths.
9. Challenge and push each other.
Others cited times that a friend, co-worker, or mentor pushed them to own their accomplishments or qualifications. One scholar’s mentor asked her to consider what she would apply for in three years time when she had more experience and qualifications. Then her mentor said, “Okay, that’s probably where you are now.”
10. Strive to make meaningful connections.
Oxford and the Rhodes community are full of opportunities to network. However, this can sometimes create an environment in which it is difficult to make deep, meaningful connections. One scholar wished that more often people would “not just talk about what we are doing, but how we are doing.”
11. Provide more opportunities for organic mentorships to form.
One scholar said, “I miss older people in my life.” Nearly everyone in the room indicated that they have struggled to find mentors during their time in Oxford. One thing the Rhodes community—and Oxford more widely—can do is to provide more opportunities for mentorships to form organically. Some examples involved more events with opportunities to interact older people or professors hosting more open office hours during which students can drop in to talk.
The image is by Kaihsu and is shared under a Gnu Free Documentation License.