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Empowering and supporting women’s careers in 2020: must-watch advice on personal resilience, job-hunting, surviving redundancy and lessons in leadership through the pandemic

Women’s empowerment is very close to my heart, whether that be through increasing access to education for girls worldwide, or making strides towards gender equality in the workplace. As a committee member of the University of Exeter Alumnae Network for female graduates, a core part of our programme each year is organising talks and networking events which bring together inspiring female leaders (mostly alumnae of Exeter themselves) with aspiring Exeter graduates of all ages and professions.

Following the Covid-19 cancellation of our main annual reception this year, we jumped into action to produce a series of four virtual events instead, reacting to the challenges facing our alumnae and the news that the pandemic was disproportionately impacting women’s careers over men’s, and with that overturning decades of progress towards gender equality. All four events were inspiring, informative and motivating for our alumnae, and thanks to the greater accessibility of the online format, we reached a greater number of alumnae than ever before. All four can be watched on Youtube and here are the highlights to help you pick between them. Do feel free to share with your contacts, regardless of gender or alma mater, as many of the themes discussed and advice given are applicable to all.

1. Surviving and thriving in challenging circumstances

Acknowledging the increased stress and uncertainty of 2020 for most people, we asked executive coach Annie Coleman and explorer Anna Blackwell to discuss their lived experience and research into people’s resilience when faced with great stress or when taken out of their comfort zone. This includes how the brain reacts to stress hormones in different ways (ever wondered why feeling stressed leads to over-eating? The hormone cortisol is to blame) and how we can train ourselves to build up our resilience.

Annie’s top tips from her high-flying former career in investment banking include cognitive distraction, compassion mindfulness, helping others, visualisation and practice, while Anna spoke about her lessons from trips kayaking across Europe for 5 months or solo-trekking across the Arctic, which she consciously planned for personal growth. She’s since researched the impact of adventure challenges on personal resilience and recommend proactivity, purposeful acceptance, a mindset of intrinsic reward, and taking conscious steps to test and expand the boundaries of your comfort zone.

2. Navigating redundancy from consultation process to departure

With the economy in recession, the government’s furlough scheme changing and many industries facing widespread redundancies in 2020 (including many female-dominated customer-service industries), we invited HR professional Elizabeth Furlonger and digital analyst Steve Biggs (himself having experienced two redundancies) to speak to our alumnae. They explained how redundancy works, what your legal rights are if it happens to you, the importance of mindset and professionalism, the various options open to you, and how to leverage your network to kickstart your hunt for a new job. Redundancy is a far more complex and protracted process than I’d ever realised, and Elizabeth and Steve shared their tips for surviving it, in a video that is a must-see resource for anyone at risk of redundancy.

3. Job-hunting in a difficult economic climate 

I had the pleasure of chairing a panel with recruitment consultancy Director Anna Ross and social media consultant Maria Harding all about job-hunting, as the economic downturn has produced greater demand for fewer roles, making it all the more crucial to acquire this know-how, whether you’re fresh out of university or looking to changes roles/industries later in your career. We discussed the different strategies (large grad schemes vs. small businesses; direct applications vs recruitment agencies & temping), how to access the “hidden job market” (did you know that up to 70% of jobs are never advertised publicly?), how to network virtually and leverage networks like Linkedin. They also shared insights into what recruiters look for and how you can ensure your CV or application stands out from the crowd, as well as how to switch industry and sell your transferable skills. With more and more people wishing to change jobs and industries more often in their lifetimes than previous generations, Anna and Maria’s valuable advice really is relevant to all and I really enjoyed chairing the session.

4. Female leaders’ lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic

Increasing the visibility of successful and senior female leaders has always been an important objective of our committee and we consider the events we organise as a platform for our alumnae to identify relatable role models, who they can learn from and aspire to emulate in their own careers. So our final event of 2020 hosted banking MD Holly Villiers, hospitality CEO Abigail Tan and management consulting MD Claire Davies in conversation about the way they’ve led their respective organisations through the stress, uncertainty and furlough of 2020. They discussed the importance of authentic and empathetic leadership during crisis (a trait often attributed to women), as well as the positive leadership behaviours and lessons from the pandemic, which they’ll use to transform their workplaces and ways of working in future. They also discussed the fate of working women as a result of the pandemic, with acknowledgement that increased childcare responsibilities have had a huge impact on working mothers, while noting the positive shift in mindset now more leaders are open to flexible working patterns for both men and women, helping to level the playing field for both genders.


We hope you will enjoy, find helpful and take inspiration from the four events we’ve run in this turbulent year. In an age with less personal contact and face-to-face networking, virtual networks such as ours are a valuable forum for support, advice and motivation. I’d urge all female Exeter graduates to join our network here and we look forward to our next series of events around the corner in 2021!


A big thank you to all our speakers and to my fellow committee members for everyone’s efforts in pulling off these events: Georgie Treen (our Chair and the tech mastermind behind the events), Liz Butler, Penny Curtis and Dara Dhanowa.

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