Meeting the world, the work, and colleagues in new ways: Working emergently in sustaining an online learning community


In early 2020, Gender at Work (G@W) was invited by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), to partner in a project to support science granting councils (SGCs) across the African continent, to advance gender transformation in relation to science, technology and innovation (STI).

Taking place between 2020-2023 and funded by the Canadian International Development Research Council (IDRC), the project was set up “to create more equal spaces in science, where knowledge production and research are carried out more equitably (more diverse researchers, more inclusive research methods, greater valuing of different ways of knowing) and that the results of the research have an impact on transforming exclusionary norms in the communities”, according to Dr. Ingrid Lynch, Senior Research Specialist at the HSRC and Principal Investigator for the project.

HSRC approached G@W to partner on the project, as they viewed G@W’s approach to addressing organisational culture as relevant to the Science Granting Councils Initiative aims. G@W uses an adaptation of Ken Wilber’s integral model to address issues of gender and inclusivity at both personal and collective levels. One way we do this is through the Gender Action Learning (GAL) methodology, which brings gender and inclusivity to life for participants in concrete, recognisable ways.

The GAL process offers a facilitated learning and reflective space for people in organisations to reflect on, and engage with, contextually relevant and responsive ways of addressing gender inequality, and inclusivity issues. GALs are designed to engage participants as self-directed learners and peers, rooted in a reflective social practice, which draws on feminist thinking, peer learning, action learning and participatory methodologies.

This blog post – along with the first and second pieces of this series – offers key insights by members of the G@W facilitation team that worked with the science granting councils in the HSRC project. The piece below, in particular, was written by Eleanor du Plooyand is also available in Portuguese and French.

‘Suddenly there are new questions, desires, thoughts, capabilities and instigations that are possible that would not have been possible without this break in transmission’ – Bayo Akomolafe

The work of exploring how the online space could be used to support a Gender Action Learning (GAL) process involving science granting councils (SGCs) across the African continent, without the opportunity to travel and meet one another, began as an experiment. It also began with this question. ‘What will it take to nurture an intimate, active, engaged, cross-cohort online learning community’?

Some months into the thick of the uncertainty brought by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Gender at Work (G@W) team working on the Gender and Inclusivity Project with the SGCs, grappled with the challenge of facilitating a GAL process completely online. This would be a first for the whole team. How on earth were we going to facilitate a process online that was so heavily dependent on in-person connection and peer exchange grounded in relationality? What would it mean to come together as a learning community at this time of uncertainty, especially virtually? What happens when we prioritise people and connection over old rules and unwritten or written policies, and when we guard against replicating old, staid ways where power-over others, as opposed to power-with others, is used?

The intention for the online learning community was to be a supportive, intimate space where change team members from all the science granting councils participating in the GAL process could build on the practice of questioning, reflecting and learning with curiosity, not only about their own learning but also that of peers, in a rapidly changing world. We intended to do this in a way where change team members would feel supported by the larger group of SGCs when participating in the learning community’s activities.

Implied in the initial, core framing question for the online learning community was the idea of having fun, play and informality to enable connection and space for honest engagement, in asking questions and reflecting together. The online learning community had three main components: monthly online forums, an online learning hub and Feminars[1] . A key element of the GAL process is the accompaniment of an organisation’s change team members by G@W facilitators. Insights and reflections emerging from these accompaniment conversations with change teams informed our thinking on the design and focus of the monthly meetings. 

The monthly online forums were initially conceptualised as a semi-structured ‘in-between space’, where participants could meet collectively online once a month. The intention was to invite participants to connect across their various science granting councils to share insights, ask and respond to learning questions and create together, with some support from facilitators. Additionally, these monthly meetings were intended to complement both the overall GAL accompaniment process and offer possibilities for deepening enquiry into what it would take for SGCs to more fully develop and implement policy commitments around gender and inclusivity. The underlying hypothesis here was that if we were able to curate and hold regular monthly meetings, we would strengthen the ‘glue’ reinforcing the peer-learning community, by inspiring participants to collectively engage with one another and discuss any issues arising for them in the GAL process.

Leaning over the edge

As the facilitation team grappled with the challenge of creating and holding a process that invited connection and building relationships online, we were embarking on a similar process within our facilitation team. It felt to me like I was meeting the world, this work and my colleagues in new ways. I was curious about how we’d collectively shape our ways of working and being together to reflect our feminist values, in forming meaningful relationships amongst ourselves as a team. And just as the participants were involved in their own experiments, as a facilitation team we were also exploring potential learning questions, testing hypotheses and playing with what was possible in our virtual gatherings. 

This ‘break in transmission’ brought by the pandemic, nudged the team away from ‘regular programming’. Everything needed to be reframed to accommodate this new reality and with that came new questions, challenges and insights. I often felt like I was standing on the ledge of my developmental edge and more often than not, I’d be nudged over the edge and into the deep end. But there, in the deep end, I wasn’t splashing around alone. The team was right there with me, showing me how to remain afloat.

In many ways, as a team we were practising a type of being and working together, centred on relationship work, which we hoped would translate into our engagement with participants online. There was therefore a dual process at play where, as much as we were trying to create an intimate and engaged online learning community, we were doing the same thing as a newly formed team of practitioners representing a diversity of experiences, lived realities and demographics. Because of this, I often found myself interrogating my own practice, questioning my assumptions and reflecting on the personal change that I had to carefully foster in order to do this work in a meaningful way. This was no easy feat and many times what was reflected in the mirror I was holding up, made me want to look away. I was experiencing in a real way, the discomfort that comes from connecting the personal to the political, and the imperative of walking the talk, if I wanted to work toward effecting change. I had to show up to this work in the way that we were encouraging participants to show up. By bringing our whole selves into the learning space, we were better able to create a less formal, more relaxed space that invited co-creation and some play.

And just as I was meeting the world, this work and colleagues in a new way, so too were the people we were working with. The online forums opened up an opportunity for participants to identify the socially accepted but false public/private dichotomy. A number of them have noted that being involved in this project has prompted them to think about gender relations in their personal spaces, family lives and in the office, and not just as a ‘general issue’ that impacts all aspects of life.

Working emergently in an ever-changing world

Working online comes with its own set of challenges and stresses and any plan that we came up with had to have a plan B, C and sometimes even a D. The facilitation team spent many hours thinking, reflecting, learning, and laughing together. This deliberate and conscious shaping of our practice enabled us to face the challenges particular to working online. Will everyone have a strong enough internet connection to join the call? Do people have a place from where they can dial in with minimal noise and distraction? Are people familiar with the online tools we want to use? Is there someone behind the screen when the video is off? The design of the monthly meetings was shaped by open space principles, offering participants an opportunity to raise and discuss the issues that were alive for them in the GAL process.  Each time, we had to re-think what we had to do in response to how many people arrived on the day, what they said in the opening exercise and what we had picked up from the accompaniment sessions. I had to learn (and I’m still learning!) how to operate with a lot of uncertainty and how to respond to situations that we couldn’t control or plan for.

Working emergently therefore meant observing the ways complex systems and patterns arise out of relatively simple interactions. The opportunity for participants to unpack and explore real-life scenarios with peers who were immersed in the same process, in many ways kept the inquiry about gender transformation in science, technology and innovation alive. This was the case not only amongst them, but for ourselves as practitioners too. Learning together and creating together go hand-in-hand. As participants communicated, interacted and collaborated, they accessed insights while knowledge and understanding were distributed across the learning community, potentially achieving ‘outcomes’ that might otherwise be difficult had they been working on their own. The online support offered science granting council members a space to learn to adapt in real time, in conversation with their peers, and to apply insights as they moved forward in the learning process.


We are relational beings by nature. We can communicate our experience, engage with others, and make meaning relationally. Our capacity for mutual understanding has been fundamental to our evolutionary survival. This process has highlighted for me that building connection and meaningful relationships across the virtual space is possible. This sentiment was shared and expressed by one participant at our first in-person meeting after having worked exclusively online for nearly two years,

Throughout this experience I am learning to trust the process. Sometimes I had doubts, due to the remote format, but when we met, I saw unbelievable synergy between us. We just have to trust the process when there is an intention and we have to be patient enough to see the fruits of what we are seeding (Council Member, Peer Learning 3 meeting).

Relationship building is at the heart of feminist practice and challenges harmful patriarchal norms. This virtual GAL process has taught me that it is indeed possible to form meaningful connections and relationships with one another online. Not only is it possible, but it can be extremely fruitful and can empower individuals to co-create new ways of being that support one another and their common goal.

[1] We deliberately use the term ‘feminar’ to differentiate this format from a traditional webinar that is often dominated by input and where engagement with participants is limited to Q&A sessions.

Read the other two reflections from the series, also available in Portuguese & French: Khanysa E. Mabyeka’s Viviparous creatures that desire to lay eggsand Nina Benjamin’s Walking Alongside: A practice to transform unequal power relations.

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