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by Se-shauna Wheatle
29th April 2022

Se-shauna-WheatleOn International Women’s Day we launched a series of articles to celebrate our female authors and editors: Women in academia and practice. We look at their work and the challenges they have faced, and hear their thoughts about obstacles to gender equality.

Dr Se-shauna Wheatle is Associate Professor in Law at Durham Law School, Durham University.

 

What do you do and how did you get there?

I’m an Associate Professor in Law at Durham Law School. My research interests lie within comparative constitutional law, UK constitutional law, common law constitutionalism, constitutional principles and Commonwealth Caribbean human rights. Alongside my research, I teach UK constitutional law and comparative constitutional law.

My journey to legal academia started with an undergraduate law degree at the University of the West Indies, in Jamaica and Barbados. I then qualified to practise law in the Commonwealth Caribbean before beginning postgraduate studies. I did a Bachelor of Civil Law (BCL) and then a Doctor of Philosophy in Law at Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship. Towards the end of my doctorate I taught at Exeter College, Oxford. Then at the end of my studies, I worked as a Research Associate in Law at Durham Law School, before securing a lectureship at Durham.

 

What challenges have you faced?

My academic life has been challenging due to periods of overwork and an unhealthy work–life balance. The pressure to produce, to perform and to excel has sometimes led to my taking on too many commitments. This meant working beyond regular work hours for extended periods and not taking enough time off. Some of the pressure to overwork no doubt occurred because of the sense that I had to prove my worth. However, I also felt the need to address equality issues within my place of work and study and to perform work on equality initiatives. Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) work often falls to women and, particularly, to women of colour. While our input is important to address the challenges that disempowered people face, it is crucial that we are not consistently diverted from our main lines of work in order to improve institutions’ policies and practices. Groups that are already disempowered or disadvantaged too often bear the burden of removing barriers and educating colleagues. That burden has been a repeated challenge during both my studies and work.

I have also found it difficult to operate in academic environments that are combative. I believe that academia should be about discovery, respectful discussion and collaboration. I accept that there are different ways of conducting academic research and engaging with colleagues’ ideas. However, I think antagonistic or aggressive environments and cultures can limit engagement from scholars who do not thrive in contexts or who might, due to their experiences, find such environments harmful.

 

What needs to be done to address the challenges women face generally?

Women continue to be underrepresented in academia and particularly in professorial and leadership roles. Women are often also underrepresented among staff on permanent contracts. Short-term contracts and casualisation are a rising problem in academia and women are often among those on fixed-term contracts. Such short-term employment patterns create and exacerbate insecurity. There need to be structural and systemic changes to address the problems that women face. For instance, there must be changes in recruitment practices from the job advertisement stage to the interview and appointment stage. Workplaces must recognise the unpaid and often unnoticed work that is often done by women, including citizenship work and providing pastoral support to students and indeed to colleagues. Changes must also reflect the intersectional nature of some of the challenges that women face. Some women experience intersectional or overlapping forms of discrimination or exclusion and reforms must respond to these experiences.

There must also be cultural changes to the way people interact at work. Cultural changes can include holding events at times that reflect people’s – especially women’s – other responsibilities. People with caring responsibilities may have limited capacity to attend events or meetings outside standard work hours. As women are often those with caring responsibilities, such changes will significantly affect them. Cultural changes must encourage a healthy work–life balance, which will benefit not only women, but all at work. The work culture must also be one of respect and dignity at work. This must include action to address harassment and bullying. Cultural changes can also include subtle adjustments to encourage more mutual respect in engaging in academic debate and conducting peer review.

 

What advice would you give to younger women and more broadly?

Mentorship: I think it is important to have supportive mentorship. A supportive and honest mentor or mentors can provide a sounding board and advice. Try to find someone who is a good fit for your career goals, ways of working and/or personality. Ideally, your institution will have a system in place for mentoring. But if not, I would encourage you to reach out and approach someone with a request to be your mentor.

Saying No: ‘No’ is a powerful word, and we can be reluctant to use it, for fear of turning down opportunities or disappointing others. However, it is important to protect your time and your wellbeing by saying ‘no’ when your plate is full.

Dr Se-shauna Wheatle is Associate Professor in Law at Durham Law School, Durham University.

 

Se-shauna Wheatle is one of the series editor for the Diverse Voices series. Find out more here

Browse all the interviews in our Women in academia and practice blog series here.

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