Symposium on Classism and the International Legal Profession: Equality in the Academy

Symposium on Classism and the International Legal Profession: Equality in the Academy

[Anne-Marie Coleman is an assistant professor in UK higher education. She is writing under a pseudonym]

This is not so much a working-class story as a broken class story, such were the social and personal consequences of my family implosion in a conservative, rural society in the late 1980s. We were pariahs to a community that doled out stigma and shame—I wore a scarlet letter. An unfortunate inheritance of mental health issues, sexual violence, questionable life choices, imposter syndrome, and a fear of poverty. Tendrils twisting through history link to current social precarity as a single parent of an autistic child. Some cycles were broken, others continue. 

I resist the mantle of survivor, something that evokes the expectation of a certain disposition or set of behaviours. Yet I did survive being the main prosecution witness for two trials heard at the central criminal court during my undergraduate degree. That I pulled through with a 2.1 honours degree is almost beyond explanation—perhaps, though, testament to my doggedness and defiance, alongside the empathetic support of a very special academic mentor who saw my suffering. 

I started working around 12, worked jobs throughout my undergraduate degree, my MPhil and LLM, and then was fortunate to receive a scholarship to pursue doctoral studies. Never would I have been able to afford to do an unpaid internship in Geneva. Without security, you labour, you toil, feeling always on the cusp of something—only to discover that the ‘peak’ was a false summit and you have much further to go.

My accent or appearance will not betray clues or evidence of this past. Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of habitus refers to a system of relatively stable dispositions that arise when objective social structures are internalised in the agent as social norms or patterns of behaviour. Sometimes criticised for being an overly deterministic theory of human behaviour (a charge Bourdieu rejected), more recent scholarship focuses on the mutability of habitus, and the conditions under which a subsequent or secondary habitus might form. Maybe I have acquired a secondary habitus, but my primary habitus was a self-destructive wilderness that promised oblivion. A skillset that straddles both worlds is the joy of escaping into the literary and academic imaginary of books. 

I’m a nervous interloper in hallowed halls and ivory towers, ill-at-ease and awkward in these self-perpetuating exclusive clubs. My socio-economic demographic combined with caring responsibilities mean that my access to the field is patchy and inconsistent at best. When invited, I try to occupy my place at the table. Often, though, I am excluded—passed over for promotion, colleagues convene edited collections and form funding networks without me. Other times the invitations are not forthcoming I think because, knowing my situation, people are trying to be considerate. However, I would much prefer to be invited and given the choice as to whether or not to participate. 

The academy is a competitive environment, and thus far I have been able to navigate the minefield because I was lucky that the system of ‘meritocracy’ positively regarded a particular set of characteristics that I either had or was able to cultivate over the years. This has not been without costs. The culture of critique can be hard and unkind; academics and scholars finding faults and flaws in your work through a mode of communication that feels belittling as they hold their knowledge over you. I am in favour of constructive criticism—I seek feedback from friends and colleagues on all my writings. But do people realise that a neurodiverse response to harshness of critique can leave the recipient ruminating for days? Can the same thing be said in a different way to encourage creativity and human flourishing? In those moments, I beg the earth to swallow me whole. My brain freezes as superiority lords over me and words elude me. Anything I say will confirm this person’s poor view of me. Those are the times I want to give up. There must be easier ways to make a living. 

Another issue with this profession, similar to some other career paths, is that personal identity and professional identity seem to be two sides of the same coin, but are often not in harmony. When one is of a marginal class, there is a wide gulf to cultivating the prototypical professional persona. This gulf could be reduced and competing identities harmonised through access to the very resources—time, labour, cultural capital—unavailable to marginal scholars. Against the pressure of scarcity, conflicts and tensions arise—one identity threatens stability in the other, leading to the uneasy feeling of fragmentation and dislocation. A stellar academic profile is not a worthwhile price to pay for personal disintegration.

This is a sector that rewards overwork. What of people who, because of caring responsibilities, disability, or other grounds, simply cannot clock up the surplus hours for success? One solution suggested to me by a manager for these insurmountable workloads was to switch to a part-time contract. So, although I have worked above and beyond contractual hours for years now, I would be rewarded with a 20% or 40% pay cut, just to cope in academia? Then how would I cope financing a household on my own? 

On the flip side, when successes come, the feeling of external affirmation is such a salve for low self-esteem. Fragile self-worth seeking these moments is a recipe for disaster, because complex personal circumstances simply do not allow me to keep up with the crowd. In our competitive world, we are often evaluated against peers who may not be so encumbered. There is no abatement for tricky circumstances that can make academic progress elusive. Without a policy for equality of outcome, we are set up for disappointment and failure. 

If an equality policy was applied to workloads things might improve for atypical scholars. To ensure equality of result, the complex web of obstacles needs to be identified and disentangled. This could signify a strategic emphasis on the bits of our profession that could most usefully be deployed by us scholars—research, funding, proper recognition of teaching—rather than being swamped by severe administrative and pastoral care loads (which while I know affect everyone, do not affect everyone equally). Similarly, the Research Excellence Framework in UK higher education is a terrible mode of bean-counting where life hurdles could be taken into account, but this option seems to be inconsistently utilised by universities. An additional complicating factor is that some neurodiverse and introverted people would shy away from self-advocacy and exposure. Previously, I’ve not considered my personal narrative to be relevant, but perhaps I do have something to add to the conversation.

I recall conferences where I have felt a protective surface over an inner sanctum to which I’m excluded. Gatekeepers or boundary guards look upon me suspiciously as I do not hold the right keys. I do not know how to articulate my difference, or that I’m deserving, when I cannot muster that self-belief. Ironically, this elitism is often accompanied by the empty rhetoric of rights and social justice. How would you encourage a way of communicating through respect that recognises the newcomer’s dignity? Would you want to be part of an exclusive club that is hostile to would-be entrants? What can be done to remedy these hard-baked hierarchies? For one, don’t pull up the career ladder after you.

For equality of outcome to be realised, it is necessary to give more strategic thinking, time, and resources to those who experience structural exclusions to accessing cultural capital. Cognisant that I have comparative levels of privilege in some areas, I have been thinking about alliances with people who experience different modes of discrimination or the aggregate effect of multiple interlocking exclusions as detailed in Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality. Building on the scholarship of bell hooks, Cherrie Moraga, Gloria Anzaldúa, Derrick Bell, Angela Davis and others, Crenshaw noted that the combined effect of multiple forms of discrimination, primarily ‘race’, gender and/or, in UK law, ‘protected characteristics’ intensifies exclusion and marginalisation. 

In UK higher education, figures released from Advance HE for 2018/2019 showed that only 1.9% of academic staff were black, though 3.3% of the wider population was black. The picture in terms of diversity is even worse as seniority increases, out of 535 managers, senior officials, or directors across British universities, ‘475 of these were White, 25 Asian, mixed or other ethnicity, and none Black’. Government data for 2020/21 revealed that just 1% of university professors were black.

Drawing from anti-racism projects in the US can be instructive. The Law Deans’ Anti-racist Clearinghouse Project was developed to dismantle systematic inequities within law schools, with a view to diversifying faculties, staff, and student bodies. It involves engaging design led thinking across five phases: listening, learning, leading, audit reporting, implementing anti-racist action, and an iterative phase. Questions posed during the institutional audit phase are particularly helpful and are available here (along with many other resources).

A key question is how legal education and the legal profession contributes to racist structural inequalities in our societies. International law legitimised colonialism and slavery and the associated violence on colonised and enslaved bodies. Yet legal processes also underwrote decolonisation and the abolition of slavery. So, law has different possible directions—it can liberate or oppress. As a tool for colonial masters and slave-traders, diverse areas of law were engaged, from contract and tort to land law and trusts. These systems impacted the fabric of legal education in white supremacist states, however, accountability for these histories remains unaddressed though the impact continues in law and the economic order of today (see here, for example).

Perhaps the corollary to American antiracist programmes is the UK Race Equality Charter (REC) in higher education, which is broader than targeting law departments as submitting for race charter accreditation (awards of bronze or silver) involves a university wide effort. The REC for higher education provides a framework to identify institutional and cultural barriers affecting black, Asian, and minority ethnic staff and students. The REC is underpinned by five commendable principles (see here), but in contrast to the high volume and range of Athena Swan awards for gender inclusion only 29 REC awards have been granted and no higher education institution within the UK has achieved the highest silver award.

Rosa and Clavero highlight the marginal gains in women’s representation at professorial levels in the EU from 24% in 2016 to 26% in 2019, and present similar miniscule increases for women leading higher education institutions. They point to the devastating effects that the Covid pandemic had on exacerbating pre-existing gender inequities. Emergency measures and social lockdowns shifted domestic, childcare, and home-schooling burdens on to women like a reversal of time—women published less and co-authored less than men during this period. This pattern characterised my experience of the pandemic. On the paperwork for promotion there was a thoughtful field whereby the applicant could explain to senior colleagues and management how the pandemic had impacted their work. I completed that section in good faith, sharing with people unknown to me raw details of some of the most harrowing days of my career to date and explaining why my research was stymied while I maintained excellence in my teaching, leadership, and pastoral care duties. Nevertheless, I was not successful, and in all honesty, I wish I hadn’t shared those personal details or even applied for promotion in the first place.

On the other hand, maybe I’m writing this because I feel a sense of obligation to try to articulate this sense of marginalisation in case it might help someone. I shouldn’t want to romanticise otherness, but I was struck by a point in Katharine Sang’s 2018 study on gender, ethnicity, and feminism in UK higher education where focus group participants described the way that their positionality as ‘other’ could be used strategically to challenge institutional culture. Sang tempers this observation with recognition that voice without power or influence may do little to change the status quo. Can the eerie feeling of otherness as a distance from some social norm or prototypical identity be liberating? Perhaps if, from the hard edges of society, there was a way of disrupting power relations at the centre? This may sound idealistic, but to live in otherness, one is sensitised to the plight of ‘others’, so could there be role for allyship and alliances? Would that we had the time and resources to organise.

Anne Phillips argues that equality of outcome has to be seen as the key measure of whether equality of opportunity has been achieved. She notes that when outcomes are not roughly reflective of the social demographic, the most likely explanation is that opportunities were unequal or experienced in unequal ways. I would like to develop thinking on equality of outcome for application to law departments within higher education. I would welcome ideas from those traditionally underrepresented in the upper echelons of academia.

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