My connection to Glasgow University’s Law School spans 25 years – almost my entire academic career. I worked in the School briefly in the mid-1990s and graduated with my PhD in the Bute Hall in 2007. The School, or to be more specific the generous, supportive and inspiring women who have worked there, have provided the backdrop to my career which in personal terms has been both challenging and richly rewarding. My academic journey, which will see me re-join the Law School at Glasgow University as Professor of Human Rights, Equality and Justice, has been an unconventional one.
I am the product of a poor working class childhood of the 1960s and 70s. My siblings and I experienced family disruption and instability in our home life with long periods of parental ill health and homelessness. I spent my teenage years in what was often described, in the cruel media-speak of the day, as a “sink estate” in Hackney “the most deprived London borough”. This all sounds extremely bleak and at times it was but I have much to be thankful for. Apart from a year spent at Hillhead High School (a stone’s throw from Gilmorehill and now my youngest daughter’s school), my secondary education took place in a North London comprehensive with a diverse catchment area. That and my early working life made me acutely aware of the far greater social injustices that others had to endure and instilled in me a sense of intellectual curiosity about how law and policy might be used to improve people’s lives.
I went straight to work after school and spent 7 years in London’s restaurant trade alongside a diverse staff of young people from all over the world – Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Nigeria, Chile - with a wealth of different experiences. Many of my co-workers had fled persecution and destitution in their home countries. We were poorly paid and expected to work long hours with little to show for it but we were a close knit and mutually supportive workforce. It was there that I became interested in how law could provide protection to workers and wanted to understand more.
My older sister Siân had graduated from University – the first person in my family to do so - and she encouraged me to think about studying for a degree. Aged 24 I embarked on a BA degree course at the Polytechnic of London (PCL, now the University of Westminster). I was severely lacking in confidence and had only applied to PCL because my school had sent me there aged 15 to take part in a two day course run by media students which gave it a certain familiarity. I was the beneficiary of a full grant and could not have contemplated further study without one. I threw myself into my course and really enjoyed it. When I was about to graduate I told my personal tutor that I still felt there was so much more to learn. He suggested that I should think about a PhD – an aspiration that seemed completely unattainable to me at that stage in my life.
After graduation I moved to Glasgow to be close to my father and youngest siblings. I taught a range of courses at Anniesland College, including a class in Law and Business for stringed instrument repairers! I later taught Company, Commercial and Employment Law at Paisley University (now the University of the West of Scotland) on an hourly paid contract. I still had that intellectual curiosity and a yearning to learn more about rights, equality and social justice. In 1995 I applied for a job as a research assistant to Professor Noreen Burrows (then Head of School) and Dr Jane Mair at the Law School at Glasgow. I can honestly say that that job interview was a turning point for me.
I was now the mother of a two year old. I went along to the interview determined not to mention my daughter. In those days being the mother of a young child was not generally seen as compatible with a fledgling academic career. In addition I was in my early 30s which made me quite a lot older than your average early career scholar and I suffered acutely from what is now described as imposter syndrome but what was then seen as a large chip on my working class shoulder. I was immediately disarmed by my interviewers’ friendly and informal style. “Hi, we’re Noreen and Jane – have you had a busy day?” To which I immediately replied that I had just rushed back from working in Paisley and dropped my daughter at a friend’s house so that I could get to the interview. “So, you’re a mum?” asked Noreen. I had to confirm that I was, inwardly cursing myself for letting that slip out. “That’s great. Mums are so reliable and good at juggling lots of things because we have to be”. We got on swimmingly – I may even have got out photos of Eve to pass around. Later that day I found out that I had got the job helping Noreen and Jane with their book European Social Law. And so began my long association with the Law School. I loved that job. The work was fascinating, my ‘bosses’ were completely non-hierarchical and we would sit and talk about all sorts of things over coffee including, but not confined to, law.
1995 is not that long ago (is it?) but it seems like light years away in terms of how the legal academe has changed. In those days the Law School was divided into public law and private law. This confused me and I was never really sure where to place myself: my work focused on what was then ‘EC law’, part of public international law, but I was increasingly thinking about and engaging with employment law which was a private law area. Although Law Schools are no longer organised in this way, the tendency for law to be categorised, constructed and arranged within often unyielding silos and sub-disciplines has continued to fascinate and frustrate me throughout my career.
I became a socio-legal scholar and my work has tended to be inter- and multi-disciplinary so that it cuts across such boundaries and I have become increasingly interested in empirical accounts of people’s experiences and perceptions of law and legal institutions and in uncovering how law is lived – both positively and negatively - by its subjects. I have focused a lot on the gap between sex discrimination law and gender inequality more broadly. These interests led to my long-standing membership of and involvement with the Socio-Legal Studies Association (SLSA), another important affiliation for me. The SLSA was established in 1990 when 75 members attended its AGM. These days it has hundreds of members from all over the world who work on a vast and diverse array of different types of socio-legal scholarship but in my early days at the Law School I had never even heard the term ‘socio-legal’.
I worried quite a lot about how I fitted into what seemed like a very traditional Scottish Law School. My anxiety was further compounded when a well-established colleague asked me what I was working on over coffee one day. “But everyone knows there’s really no such thing as European law!” he exclaimed leaving me deflated and even more confused about my place in the School. No matter, my regular conversations with Noreen and Jane kept me grounded and were crucial in building my confidence and self-esteem. The year I spent working intensely on European social law taught me far more than a masters course ever could have done, not only about the subject matter but also about how to think about the law critically. We worked as a team and my contribution was always valued. They were both really busy with heavy workloads but always made time to talk with me about and to encourage my own career aspirations. That feeling of solidarity is something I have tried to instil in my own close working relationships ever since. It brings out the best in people and gets the job done.
With encouragement and guidance from my colleagues at Glasgow I embarked on my PhD in EU sex discrimination law. It took me nearly 10 years of part-time study to complete it, a very busy period of my life in which I moved jobs twice and had two more daughters, Eleanor and Mairi. I worked full-time while doing it, first at RGU and later at Stirling University where I was promoted to Senior Lecturer in 2003. In 2012 I moved to a Chair at Strathclyde Law School where I have forged some great friendships which will continue when I move to Glasgow in November. It feels a bit like coming full circle. In many ways I’m still that anxious imposter from 1995 but I am better at hiding it now.
What has all of this taught me? I know from first-hand experience that an academic career can be very difficult if you are outside or different from the norm. I think it’s getting easier in some ways but we have a lot of work to do in ensuring equal and fair access and providing the necessary support for those who do not come from traditional educational backgrounds or who have had to overcome huge difficulties in their lives. The way in which personal characteristics and experiences intersect can present insurmountable barriers in gaining access to and progressing in higher education. Social class is not something that is talked about too much anymore but the effects of a poor childhood stay with you a lifetime. When I see that 30% of children in the UK currently live in poverty and that the numbers are rising, I do feel despair.
Academia must strive to become more inclusive and all of those who work within it have a responsibility to make that happen. Universities and their staff are aware of this and many are working very hard to improve things. However, in 2018 British universities reported a gendered pay gap of 13.7% and research tells us that there were only 25 black women and 90 black men among 19,000 UK professors in 2016-17. There is still a long way to go.
I can only reflect on my own experiences as a working class and (relatively) mature entrant into legal academia. For me, two things have been crucial in helping me to develop my own interests and to make progress in my career: the support of other women (and some men) and the sense of belonging that has come from wider networks such as the SLSA. I would encourage early career scholars to forge alliances with others who share their passions and commitment both inside and outside academia. Of course it’s important to have goals and aspirations but we also need to take time to reflect on our achievements and the individuals and communities who have enabled and supported us at each stage of our careers, to remember the barriers we faced and how we overcame them.
As difficult as it can be at times, we should all resist the overly individualistic career tracks that feed the growth of the neoliberal university. Elitism and competition are not inevitable features of higher education, for students or staff, and there is much to be gained through support and solidarity. Since that interview in 1995 and my wonderful early experience of working at Glasgow, I have always tried to pass on the kindness shown to me - especially to other women at all stages of their lives and careers.
Nicole Busby joined the School of Law at Glasgow in November 2019 as Professor of Human Rights, Equality and Justice. She has been Professor of Labour Law at the University of Strathclyde since 2012 and, before that, Senior Lecturer in Law at Stirling University. Her PhD, awarded by the University of Glasgow in 2007, provided the basis for her monograph ‘A Right to Care: Unpaid Care Work in European Employment Law’ published by Oxford University Press in 2011. She is currently co-authoring a new monograph (with Grace James) ‘A History of Regulating Work and Families: Strains, Stereotypes, Strategies and Solutions’ which will be published by Hart in 2019. She is a member of the Scotland Committee of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and was a member of the First Minister’s Advisory Group on Human Rights Leadership (2017-2018) which advised the Scottish Government on Scotland's human rights and equality law framework. In recent years her research has focused on how individuals and groups interact with and use law in different contexts, including rural communities, carers, those in precarious work, and litigants in person at the Employment Tribunal. She works regularly with civil society organisations and is currently collaborating with the Women’s Budget Group and the Child Poverty Action Group on the project ‘Social Security and Gender Equality’ which will explore the impact on women of recent changes to the social security system.