Fiona Leverick interview

- Describe your own career path

I came to law in a somewhat round about way. My first degree is a BSc in marketing and psychology from the University of Lancaster. I then worked in market research in Manchester for a few years and also taught marketing for a while. However, I never really felt excited or passionate about marketing and when my husband got a job in Aberdeen and we moved up there from Manchester, I thought “now’s my chance” and went back to Aberdeen University to study law as a mature student. It was a bit of a leap in the dark – I just had this instinct that I would love law and it turned out to be right. After a few further twists and turns (including a spell as a legal researcher combining my law and market research experience), I did a PhD in law and got a job as a lecturer – first at Aberdeen and then I moved to Glasgow in 2008. Even then things weren’t quite straightforward, as almost the first thing I did after starting my shiny new senior lecturer’s job at Glasgow was to get pregnant! I took a period of maternity leave and then – finally – a few years after that I was promoted to Professor of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice, which is the role I have now. 

- What challenges have you encountered as a female during your career and how did you overcome those obstacles?

My experiences of direct sexism in academic have been very rare. By and large, the University environment is a good pace to work as a women. That is not to say they have been non-existent. I can think of two occasions on which I have been sexually harassed (neither of which occurred at Glasgow) and have definitely experienced other types of sexism, such as where a male colleague ordered me (the only woman present) to take notes during a meeting we were both attending. I do have to say, though, that these experiences have not been the norm. 

The most difficult and much more significant challenge I have encountered is the career disadvantage associated with being a parent. Women are more likely than men to have primary caring responsibilities, whether these be for children or other family members. This can have an extremely detrimental effect in career terms. I found this challenging in two ways. First, returning from maternity leave when my daughter was seven months old is by far the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. At that stage I was still breast feeding and experiencing disrupted sleep and for the first year or so of my return I struggled enormously to cope with the demands of the job. I’m not sure I really overcame this – I just somehow muddled through it! But it definitely set my career back for at least a couple of years.

My daughter is nine now and – thankfully! – the chaos that goes with being a parent of very young children is behind me. But the challenge these days is to combine primary caring responsibilities (school pick ups, attending school events etc) with my academic workload. The academic role involves three components – teaching, research and administration or managerial responsibilities – and the expectation is that we perform well in all of these three areas. Trying to squeeze all of this into the hours that my daughter is at school is near impossible. I can make up some of the time in the evening, but there’s a limit to what you can do when you are tired (and quite frankly I’d rather be watching a Scandinavian crime drama). Weekend working is mostly ruled out too for childcare reasons. My solution to all of this is to work part time, but this poses its own challenges. I do think that it is right for me at the moment though and would not rule out increasing my hours in the future. 

- What progress do you feel has been made to improve gender diversity in academia and what more do you think could be done?

I think a lot of progress has been made, as reflected in the fact that the Law School has an Athena Swan Bronze Award for gender equality. At undergraduate level, female students have outnumbered male students for some years. There are also more women than men on our postgraduate taught courses, including on the Diploma in Legal Practice, and roughly equal numbers on our PhD programme. In terms of our staff profile, at lecturer and senior lecturer level, we have a good gender balance and lots of great female role models for other women thinking of entering the profession. We try in so far as is possible to have gender balanced shortlists for lecturing jobs and interview panels are also gender balanced, to try and minimise the possibility of conscious and unconscious bias. I think the support for women returning from maternity leave has also improved. When I came back, it was practically non-existent, but we do now have various schemes whereby those returning from maternity or extended parental leave can apply for funding to support them on their return. I also love the fact that we have portraits of the first four female professors of law hanging in a prominent place where everyone can see them as they walk up the stairs in the Law School building. I do still think there is work to be done. At the moment, we only have four female Professors in the Law School, and I do think that at least part of the reason for that is the difficulty women face combining caring responsibilities with ticking all of the boxes they need to achieve promotion. I also think we could do even more for maternity leave returners. I know that in some other Universities, for example, women returning from maternity leave are given one semester free from teaching and administrative responsibilities to get their research back on track and catch up with all the developments in their areas of teaching that have occurred while they have been away.

'To improve gender diversity within legal academia I would...'

Wow – I have to choose just one thing? That’s difficult. I think I would focus my efforts on trying to secure greater representation for women at senior levels. I would give all my female colleagues who wanted one a lovely supportive academic mentor who would help them to focus on the things that are valued by promotion committees and say no to the things that are not. I would change the promotion system so that it treats those who work part-time on a much fairer basis than it does at present. And I would try to find a way of tackling the long hours culture in academia that makes it particularly difficult for those with caring responsibilities (but also those without them) to cover all the bases that they need to cover to be promoted.

- What advice would you give to aspiring female students looking to work in academia?

The first thing I would say is that it is a great job! It has a lot of variety – no one day is the same – you get to meet and hopefully inspire lots of amazing students and you get to research and write about areas that interest and excite you. It is also very flexible. I am not required to be at my desk from 9-5pm every day and that means that – when I don’t have teaching or meetings – I can organise my workload as I choose. So if I want to help out on my daughter’s school trip or go and watch her sports day I can do that and catch up on the work I’ve missed later. I have even brought her into work with me sometimes when I have no childcare available – again something that would not be possible with a lot of other jobs in the legal field.

That said, it is not an easy field to get into, nor is it an easy option when you get there. You normally need to do a masters degree, followed by a PhD (both of which combined take around 4-5 years). Finding funding to support you during this time is not easy and – without wanting to pile the pressure on – it is especially difficult if you do not have a first class honours degree. So I think my advice would be work hard, find an academic mentor (preferably a lovely inspiring woman) who can support and encourage you (and help you navigate the world of PhD funding) and also learn as much as you can about the job. From the student point of view it might look as the job only involves teaching, but while teaching is an important part of it, research and administration are equally important. So to take this week as an example, I only have two hours of classes, but I am spending many long hours writing a research project report for the Scottish Government. In addition, among other things, I am working on the Law School’s REF submission (the research assessment that all Universities have to participate in every six years), which will determine the amount of funding that we get from the Government in the future and affect our place in the University league tables, and writing a funding application to support a criminal law seminar we hold annually in honour of Sir Gerald Gordon.