Interview with Professor Sharon Cowan

Earlier this year, we had the privilege of talking to Professor of Feminist and Queer Legal Studies Sharon Cowan, of the University of Edinburgh, as part of our Equality in Law project. 

Professor Cowan completed an LLB (Hons) from the University of Strathclyde, an MPhil in Criminology from the University of Cambridge, and a PhD from Brunel University, London. In 2004, she joined the University of Edinburgh as a lecturer in law – the same year they appointed their first ever female legal professor.  

Professor Cowan described how isolating it felt as a woman in an extremely male-dominated workplace; and strange though it was, she felt empowered to be a part of the changes happening inside the University.  

When asked what progress she has seen in terms of equality during her career, Prof. Cowan said that inclusivity is discussed far more often now and changes that have been made at an organisational level, such as the Staff Pride Network, make a big impact on the working environment. There are also projects such as the GLASS Network and Time for Inclusive Education (TIE) that Prof. Cowan noted as examples of progressive organisations. These networks, Prof. Cowan explained, make space for people with commonalities to come together, discuss difficult subjects and make positive change.  

Prof. Cowan also mentioned role models and visibility as a crucial part of progress. A huge stride forward was made in the Scottish legal profession last year when Amanda Millar was appointed as the first LGBTQ+ President of the Law Society of Scotland (you can listen to the GCU Law podcast episode with Amanda here). Visibility is key to progress and having someone who is not a cis-het white male in a significant role in our field is vital.  We discussed how much we were all inspired by Amanda and her work. Having visible role models who do not fall into the stereotypical views of who a lawyer is or what they look like is inspiring for both prospective lawyers and those who have been working in the profession for years. 

Although milestones should be celebrated, there is clearly a long way to go. Prof. Cowan stressed that there are plenty of structures that remain in place that aim to mould lawyers into thinking and acting in certain, stereotypical, ways. Further, in some instances progress is not being made. Prof. Cowan explained that some workspaces are worse now than they were 10-20 years ago for transgender people. A trend that can be identified in wider society through the significant rise in hate crime against transgender people 

There are major changes that need to be made which require structural action. However, there are also small and effective changes that can be made. For example, she explained that if employers state that they are an equal opportunities employer at the beginning of a job advert as opposed to the end, people from marginalised backgrounds are more likely to apply.  Small changes can make a big difference. 

Prof. Cowan told us how her work with the transgender community has had a massive impact on her life and the way she teaches. She feels privileged that some of the most marginalised in society felt comfortable discussing their life experiences with her, and she realises the responsibility that comes with that. She highlighted that often when we are discussing a marginalised group in society, we tend to lump everyone in that group into one box. That is the wrong way to go about research or indeed any work which aims to make a difference in people’s lives. Just as we are all different from each other, every transgender person is different to the next and therefore, intersectionality in research is key.  

Our interview ended with us feeling incredibly proud to be young women in law. Whilst an individual woman cannot undo the patriarchy and the standards we are held to as women, we must grow and connect with each other to bring an end to the regressive approaches that continue to treat patriarchal standards as the norm.  

 We discussed how it is completely okay to be unsure of where you are going in your career and how to get to where you want to be. We must try, as women in this profession, to be as kind and empathetic as possible. We must hold ourselves up as our own role models and others will follow suit. 

By Erin Murphy (LLB2), Holly MacKinnon (LLB1) and Karly Logan (LLB1)