Diversity at Work – Q&A with Dr Cassandra Weiner

To say Cassandra Wiener has used her career to make a difference is a slight understatement. After doing English Literature at university she decided to become a lawyer, and qualified for a top City law firm where she practised as a corporate litigator. After a few years, she decided that this career wasn’t for her, and left hoping to do something which had a more direct social impact.

She managed a Citizen’s Advice Bureau for a couple of years but felt frustrated by her inability to really fix people’s problems, which often seemed overwhelming in the face of the very limited time and resources that she could offer. She decided she wanted to do research, to try and investigate social problems at their source, and so returned to the University of Sussex to teach law and focus her talents and time on studying domestic abuse and the social problems that it causes.

She is a busy mother of two, a co-founder of Treebeard Trust (a foundation that she set up with her husband, Barnaby Wiener, which is dedicated to helping create a healthier planet and fairer society), and is about to move universities: she is taking up a post as senior lecturer in law at City University of London, in September. Most recently she played a key role in drafting and promoting critical amendments to the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, extending the remit of the Act so that ex-partners of abusers are also protected by the criminal law.

Over the course of your career, how much change have you seen in issues such as structural inequality and women’s rights?

20 years ago I joined a Top Ten city law firm in a cohort of around 80 people. We were all in our early twenties and the gender split was 50/50, which at the time I remember feeling really encouraged by. But the partnership of the firm was overwhelmingly male. Among around 300 partners there were only about ten women.

I would have expected ratios like this to have moved on much more than they have. But something isn’t happening somewhere along the line of a woman’s career trajectory. Difficulties tend to come when women start having children; and to fix this is as much a cultural as a workplace shift.

While I think it’s fabulous that we’re now at a place where women of my daughter’s age (18) can in a way overlook the need for feminism or activism, structural inequality still exists. The ongoing row over how much we pay BBC broadcasters, for example, and the apparent influence of gender, shows that it’s not over and that there is still work for young people to do to make sure that there is real equality of opportunity for young women in the workplace today.

 

As a lecturer, how do you find your students’ views on issues such as diversity and women’s rights?

I am always stunned by how brilliant my students are. I teach in London, so I have a diverse bunch, and find them to be respectful, informed and thoughtful.

Coming from different cultural backgrounds makes people approach the world in very different ways. For example, if you come from a liberal Western background you take alcohol consumption for granted, but if on the other hand you come from a strong faith-based background then you will judge and treat people differently.
I also find that my students have different attitudes to women’s safety, and think differently about how women are expected to take responsibility for themselves. I try to persuade all my students that it is a job for all of us – men and women – to help keep young women safe.

How do graduates who are just entering the workplace and want to start conversations about diversity or equality get their older colleagues to listen and take them seriously?

Start by knowing that you always have the ability to make a difference. It doesn’t matter who you are, you can always bring a thoughtful integrity to the job you are being asked to do. However, there is no doubt that issues such as these can be difficult to approach, regardless of what generation your colleagues come from.

Having said that, there will often be colleagues who have put themselves forward to be the first port of call for friendly chats. They will be receptive and helpful, and may even have had training which helps them to guide and assist you in the most productive way possible.

In the absence of a sympathetic first port of call figure, such as an equality and inclusion officer, I would advise you to be as calm and measured as possible. Often these issues are very emotive, and if you feel that you might get upset, it can be helpful to practise the conversation with a friend or family member first. Or another trick is to try recording yourself and playing it back to see how you come across.

While there is no excuse for anyone, ever, to not take your concerns seriously, older colleagues might bring their own (sometimes unhelpful) life experiences and agendas to the conversation. While you should feel able to call out challenging behaviour from anyone, I think sometimes it can be helpful to be as patient and gentle as you can be with an older colleague. Sometimes you will find older people are interested and keen to learn from your point of view, and productive collaborative learning can, in this way, be really transformative.

Is there any diversity issue in particular that you think graduates need to know about before they enter the world of work?

I think, in the wake of the terrible George Floyd situation, we are in the process of waking up to painful issues surrounding race, and race discrimination. And I am finding the one big positive to come out of that mess is that those of us who are lucky enough not to have needed to give much thought to these issues in the past, now have to, and with very good reason.

And finally, what one piece of career advice do you wish you’d had as a graduate?

Listen to your head AND your heart. Both matter. Whilst your job choices must make financial and practical sense it’s also important that you give some time and space to figuring out what you actually really like to do! What genuinely motivates you?

And don’t ever be afraid to compromise. Your career choices will never be straight-forward, especially as the world seems to become increasingly full of complexity and choice. Nothing is ‘for ever’, and of course nothing is ever perfect.

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