#WomenOfUP 2023: Shanley Webb

Posted on August 25, 2023

‘We must persist in breaking the glass ceiling, regardless of whether the glass shards cut us at times,’ says this inspiring third-year LLB student.

As part of our ongoing celebration of the #WomenOfUP, Tukkievaria spoke to Shanley Webb, a third-year LLB student, about her passions – and the challenges she’s faced along the way.

Tell us about yourself and what you do at UP?

I'm currently a third-year LLB student. I hold a degree in International Studies from UP. I am deeply engaged within student governance as well as the Faculty of Law. My involvement in student governance extends to the Law Faculty’s Constitutional Tribunal Bench, where I currently have the honour of being the Deputy Chief Justice. I also assist in student development through my tutoring positions within the University. Additionally, the moot court has been a significant part of my journey. I have had the privilege of speaking in two prestigious international competitions and receiving an award for first runner-up for best oralist in the East African Pre-Moot Competition for one of them. I have also explored academic writing, as I published an article on the need to transform the global economy, focusing on the COVID-19 impact and the 2020 global oil crisis. I hope to further develop my journey at the University by using my various positions to highlight obstacles women face in the academic sphere and address them accordingly.

What inspired you to choose your field of study/profession, and what challenges did you overcome to pursue it?

After completing my International Studies degree, I realised in addition to having a strong sense of justice, I thoroughly enjoyed intellectual challenges, as well as advocacy and debate. Moreover, with a background in international legal systems, the global sphere of the legal field was very appealing, as there are many opportunities for young people to assist in developing solutions to pressing issues. Furthermore, having been raised in a coloured township and having been exceptionally fortunate in the opportunities afforded to me, my consciousness and determination to confront the larger societal issues were amplified, as I am truly driven to make a positive difference in underserved communities, much like the one in which I was raised.

One of the most significant challenges I still struggle to overcome is mental health. Suffering from a mental illness in this field is extremely taxing, as the law is extremely demanding and competitive. The rigorous demands, coupled with high expectations and the intense stress, compound existing mental health challenges, leading to burnout.

In your experience, what obstacles do women often face in the academic or professional sphere, and how can these challenges be addressed?

The journey for women in the legal profession has significant obstacles, including biases and preconceived notions that mould perceptions, ultimately undermining our proven capabilities and impeding our advancement. Amid the rigorous demands of legal studies, we have to consistently prove our worth in certain extracurricular spaces. Furthermore, while efforts toward inclusivity have been noteworthy, the reality remains that leadership positions are predominantly occupied by men, limiting opportunities for women to assume decision-making roles, and stifling our female perspective. Regrettably, instances of harassment and bias also manifest within academic environments, detrimentally impacting women's mental well-being and overall satisfaction. As disheartening as this may seem, there is much we can do to address these challenges. We first have to change our overly optimistic perspectives and recognise how our daily interactions and behaviours undermine our own efforts. In facing reality, we can have open discussions focused on solutions that can take proactive steps in advocating for change. This can include initiatives such as confidence-building and self-awareness sessions.

What initiatives or programmes do you think the University should implement to create a more inclusive and supportive environment for women?

The University can forge a coalitionary movement with students aimed at confronting the significant barriers which can obstruct our advancement. We might delve into creating mentorship initiatives that are more easily accessible and tailored to specific needs, as well as providing training that heightens awareness of biases to counteract stereotypes and diminishments. Additionally, the development and execution of stringent accountability measures could be pursued to guarantee that women’s value remains attributed to our skills rather than our appearance and behaviour. By directly facing these challenges, we can establish an educational setting that is more impartial and supportive.

How can we promote work-life balance and address women's challenges in balancing academic/ professional responsibilities with personal and family commitments?

Striking a chord between coursework, extracurricular pursuits, and personal responsibilities proves to be quite demanding, particularly for women who frequently shoulder additional societal roles. To nurture a supportive atmosphere and aid women, especially students, it is imperative to adopt an approach centred around students' needs.

The first step entails validating women's priorities and dispelling the notion that valuing personal commitments above professional ones is a negative choice. In promoting a healthy balance, we can introduce peer support networks that provide emotional support and a platform to exchange resources. By fostering transparent communication between students and professors, a space is created where students can openly address personal obstacles they encounter in fulfilling their academic duties. Lastly, the empowerment offered by exposure to role models should not be underestimated; sharing stories of successful women who have navigated similar challenges can inspire and embolden students to overcome obstacles and prioritise their well-being.

As we celebrate Women's Month, what message would you like to send to young women aspiring to pursue higher education or careers in academia?

Pursuing higher education may be tiresome and demanding, requiring extreme dedication, but the rewards and satisfaction it offers are truly unparalleled. These challenges are not roadblocks, but rather opportunities to showcase your strength and perseverance. Take the moments of self-questioning and uncertainty as integral parts of growth. Your unique perspective will enrich your community more than you know. Lastly, when you are faced with prejudice or bias, remember that those perceptions reflect others’ limitations, not your own. Thus, my message would be that we must persist in breaking the glass ceiling regardless of whether the glass shards cut us at times.

- Author Vuyiswa Dlomo

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