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Rita Shackel

10 questions with Associate Professor Rita Shackel

26 February 2018
Discover the career journey of lawyer, academic and International Women’s Day panellist, Rita Shackel

In celebration of International Women’s Day, SOAR Fellow, Associate Professor Rita Shackel shares her personal thoughts on career success, inspirational women, and the need for society to step up to sexual abuse and violence.      

Celebrating International Women's Day

We asked students and academics from across the University to explain how Sydney women will make an impact on society.

Thursday 8 March is International Women's Day, a day that celebrates the social, economic, educational, cultural and political achievements of women all around the world. This annual day aims to promote and accelerate gender equity, and to value the contributions of women and men equally.

To celebrate, the University is hosting an International Women’s Day panel event with 6 exceptional female academics, including Associate Professor Rita Shackel of Sydney Law School.

Associate Professor Rita Shackel’s diverse career has seen her work as a lawyer, legal policy officer and academic in a range of settings including the NSW Cabinet Office, the NSW Office of Youth Affairs and the Australian Law Reform Commission. She is one of twenty-two researchers named as 2018 Sydney Research Accelerator (SOAR) fellows. The Fellowship which will enable her to expand on her current work on child sexual abuse prosecutions, and to investigate the needs and priorities of women impacted by sexual violence after social unrest.

We caught up with Rita to find out how she’s making a difference in her field and her thoughts on career success.

1. What drives you to do work in your field?

My interest is driven by the fact that many people worldwide (the statistics are staggering), and of course disproportionately women and children, are adversely impacted by sexual violence and its aftermath. Sexual violence is a global and universal challenge which society needs to do more to address. We need to ensure that those impacted have the means and opportunity to access justice, to vindicate their rights, and to receive every type of support that they need.

My work in this field is inspired by the strength, resilience, and fortitude of survivors. Sexual violence impacts all of us – individuals, families and whole communities, and I simply cannot accept that we as human beings can tolerate such conduct, harm and injustice in our world, particularly on such a massive scale.

As an academic, I have the opportunity to be involved in research and teaching, and to engage with people from diverse backgrounds to share knowledge, in particular about building a more equitable and just world.

2. How does your work help to empower women?

My work (teaching and research) approach in sexual abuse and violence seeks to recognise the agency of others, particularly of women. For me, empowerment is about contributing to the shaping of safe spaces where women from all walks of life and with diverse experiences can speak and be heard in a respectful and authentic way. I think empowerment is about challenging biases and striving for equity in voice, contribution, opportunity and participation in all spheres of life. My approach to my work values and prioritises this.

3. Tell us about your proudest career highlight

Delivering the Medico-Legal Society of Sri Lanka’s 75th Anniversary and Annual Society Oration. This was a particular honour because I stood beside an inspiring and fearless woman; the first woman president of the Society, Justice Shiranee Tilakawardane. She was the first female appointed as State Counsel in Sri Lanka, the first female judge of the High Court, the first woman Admiralty Court Judge, the first woman Justice of the Court of Appeal, the first woman President of the Court of Appeal, and the first female prosecutor at the Air Force Court Martial, Sri Lanka. It was a privilege for me to be accorded the honour of being the first woman in the history of the Society to deliver its annual oration under her presidency.

4. If you could tell your younger self one thing, what would it be?

It’s all about trial and error and not taking yourself too seriously.

5. What do you think has been the biggest contributor to your success?

Realising that learning and achieving is an ongoing process that often takes a lot of time, perseverance and commitment. Not being scared to push myself outside my comfort zone. Valuing the generosity that others have shown me by mentoring, guiding, supporting, challenging, nurturing and trusting me, and giving me opportunities. 

6. What inspires you?

I’m inspired by simplicity because, within simplicity, often lays hidden the greatest of complexity – the wind, sea, sand, sky, stars and clouds. All simple and stunning in their beauty, and yet all deeply profound and inspiring.

I’m inspired by what people can achieve together - the collective – people genuinely coming together to build, create and share knowledge and experiences.

7. Tell us about an inspirational woman in your life. How have they shaped you?

I am fortunate to have been inspired by many women in my life – women with a public profile who are considered leaders and successful professionals, and women in my personal life who have influenced and inspired, such as my mother, grandmothers, aunts, friends and today especially my daughter.

All these women have inspired and influenced me and helped me to better understand myself and other women, and my relationships with other women. They have helped me grow by showing me the importance and power of embracing my uniqueness as a woman.

8. Have you had any setbacks in your career? If so, how did you overcome them?

Career and life is generally filled with challenges. Rather than think about setbacks, I like to think about changes and the need to sometimes adapt to new circumstances in ways perhaps different to what I would have liked at the time or from what I expected.

My career has been filled with the need to re-evaluate my goals and direction in many small ways, as well as in some very significant ways. Adapting and moving on in a reflective, yet not overly self-critical or judgmental way, has been important in my career.

I have overcome challenges and embraced changes by trusting myself, my values and my capacity. At the same time, reaching out to others by talking things through, testing new ground, asking questions, listening, and searching for new perspectives, possibilities, and then adapting these to my own situation and context, needs and aspirations.     

9. What is your all-time favourite quote?

“The power to question is the basis of all human progress” by Indira Ghandi.

10. What piece of advice would you give to a woman looking to begin a career in your field?

  • Don’t be scared to find your own pathways and spaces.
  • Don’t let others tell you that you must do this or that in order to succeed.
  • Be prepared to discover what works best for you and to focus on learning how you think, feel and respond to things.
  • Be prepared to take intelligent risks.
  • Do listen carefully to others, particularly those you trust, but think for yourself and follow your values and instinct.

Find out more about how the University of Sydney supports the promotion and inclusion of gender equity, and it's participation in the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) pilot program, not just on International Women's Day, but every day.