Will academia ever have its #MeToo moment? | Women’s rights
Recent reports from Al Jazeera have revealed that prominent male academics at elite universities in the UK sexually harassed several students and staff, and that this has continued unabated for decades, in different institutions and even on the continents. Unfortunately, this is a familiar story to many university students and staff. Many people reading these stories may wonder if academia will really have its #MeToo movement – is sexual harassment just the price you pay for being a woman or LGBTQ + in academia?
Along with colleagues at The 1752 Group research and campaign organization, I have researched and tried to make changes in this area for several years. In 2018, we worked with the National Students Union to survey students across the UK and found that 15% of women surveyed had been touched by a staff member in a way that made them feel uncomfortable. ‘easy. Subsequently, we published a study on the experiences of women trying to report sexual harassment by staff, finding that the process was exhausting, lengthy, sometimes traumatic and ultimately ineffective.
In an attempt to improve processes, last year we published advice with discrimination law firm McAllister Olivarius on how universities should handle such reports. I am currently conducting further research, with University of York Research Associate Erin Shannon, looking in more detail at the sexual harassment complaint process in universities.
Many higher education institutions are currently updating their policies and procedures and trying to make changes to improve their handling of sexual misconduct complaints. Progress has been made over the past five years, especially in providing specialized support in universities for the large number of students who are victims of sexual violence and harassment.
However, the majority of resources and attention has been devoted to sexual misconduct among students. While this is clearly an urgent area to be addressed, the staff as perpetrators should be equally important since the institution is directly responsible for the professional conduct of those it employs. For some reason, this question proved surprisingly difficult for them to resolve.
A central problem facing universities is that students – or even other staff – who are harassed by academics are often too afraid to officially report their experiences. This fear is not out of place – in my research I have heard reports of staff members acting in retaliation by threatening the complainant, failing to teach a student after a complaint, spreading rumors that harm the complainant’s career or by filing counter-complaints so that the institution itself investigates the complainant.
After all, these staff members have tremendous power over the student – and often over other staff. As a result, while many people may be aware of serial sexual harassment, often associated with other problematic behaviors, the institution claims they are unable to act without an official report and named with evidence. This leads to a dead end with no action taken.
This is not good enough. First, institutions need to do much more to ensure the safety of individuals during the reporting process. Second, in the absence of a formal response, there are proactive steps institutions can take to find out more about what is going on and to build trust with students and staff to help them report. For example, University College London has introduced “environmental surveys” which take place if the administration receives a number of anonymous reports from the same department.
These steps can make students or staff feel confident enough to report, or it can be the first step in building that trust. As my research shows, reporting is not a one-off decision but rather a series of long-term steps, so institutions need to help create an environment that will support reporting. Unfortunately, however, the broader conditions of higher education, including unmanageable workloads and high levels of precarious work, mean that trust in institutions is currently scarce.
Therefore, it is even more important that institutions demonstrate that they will handle formal complaints in a timely and sensitive manner. This is a challenge, and even when universities receive a formal report, we have evidence that these are often not taken seriously, or that the reported staff member is protected at the expense of those who report. There are signs that the tide is turning – although it seems rare for academic staff to lose their jobs, it does happen. But more often than not, the staff member will resign during an investigation and find employment elsewhere, a phenomenon colloquially known as “passing the abuser”.
Many of these ways of covering up sexual harassment are rooted in academia’s acceptance of imbalances and abuse of power. As sexual violence professor Liz Kelly has described, these are “contexts where the status and authority of men, rather than inducing an ethic of care, can be used by abusive men to intimidate and intimidate men. silence ”, or in short, a“ favorable context ”for violence against women. Such contexts take the form of ‘institutionalized power and authority which creates a sense of entitlement, to which there is limited external challenge’. The longer term work that is needed, therefore, is to change the cultures of teaching and learning.
In the meantime, however, there is much to be done to improve institutional responses through a common approach across the sector. An urgent step is for the UK’s Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service and the Independent Arbitrator’s Office – which oversee complaints from academic staff and students respectively – to update their guidelines so that they are suitable for combating sexual harassment of staff and other equality issues.
Many issues related to handling reports of sexual harassment are similar for students reporting racial harassment or other forms of discrimination, as described by independent scholar Sara Ahmed. For example, due to the priority given by universities to data protection over broader legal obligations – including equality, health and safety and human rights – many universities do not inform not even complainants of the outcome of their complaint or of the sanctions taken against the reported party, despite updates last January from the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
There is also a lot more that can be done around prevention and data collection and reporting. In Ireland a national government-led survey of sexual harassment in higher education – among staff and students – is about to be released, but in the UK we don’t have any studies comparable nationally. Besides the lack of knowledge at the national level, at the institutional level, there is also a lack of data. Most universities do not even publish figures on the number of reports they receive and the results of those reports. Making this data publicly available would be an easy way to improve transparency.
But these steps are too late for students and staff who have already lost their careers, jobs, years of their lives and suffered the effects of harassment and debilitation when their institutions have failed to address them. protect. The effects of sexual harassment and violence can be profound and lasting. Universities and other institutions in society are just beginning to realize the magnitude of this challenge. There is no quick fix to a long and complex problem like this, but it can be improved. Let’s get to work.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.