Are sexual harassment and misconduct issues at Universities?

Over the last year, the widespread occurrence of sexual harassment and misconduct in the movie industry hit the news helping, with the amplification of social media, to raise the extent of the problem to public awareness, not just in Hollywood, but in everyday life of women. Have you wondered if sexual harassment is an issue at your workplace?

After more than 20 years of University life, either as a student or as an employee, I did not notice sexual harassment in my work environment—and this is part of the problem. We do not speak about sexual harassment because it is a very sensitive topic. Even those employers that take swift actions aimed to protect the victims will have to restrain their public disclosures to protect the victims. Therefore, I asked senior colleagues, and they confirmed that incidents do occur, even where the working culture is openly hostile to any type of harassment.

Breaking the silence

Before writing a few more words on this topic, I cut to the chase, and say that any type of harassment, but sexual harassment, in particular, are under-reported and, when they are reported, they are not advertised publicly. Thus, I here pledge my unconditional support for the initiative ‘Breaking the silence – preventing harassment and sexual misconduct’ and I invite anyone who did not feel comfortable in reporting instances of sexual harassment, harassment in general, hate crimes or sexual misconduct to at least report anonymously so that everyone can understand better the prevalence of the problem and if the mechanisms implemented by the University are sufficient to prevent or intervene in these cases.

But, let’s be clear that if you feel you have been a victim of sexual harassment (or any type of harassment or misconduct), try to find the way to get support. You are entitled to be helped to resolve any uncomfortable situation and, of course, to be protected from severe offences and misconduct.

[YouTube Breaking The Silence – University of Cambridge]

“Little girls don’t stay little forever. They grow into strong women that return to destroy your world.”

I was deeply touched by this sentence, and by the many public accounts and statements that I read or watched on regard of Larry Nassar. Nasaar was a doctor who looked after thousands of young female athletes, including the USA gymnastics national team, abusing at least hundreds of young girls. Nasaar was allowed into the hotel rooms of young girls and was able to escape justice for decades, based on the fact that his abuse was masqueraded as a legitimate medical intervention. Nasaar was able to do what he did for so long because he was able to sell himself as a great Doctor, one who forges great athletes. I did not see many people, after the trial, defending Nasaar.

So, people who criticise actresses or models that accused producers and photographers after many years should always remember that those people could do what they did, simply because they were great in their job. They became untouchable because of their capability to intimidate, some of them willingly, others perhaps unwillingly. Sometimes, they abused young girls as Nasaar did, young girls who became experienced actresses only later; other times, the abused more experienced women. Sometimes they forced themselves onto their victims, other times they accepted consensual exchanges of sexual favours having established, or at least allowed a toxic working culture. Not because they were adults having fun, but only because those were the expected business transactions, nothing to do with merit and talent.

Most of these abusers would have been considered dangerous serial rapists or child molesters would not have been for their professions.

Did these actresses and models do the right thing in reporting abuse so late? Yes. The movie, fashion and sport industries (just to list those mentioned so far) are guilty to have created toxic and abusive work environments, where the powerful were protected and employees were not. It is only nowadays that we have more tools to campaign against any type of abuse, and those abused women and men found the right moment and tools just now.

What Hollywood or Nasaar have to do with Academia?

Nasaar and Weinstein have nothing to do with Academia, directly. However, they are examples about how entire industries let their own people down. We should avoid that any industry, of course Academia included, falls or continue with similar gross failures.

Universities have to establish healthy working environments, including, of course, protection from sexual harassment and misconduct. Universities often have a duty of care for thousands of students and employees. The University of Cambridge, for instance, employs ten thousand people, educates twenty thousand students, and host other tens of thousands of contractors, suppliers and collaborators. How many interactions, conversations, jokes, relationships happen every day?

It is thus unavoidable that incidents happen, but it is essential that Universities make sure to have established an empowering and healthy work environment. No abuse, small or big, should be tolerated, on campus or off-campus.

I invite any of you that encountered this post to think, proactively, about what you can do to establish the right working culture, wherever you work, a culture where any uncomfortable situation is dealt with appropriately, abuse is never tolerated, victims are protected and abusers adequately penalised.

Pay attention; not even a scientific fact is objective.

Well, for the Church and many scientists back then, the Sun was rotating around the Earth, for Galileo and others, it was the other way around. We, scientists, are acquainted with disagreement, so it should not be surprising that any type of harassment has a subjective component. This may be one of the possible reasons why for the many people that voiced their indignation towards any type of sexual harassment, many other preferred to express their concern we are going too far. So, let me complete my post with the remark that sexual harassment is difficult to deal with, also because often there is a subjective component to it.

However gross a misrepresentation Nasaar was giving about his ‘medical practices’, this is how he was ‘selling’ his abuse and how some victims accepted the ‘treatment’. For us, now it is all clear that those were abuses. And this is a rather obvious distinction to be made.

Other times, things can be more difficult. An established, well-known scientist may flirt with a younger less established colleague hoping to find consensual sex, the younger colleague may be feeling intimidated and uncomfortable, yet not openly saying it. A colleague may try to be funny; another may feel offended. We should not be paranoid about our interactions at work because we do want to work in good and relaxed environments.

We should, however, acknowledge that harassment comprises a very broad spectrum of cases, most of which could be resolved speaking frankly between people (which is possible only in an open working culture). Other times, when there is no consent, when actions are repeated even after warnings or when the working culture is such that people who feel harassed or abused, do not feel safe to seek help, there is something very wrong to be fixed.

For those of you, I suppose the most, who feel will never harass or abuse anyone, colleagues included, you should still think you have a duty to create the right working culture where anyone can strive, at any time, including when harassment or worse might happen. You could merely speak with colleagues, or – if you did not do it already – volunteer for training and committees that will permit you to grow personally and make a difference.

Update [05.02.2018]

Professor Graham Virgo at the University of Cambridge has published a comment about the anonymous reporting tool, part of the Breaking the Silence campaign. Unsuprizingly, sexual harrasment and miconduct are underreported. Hopefully, this campagin is raising awareness about the type and prevalence of the problem. Above all, the Breaking the Silence campaign should be seen by the victims as a message of unconditional support to them and an open threat to abusers.

It is still early times and I do not have access to the fulls statistics, but it seems tha most prevalent problem is student-on-student sexual misconduct. I was suprized that those students who started to work in my team in October had to attend a sexual consent workshop. When, back then, I asked for the reason, I was informed about the issue of student-on-student misconduct.

I would like to praise CUSU for their activities, and advertise another of their initiatives, the Sexual Consent Campaign. The majority of students abhore sexual harassement, and many are activly campaigning against. However, the fact that too many young people arrive at University not knowing how to treat others respectfully is really concerning and evidence that sexual harassment and miconduct are more common than we may think in society.

We have the responsibility to ensure that University is a safe place for all and we must lead societal change.

Of course, it is not just students, and even a single case of staff-on-staff or staff-on-student misconduct is devastating. Hopefully, Academia is ready to send a clear message to their students and staff: no harassment tolerated, whoever you are.

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Author: Alessandro

Please visit my website to know more about me and my research http://www.quantitative-microscopy.org

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