Our Bullying Culture

Many of you will have already seen the OpEd I wrote in the Guardian last week on the subject of bullying and harassment in our universities. I was heartened by the response it received, in so far as it was in part intensely personal and, since it is always uncomfortable to lay oneself open, I was encouraged to receive many messages thanking me for writing it. But in other ways the responses were predictably deeply disheartening because they highlight the pain so many of our students and colleagues – be they academic or other members of university staff – are subjected to. I received messages ranging from a former head of department whose health broke down so that he retired early after receiving no support in attempting to deal with a department member who was clearly harassing female students, to the parent of a student who knew how close their child had come to dropping out because of ongoing bullying. The stories were tragic. The cure so elusive.

meaning of success

It is easy to think bullying is straightforward to spot and if only people stood up to it, then it would go away, but – perhaps unlike sexual harassment – bullying is not always easy to define. At what point is it appropriate to lose one’s cool with a student who is being lazy and partying too much? Does a one-off shouting match amount to bullying? Shouting may always be regrettable, but we are not all saints all of the time. I know this week I became, shall we say, brusque with a member of my department over a trivial administrative hiccough and I felt ashamed (and subsequently apologised) as a result. But I hope that wasn’t bullying! On the other hand ongoing shouting matches with anyone, especially when the shouting is deliberately designed to humiliate or force the other person into submission, that is definitely bullying.

In academic science, there is plenty of this latter sort of behaviour. The power imbalance can be poisonous. It does not have to be the supervisor themselves who is the problem either (although it often may be), but perhaps a more senior student or postdoc. The student who is working together with such a person, let’s call them Dr A, when everyone else has gone home, and who finds a clumsy pass is made, may find it difficult to know how to extricate themselves without upsetting the other’s amour propre. If they fail – as was recounted to me by one now mid-career researcher – they risk Dr A being completely unhelpful from then on.  Nothing needs to be said but suddenly the help is no longer available, sarcastic comments become the normal mode of Dr A’s communication and in seminars they belittle what the student is presenting. Such behaviour is enough to undermine confidence but hard to quantify to other people.  But, when Dr A is the supervisor it is even more pernicious. Everything hangs on this person’s good opinion: letters of reference, names on papers (and the position of the names) and general support.  How can you answer back?

Sometimes I do believe people behave stupidly rather than maliciously. We are all capable of being blind to our own behaviour. I gave one example of this in the Guardian article, but I know plenty of people who can be very supportive in one situation –perhaps exactly those where their amour propre is not being threatened or they do not feel the individual is important enough to challenge them – yet deeply unpleasant in another. I’ve had a book thrown at me in a temper across a table by someone who, in other circumstances – as independent witnesses have testified to me completely out of the blue – is delightful and understanding. I’ve seen people who expend enormous energy on the Athena Swan process yet still intimidate their colleagues on a daily basis.  I know those who are enormously helpful to young (in the cases I know, female) students yet as these students reach independence the interaction suddenly changes to something more hostile. Such people may also never recognize that the administrators are worthy of respect at all.

Every reader will have their own stories to tell – of bad behaviour they have observed or suffered – but perhaps in some ways the most depressing story of all I heard was the one describing a systemic problem when, as part of an Athena Swan Action Plan, a department came up with a clear plan of action to offer support to any student bullied. I quote in part from the email I received (with permission)

We ran a local survey on bullying and harassment, which revealed the extent of the issue, particularly for PhD students. Importantly, we found that students were not reporting it, because they did not trust the [institution] in supporting them. We therefore set-up a local committee of “confidential advisers”, which received training to provide support and advice…

However, far from this being well-received by colleagues this person went on to spell out that when this and other related work was attempted to be further rolled out

I have been stopped from running a local survey on bullying and harassment; I have been stopped from sending a welcome letter to our ECRs, which mentioned (amongst a range of other resources) [this] support & advice scheme …, but has not been adopted by the other department I was sending the letter to (their HoD therefore censored that specific bit of information – was it to stop people requesting the same in their own department??)…

If heads of department try to suppress supportive efforts in their department, what does that say about them? Or their views of their juniors? Such behaviour should also be called out – but that is not easy to do. As the topics of bullying and harassment get more attention I fear we will see some people in such positions of power learning how to use the right words without directing either attention or resources to resolve the issues. No doubt some of these will still pat themselves on the back for their ability to spout the requisite phrases. It is vital that initiatives such as Athena Swan not only incorporate well thought-through action plans covering these topics, but that the institutional structures permit them to be carried out. There are many thoughtful and caring folk at the top of organisations, but bullying young women – yes this was another story I was told – into taking on the substantial workload of preparing the Athena Swan non-trivial paperwork will not be the work of people such as those.

Our university culture facilitates bullying because it is inherently competitive and too many people see it as a zero sum game: if you lose, I gain. It needn’t be so. The stories we heard during the course of the Meaning of Success project makes that very clear. Examples from Cambridge of women (all the interviews were with women; this isn’t meant to imply there aren’t men who do the same) who have manifestly succeeded while still treating their teams as humans include Ottoline Leyser and Jane Clarke (now President of Wolfson College), both of whose interviews are included in the book. There is no need to bully anyone to get to be an FRS! I feel that might be a useful mantra to pin on lab doors. There is no need to bully anyone to succeed on any front, yet some people seem unable to recognize that basic fact and think that the pressures of the REF, the TEF and (perhaps yet) the KEF require senior management to rule by intimidation and so on down the line, till the office cat gets kicked.

Over Twitter I see people mourning how much time and effort they feel obliged to put into contesting those who bully and demean others and yet we need these people more than ever. The more of us who mobilise, the more of us who publicly point out to those who bully that their behaviour is noticed, and the less institutions look the other way when such actions are drawn to their attention but offer support to victims and sanctions for the aggressors, the more productive everyone will be enabled to be. I hope that organisations and individuals grasp this nettle, but I am not sure I am optimistic that my hope will be realised.


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7 Responses to Our Bullying Culture

  1. James Greenwood-Lush says:

    Thank you for raising these important issues once again, Athene. I hope we can discuss over the coming months how we may assure that Athena SWAN action implementation will not be blocked as you describe, and that there is the necessary buy-in for engaging, without closing the door to people who really want to push for positive change in their departments.
    Food for thought as always.

  2. David Howells says:

    Dear Athena, I agree that many treat a career in science, as they do elsewhere, as a zero sum game. In the broader setting, where the object is to create wealth or ensure the safety of your “tribe” this may not always be maladaptive. In science where the aim is understanding our world it clearly is maladaptive. In the biological sciences, and translational medical science in particular, a long-term emphasis on competition has led to the publish-or-perish culture which fosters creation of a range of peverse incentives which deteremine how we judge each others worth and gain advancement. I believe this contributes to a stressed system in which many view bullying, if they recognise it, as an unavoidable evil. In addition to the very personal distress this causes, it is also eating away at the very fabric of science, reducing rigor and reproducibility.

  3. anon says:

    I don’t know if this is bullying or not, but my time in academia inflicted wounds that will last for the rest of my life. Other people I know would say the same.

    As I write these words I find myself confronting unemployment, in a state of despair. With 70+ scientific papers and an h-index of 25, I am wholly inadequate for the academic job market. The 7 (possibly 8) papers I’ve managed to squeeze into “high impact” journals during this REF period appear worthless. I watch other people (men and women) breeze past me without needing, apparently, to go to the lengths I was coerced into going to. My skills aren’t transferable so I have no prospect of stable employment. I can’t imagine being able to retire.

    Apart from the impossible situation I find myself in, and the repercussions for the people I care about, there’s something I find deeply troubling about my circumstances.

    As a PDRA I was encouraged/intimidated/manipulated into working extremely hard for a very long time. Professional and scientific guidance was totally absent. My personal life was neglected, I didn’t take holidays and my physical and mental health suffered. In the final analysis, my work is completely worthless to me. In contrast, the same work has been used to justify the existence of academics for years. In the next REF, my work will be submitted by my former boss (whose research output is a subset of my research output) as an expression of their “research excellence”: they have not employed me since 2011, and didn’t meaningfully contribute to the research. I yielded to pressure, and continued to name them on papers. More fool me.

    How can an institution that uncritically rewards higher status people for the labor of a lower caste of people, who are effectively punished for their efforts, be considered just? In this system, bullying is easy and natural. You don’t have to shout or threaten. Misleading suggestions and subtle put-downs are quite sufficient. The rigidity of the hierarchy ensures that exploitation will arise spontaneously – even amongst ostensibly well meaning people.

    Problems of this nature are increasingly common – I am far from alone.
    Ironically, the more universities flaunt their commitment to social justice, the more poorly they seem to treat individuals.

    Poor Stefan Grimm put it quite well:
    -“What these guys don’t know is that they destroy lives”,
    but he’s too kind. They know quite well. They prefer not to confront the obvious evidence.

    Finally, I bear no animus to any of the people indirectly referred to above. But I find my situation hard to cope with and unjust and I see no way out.
    Most importantly : the scenario described above is becoming increasingly common.

  4. anon says:

    ” ‘There is no need to bully anyone to get to be an FRS!’ I feel that might be a useful mantra to pin on lab doors.”

    How about, “If you can only justify your position by using people, your position is unjustifiable” ?

    Or, “Human beings are not a means to an end, but ends in themselves” – maybe lost on some?

  5. Stephen Eichhorn says:

    I think the experiences of ‘Anon’ are all too common. I have benefitted from the subset of research of my postdocs, students enormously and am more conscious of the effect of a highly pressured environment for them. I can’t say that was always the case early on in my career when I felt the pressure more acutely.

    I heard about a recent workshop on creativity for academics where research groups were encouraged to come along together. The supervisors were asked to write down who their most important collaborators were. Hardly any of the supervisors wrote down the names of people in their groups. This was very telling for me. Our most important collaborators ARE our students, postdocs. If we collaborate with them that changes the group dynamic enormously. Subtle change-big difference.

    I always say to my group members that life is more important than the day job. It’s not worth it to burn out. Having suffered mental health problems myself, exacerbated no doubt by ‘the job’ I try to relate to them. It’s a tough job, and mostly revolves around dealing with failure (success rates being what they are, papers rejected, CVS dismissed). Unfortunately some people in power react very badly to that. We, as supervisors, need to change.

    • Stephen
      I totally agree about the importance of students and postdocs in our academic lives. They should never be forgotten and worrying about their futures should be part of the PI’s job. I have written in the past about books written by such PIs that somehow seem to airbrush the students out in ways I felt uncomfortable with: both Nicholas Halberd in his book Seed to Seed (see here and Hope Jahren in Lab Girl (I wrote about here) were, in my eyes, guilty of this.

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