In some senses I am pleased to see increasing attention being given to the topic of sexual harassment in our universities. It would be good if such attention was unnecessary, but regrettably there is no point pretending that that is the case. Two issues this past week have brought it back centre stage in HE circles. Firstly we have seen the publication of the UUK report ‘Changing the Culture: Report of the Universities UK Taskforce examining violence against women, harassment and hate crime affecting university students ’. Secondly there is a new breaking story – in astronomy – of alleged incidents in Liverpool John Moore’s University. I have written about harassment against women before, most recently less than a year ago in the wake of a couple of US horror stories, also in the discipline of astronomy, but there is clearly still a huge amount of work to do.
The issues break down into various different categories, but let me crudely divide them into interactions between student and student on the one hand, and staff and either student or another staff member on the other (the term staff intending to cover any employee of whatever grade). My own university has been looking hard at the former problem and its developing policies are highlighted in the UUK report (see Annex 4). That most certainly doesn’t mean the problems are solved, but it does demonstrate that the University is taking the issue extremely seriously. As the head of a Cambridge College I am very mindful of the challenges our community face in this arena. For many years the 1994 Zellick report has, to some extent tied everyone’s (including colleges’) hands and it is encouraging to see the sector being freed to move on from this. (I am not going to get all technical about how this ruling has affected things, but you can find out more here as well as in the UUK report.).
Churchill College Students’ Union has, with the College’s encouragement and support, been running consent workshops for several years for all freshers. I am always heartened when during that first important week after arrival (male) freshers tell me what a good idea they think this is, even when, as they sometimes do, they also tell me that it told them nothing they didn’t already know and believe. Additionally the College has a robust – and published – policy to highlight that we will not tolerate any of those things that might be implied by the phrase ‘laddish culture’. That does not mean that bad behaviour does not happen, that would be too much to hope for, but miscreants who are caught can be in no doubt that the College will deal with their offences appropriately and resolutely, thereby complying (long before it was published) with the UUK report’s recommendation vii.
I am, however, just as concerned about the second problem in which staff are involved which, as commenters on the UUK report have pointed out, is not so well-covered by it. It is at least as tricky to deal with but that does not mean we should not tackle it. Far from it. Regarding the recent LJMU astronomy case I know no more than the Daily Mail (yes, afraid so) has chosen to report. It seems to boil down to the fact that a female professor of astrophysics, then at LJMU accused another colleague of writing a reference for a staff member which did not include any reference to accusations against him of harassment. This reference enabled the staff member to move to another university before the accusations could be fully investigated, at which point they were dropped and so could neither be substantiated nor dismissed. The female professor was accused of libel by the reference-writer, but the courts have just decided to throw out the case, on the grounds there was no likelihood of conviction. (Of course there may yet be an appeal.) This episode – if not the court case – resembles one of the earlier stories I wrote about, this time arising from the University of Arizona, where an alleged harasser’s move to a new institution was facilitated without the accusations being passed on.
What constitutes harassment? Do people feel confident about reporting it? Do they know who to report it to? And will anything be done if they do so report? These are key questions and, too often, the answer to the last three questions is ‘no’. And if people aren’t sure that what they’ve been subjected to will even be considered as harassment, they are hardly likely to seek answers to the remaining questions. If the situation in which harassment occurs also involves a power imbalance, as unfortunately is often likely to be the case (as in supervisor-student interactions), then long-term damage to an individual’s sense of self-esteem as well as their career may well result. Harassment in such cases may be verbal or involve prolonged unwanted physical contact. It can be traumatic, particularly if it occurs over an extended period.
Reporting of harassment (sexual or any other kind) is tricky. It is embarrassing. One can end up, as in domestic abuse, with believing that perhaps you ‘deserved it’, a feeling I know is hard to overcome – I wrote about a specific example of this from my own experience previously. If alcohol is involved you may think it’s best just shrugged off because perhaps the perpetrator didn’t really mean it. And sometimes you won’t even know who to report it to if it happens at a conference. I’ll illustrate this again with a specific and very personal incident which feels surprisingly recent, occurring at a time when I might have expected to be well past such a verbal attack: I must have been around 50. Pinned in a corner by a drunk professor from another country, I was told – as if it was a compliment – that he thought I was much more f***able than another woman attendee. On and on he went expanding on this idea. I clearly am too much of a wimp, brought up to be a nice girl and not make a fuss, as I didn’t slap him, and he made it impossible for me easily to escape. So I just stood there trying to say not to be so silly and to stop saying such things, until someone else began to get suspicious about my body language and came and rescued me. I kept what he said to myself (this is the first time I have ever spelled out the specifics), and tried to laugh the situation off to questioners. I certainly didn’t report it, as perhaps I should have done, to the conference organisers so that he could be banned for the future. I do know he was given a stern talking just because it was so apparent that his behaviour had been out of line, without the details being known. (I certainly could not have seen any ready way to report his behaviour to his employer.)
The trouble is, even if one does report someone’s unsavoury behaviour, it may come out at an unacceptable cost to the complainant for zero-to-little gain. Again, my own pale experience of this has been written up previously. Many people’s experiences on all these fronts will have been infinitely worse than anything I have suffered. Trying to work out how to handle these situations fairly to all concerned is a massive challenge. Allegations are exactly that without an investigation, but it may be impossible for an investigation to discover anything because perpetrators, though often nasty pieces of work, are not necessarily stupid enough to do things in public. If actions do take place in public then bystanders can do a great deal to help – as in my example above, where I was ‘rescued’ by someone I didn’t even know very well because my discomfort was so obvious.
Universities need to face up to this challenge. Most importantly they have to create a culture where people no longer expect simply to be able to get away with it. Where laddish culture amongst the student body is stamped on by their peers. Where the sense of entitlement by powerful men to take what they want without thought of the victim they are targeting – as highlighted by Donald Trump’s behaviour – simply withers away and dies. No doubt that will require bravery on the part of the victims to speak up as well as institutional hierarchies to hear their words. I fear we are a very long way from that Utopia yet, but that is no reason for not doing all we can to get closer to it.