Hierarchies and the Power Imbalance

It is perhaps helpful, if depressing, that stories of harassment and bullying in many spheres now reach headline status.  Helpful because it means these issues get an airing instead of simply lurking in the long grass. Just this week there have been the resurrection of accusations of bullying against the former speaker John Bercow, and the resignation of a high profile MSP for inappropriate (for want of a better word, since it doesn’t appear actually to be criminal) texting of a youth 26 years his junior. Power imbalance sits at the heart of both these examples from the political sphere, and power imbalance is so often manifest in the toxic situations that arise in universities. Hierarchies abound throughout our institutions.

The most obvious case is the supervisor: research student relationship. Here a student may well feel the power all resides with the supervisor, and ‘inappropriate behaviour’ has to be swallowed. Inappropriate here may mean sexual harassment and worse, but even more common is bullying, denigration and humiliation.  Postdocs and technicians may equally feel they suffer from regular tongue-lashings or explicit put-downs. Those at the receiving end of such behaviour, particularly if over an extended period of time, are likely to end up doubting their worth, their research abilities or their futures in an academic sphere. They may walk out because a PhD, or a paper with their name on it, is simply not worth the pain of achievement.

Each of us has a different degree of tolerance for such behaviour, but no one should need to find out what that tolerance level is. Why do supervisors feel they need to use the power imbalance to make someone else feel small? I guess there are three categories of people who are likely to exhibit such unpleasant and unacceptable behaviour: those who lack all empathy and cannot put themselves in the other person’s shoes; those whose upbringing has given them such a sense of superiority they believe they are entitled to treat those they deem to be lesser mortals like dirt; and those whose own sense of self-worth is so shaky they can only believe in themselves if they believe those around them are insignificant. Maybe you can think of other ‘types’. But all of them should be made to recognize that this behaviour will not be put up with.

Unfortunately, of course, all too often it is put up with, because the victim(s) sees no way out. In some ways this sort of bullying should be easier to put a stop to than sexual harassment. That sort of behaviour typically occurs, literally, behind closed doors or in other private spaces. Bullying – shouting and humiliation – frequently occurs in front of other students or staff. This is why it ought to be possible for others to act. It is all too clear that a victim making a complaint is likely to find their path painful and anecdotally frequently it leads them nowhere, except possibly the exit. How many victims feel they have to put up and shut up because they have no confidence the system will work for them, however egregious they feel the behaviour they are enduring may be? Universities may try, but story after story suggests that too often the ‘centre’ would rather the student just quietly went away without a fuss in preference to a star performer being sanctioned, let alone sacked.

So, if due process is slow, painful and likely to lead nowhere, intervention by others may be more likely to lead to better outcomes. With bystander training spreading for dealing with harassment cases, can we not do something similar with bullying? Watching a supervisor humiliate a nervous student attempting to give a presentation, could the rest of the group step in? The answer to that must be yes, but it is never going to be easy. Anyone who speaks up will feel they may be the next victim, even if in some senses there ought to be safety in numbers. Bullies typically have favourites, so they may be the best people to intervene, but of course equally have the most to lose and may anyhow be favoured because they share similar characteristics to the supervisor.

I heard someone recently state that they thought universities did better in this space than industry and business. I can’t say I agree. In a company there are likely to be more formal reporting chains, more people involved, reducing the dependency – in terms of letters of reference, opportunities and funding for instance – compared with a PhD supervisor. Collectively we need to find solutions that don’t simply involve formal complaints and grievance procedures. Interventions sooner and in lower-key ways ought to be viable in a supportive environment, with supervisors knowing that their behaviour is being watched for inappropriate language and actions.

Hierarchies are not going to go away, nor are power imbalances, but what one does with that power should be a matter for reflection. Paul Nurse – a man of immense power in his capacity as former President of Rockefeller Institute, past President of the Royal Society and now founding Director of the Crick Institute, not to mention a  Nobel Prize winner, puts it well:

We need a supportive environment so it’s important to be nice to each other. Also it is very important in science to disagree, to argue, but you don’t do it in a way where you attack the individual: you attack their ideas.

Would that more of those who wield power recognized the power that niceness itself confers, in enabling people to be the best that they can, not simply a cog in someone else’s wheel. That attacks (and this could also include virtual attacks over social media, although that is not the primary location to which I’m referring) should not be ad hominem but based on facts and evidence. One must be an idealist, and, if this problem is given more visibility, collectively academia ought to be able to mitigate the potential damage inflicted on individuals before their careers are irreparably ruined.


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1 Response to Hierarchies and the Power Imbalance

  1. Kate Jeffery says:

    Very well put. I just wanted to add the point that it isn’t just supervisors and students/postdocs – there are other hierarchies in a lab too. And a supervisor is sometimes the last to find out about incidences of bullying or harassment that are happening, especially if it’s a big group.

    In our unit of five research groups we have an annual away-day where we all get together in a pub and spend the day discussing issues surrounding the practice of science, and one of our sessions is usually about bullying. We do small-group exercises dealing with hypothetical scenarios. It’s often a surprise to new recruits what the HR policies are about what constitutes bullying/harassment, what the protected characteristics are, and the fact that the benefit of the doubt lies with the complainant – it doesn’t matter what the intention of a remark or an action was, it’s the effect that’s important. There are also cultural issues to do with what’s considered funny and what isn’t – given how international science is, it’s really important to get everyone on the same page early on about what the local rules are.

    A big problem is the highly linear supervisory system we have, where one person’s good will or otherwise can make or break the career of a more junior researcher. We need to fix that.

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