Sexual harassment’s insidious nature makes it persistent

Examples of men who are really interested beyond professional boundaries in one of their – often clearly younger – female colleagues are widespread. This is according to Marianne Schär Moser, co-leader of a project on sexual harassment in the workplace in Switzerland. Typically, the men do not want to accept these women’s refusals and start harassing them. She also refers to other situations where universities or single departments do not prevent a sexually charged climate that might result in a problem for individuals. “There are examples of criminally relevant actions like sexual assault or rape, also pornographic pictures, undesired physical contact or imposed stories with sexual content at work places,” says Schär Moser. And these problems appear to occur across academia in any country.

Various degrees of harassment

Often, the trouble is that the harassment is underhand. “Much more frequent are general comments about the person, her body, her cloths and sexual remarks, also obscene jokes and gestures, whistling and gazing, insulting calls or e-mails,” Schär Moser points out. “And verbal harassment is not necessarily less fatal than physical contact. If you hear inadequate comments every day at work, over years and years, serious consequences may result,” she adds. This problem became the object of attention in 2013, following the resignation of a leading figure in science blogging, Bora Zivkovic, blogs editor with Scientific American, due to allegations of sexual harassment. At the time, Nature published an editorial pondering over the difficulties in establishing the extent of sexual harassment in science and its satellite careers such as science journalism.

One difficulty is that there is a fine line between providing compliments and harassing someone, often due to cultural differences. “When someone feels harassed, that is a very subjective reception, depending on personality and culture,” explains Monika Keller, equal opportunity commissioner at ETH Zürich, in Switzerland, from her observation in her international university.

By contrast, Solveig Simowitsch, equal opportunity commissioner at the University of Lübeck, Germany, and spokesperson of the “sexual discrimination and violence” commission in BuKoF, the German federal conference for gender equality and equal opportunities officers at universities, points to a 2013 article entitled ‘About the Sexism debate’ framing the issue. It explains that “sexual harassment does not simply ‘happen‘, as men like to assume that they made a compliment and the woman did not understand. There is a big accordance in what men and women perceive as sexual harassment.” And Schär Moser adds: “of course, interpersonal interactions between men and women, like compliments, are permitted. But innuendos should be taboo. All interactions should be marked by mutual respect.”

Extent of the problem unknown

It is difficult to measure and compare the extent of sexual harassment among young scientists because the problem is not defined generally. And there are no specific statistics. But different experts agree that in universities, such harassment is as common as in other institutions or companies. Some clues on the magnitude of the issue, stem from a study of over 8,000 students, entitled ‘Gender-based violence, stalking and fear of crime’, which was conducted in Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain and the United Kingdom, and completed in 2011. It concluded that female students are even more often affected than women of other status or age.

This suggests that young scientists are sexually harassed as often as students, according to Simowitsch. Others concur. “I identify about seven examples per year and I know that is a similar number of scientists who search help in other universities,” says Keller. And this only covers those who come forward and seek help. Presumably some don’t. “Thus, sexual harassment does happen at universities although you might think that people are better educated here than in other fields,” Keller adds.

This trend appears to have been witnessed across Europe. “It is not possible to know how many young scientists are affected because the victims of sexual harassment seldom lodge a complaint,” says Clara, a representative from CLASCHES, the French anti-sexism and sexual harassment in higher education student group, who did not want to be named. “And there is no statistics about sexual harassment in higher education.”

The threat of the superior

Although women are mostly affected, men are also victims of sexual harassment, all quoted experts agree. Among women, it is mostly very young students in the first semesters. Then, the percentage reduces and in young scientists, it rises again,” notes Simowitsch. The offenders are strangers and private contacts, among students also fellow students, among young scientists more colleagues or superiors. “When the harassers belong to the same hierarchy level, there is often another type of dependence: Maybe the harasser is, for example, because of his education or network, less dispensable for the university than the victim,” Schär Moser says.

This is even a bigger problem when the harasser is not just colleague but a high-level member of the hierarchy with professional and international outstanding reputation. Simowitsch also emphasises the difficult situation of the relation between doctoral advisor and doctoral candidate because she is especially dependent of him if she wants to do her PhD successfully. “The specificity of their topics often does not allow changing doctoral advisor, in the worst case, even if the advice is connected to a job placement,” she notes.

Such situations also often occur between members of a team. “It is a big challenge for the leader to handle those situations and professors sometimes contact me because they feel overtaxed,” says Keller. “They are primarily prepared to do research and need special trainings to deal with sexual harassment or other cases of disrespectful behaviour.”

Victims’ behaviour

Sexual discrimination is prohibited by European law. And equal opportunities are pursued in all countries of the EU. In addition, sexual harassment is covered by national laws. The Swiss General Equal Treatment Act, for example, prescribes that the employers have to protect their staff against sexual harassment. But in reality there seem to be many victims who either endure the situation or cancel their PhD project with all consequences for their professional career instead of looking for help.

The reasons are manifold: many victims are insecure, blame themselves and think they are too sensitive. “I know women who experienced extreme situations but who were not sure if they were really harassed,” Keller says: “In one example a man put his foot between a woman’s legs at a conference and she was not sure if this was adequate or not. That is because these situations of sexual harassment develop step by step and in this process, the victims often lose the grip.”

Another problem is that many victims do not expect that they would receive any help from their university or faculty, according to the findings of the EU study cited above. Victims of sexual harassment even fear blames and sanctions by their colleagues. “Unfortunately, women who complain still often have to fear their colleagues’ negative sanctions. That goes from accusations that the ‘problems’ could have been solved internally, to the accusation of exaggerating the affair in order to further herself, to commentaries that it is her fault because she ‘conducted provokingly,’” Simowitsch says, “It seems to be easier to blame her instead of sanctioning the harasser’s behaviour, because this way you can maybe avoid loyalty conflicts.”

Next steps

Universities should therefore sensitise their staff for the importance of a good working climate. They should also ensure secure working and studying conditions for everybody and take every case seriously. This should be a matter of course, yet it must be emphasised that it is not the victim but the harasser who should bear the costs of an inadequate behaviour.

The victims themselves should promptly try to talk about their experiences because this is the only way in order to find out whether a given behaviour is adequate. People who observe that colleagues are treated inadequately should also react and – if necessary – look for contact persons inside or outside the university. Finally, different institutions have developed detailed advice for preventing and dealing with sexual harassment in universities and other institutions or companies.

Since such issues of harassment have been ongoing finding solutions to avoid the repetition of such scenario seems easier said than done. “Our online assistance service gives information about the professional first contact with the person concerned, the appeal proceedings and examples of best-practice prevention at specific universities,” Simowitsch notes. “Delivering online assistance requires the legwork of colleagues and the provision of information about guidelines, materials, working groups, trainings and feedback. We observe that the universities have started to act. But there is still a lot of work to do.”

Featured image credit: CC BY-SA 2.0 by ghedo

Janna Degener

Janna Degener

Visit her website at Janna Degener
Janna Degener is a linguist and anthropologist. As a freelance journalist she is specialised in educational issues and she mainly writes for online publications including ABI, Goethe, Go-out and for German magazines such as Arbeitsmarkt or UNICUM. She also gives scientific and journalistic courses at universities including Universität zu Köln, Freie Universität Berlin and Leuphana Universität Lüneburg. She also produce radio and video content related to social projects and consumer interest topics.
Janna Degener

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