We hope this article leads to a larger discussion about sexual harassment in academia and the urgent work of creating a safe and inclusive environment for all of the members of the ISS community.
Initiated back in 2006 by African-American civil rights activist Tamara Burke, the #MeToo movement exploded in 2017 during the sexual misconduct scandal of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein when actress Alyssa Milano asked her Twitter followers from across the world to share their experiences of sexual harassment. As the hashtag went viral, a number of others also emerged, shedding light on sexual harassment in specific sectors. This included the #MeTooAcademia and #ScienceToo hashtags that highlighted the prevalence of sexual harassment in academic spaces and the need for change.
Gender discrimination and sexual harassment exist in every sector, and academia is not unaffected by this. A report released by UN Women in 2018 titled ‘Towards an end to sexual harassment: the urgency and nature of change in the era of #MeToo’ shows that 55% of women in the European Union have experienced sexual harassment at least once since the age of 15. Amongst these women, 32% identified somebody from their employment context—a colleague, a supervisor, or a customer—as the perpetrator.
Inspired by the #MeToo movement, the Swedish Research Council in 2018 published an international report on sexual harassment in universities. The research analysed 800 publications on sexual harassment during the period 1966-2018. The study concluded that sexual harassment takes place in all disciplines of academia and is reported by students, doctoral candidates, and faculty members alike. Women, especially younger women, women with precarious employment conditions, and those belonging to ethnic and sexual minority groups, are more exposed to sexual harassment than others. Underreporting is also very common.
The study also stated that there was evidence of women who had experienced varied forms of harassment having to deal with physical, psychological and professional consequences such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress syndrome, physical pain, unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, increased alcohol use, impaired career opportunities, reduced work motivation, etcetera. How this is affecting the overall work environment and organisational culture in academia remains under-researched.
Focusing on our local context in the Netherlands, a recent study commissioned by the Dutch Network of Women Professors (LNVH) showed that unwanted behaviour is prevalent in Dutch academia, with cases ranging from sexual harassment to physical and verbal threats, denigration, and exclusion. Another report by the Dutch unions for the science sector FNV and VAWO pointed out that four in ten university staff members are affected by bullying, intimidation, gossip, and abuse of power. While gender plays an important role in cases of undesirable behaviour, this situation is often exacerbated when gender intersects with other axes of oppression such as race, age, sexuality, religion, and ability.
Fighting sexual harassment at the ISS
Critical academic spaces like ISS are not exempt from cases of harassment (sexual or otherwise), bullying and discrimination that continue to plague academic spaces in the Netherlands and worldwide. In addition, the ISS draws researchers and students from all walks of life. This year, as in many other years, ISS welcomed a batch of approximately 150 MA students from over 50 countries. In such a cross-cultural setting, interpersonal interactions are enriching and exciting; however, they can also run the risk of resulting in different types of undesirable behaviour.
So what are we doing at ISS to address such situations and prevent them from happening? At the institutional level, ISS has set up various organs to provide support and address issues of inequality, discrimination and safety for both students and staff, such as the Welfare Office, the ISS Counselling Team, the Institute Council, and the Diversity and Inclusion Team. Additionally, the student body’s Gender Committee and the Sexual Diversity Committee have been working towards creating a more inclusive and safe community.
It’s worth noting that for the past 25 years, the Welfare Office provides a workshop on cross-cultural communication as part of the orientation programme for MA students, establishing a precedent for what is acceptable—or not—for the ISS community. And ISS is also commissioning experts to help it break out of the cycle of harassment and abuse. During orientation week in September last year, the ISS Counselling Team collaborated with Know It, Name It, Love It, an organization that seeks to build safer, better and truly inclusive communities and organizations through workshops and trainings. They facilitated a workshop for the incoming students on how to build a safe and inclusive environment. By using concepts of positionality, intersectionality and empathy, they provided strategies on how to minimize the potential for unwanted behaviour.
The most concrete goal of the workshop was the creation of the ‘Pillars of Our Community’, a set of guidelines developed by the new batch of MA students that laid the foundation for how to engage and interact with each other in a caring, safe, and respectful way, as well as to create an understanding of a collective responsibility to hold each other accountable when necessary.
Most of our examples are targeted at MA students, and we recognise there is more to be done both at a ground and institutional level, including sensitising work with other members of the ISS community such as PhD researchers and academic and administrative staff. Some of the ways that higher education spaces can confront and improve their response to sexual harassment is the creation and implementation of sexual harassment training programs aimed at students and staff that be conducted over a longer period of time. Additionally, they can review current policies, protocols and reporting mechanisms, promote a culture that discourages all forms of sexual harassment, and hold perpetrators accountable.
 According to UN Women, sexual harassment is “any unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favour, verbal or physical conduct or gesture of a sexual nature, or any other behaviour of a sexual nature that might reasonably be expected or be perceived to cause offence or humiliation to another.”
FNV and VAWO (2019) “Sociale veiligheid medewerkers universiteiten” https://www.fnv.nl/nieuwsbericht/sectornieuws/fnv-overheid/2019/05/helft-universiteitspersoneel-ervaart-sociaal-onvei
Naezer, Marijke; Van den Brink, Marieke; Benschop, Yvonne (2019) “Harassment in Dutch academia: Exploring manifestations, facilitating factors, effects and solutions”, Commissioned by the Dutch Network of Women Professors (LNVH) https://www.lnvh.nl/uploads/moxiemanager/LNVH_rapport__lsquo_Harassment_in_Dutch_academia__Exploring_manifestations__facilitating_factors__effects_and_solutions_rsquo_.pdf
Purna Sen, Eunice Borges, Estefania Guallar, and Jade Cochran (2018) “Towards an end to sexual harassment: The urgency and nature of change in the era of #MeToo”, UN Women https://www.unwomen.org/en/digital-library/publications/2018/11/towards-an-end-to-sexual-harassment
Swedish Research Council (2018) “Sexual harassment in academia – An international research review”, https://www.vr.se/english/analysis/reports/our-reports/2018-11-30-sexual-harassment-in-academia.html
About the authors:
Brenda Rodríguez Cortés is a PhD candidate at ISS working on gender and sexuality, ISS MA ‘14 alumna and a member of the ISS Counselling Team. Bruna Martinez and Vira Mistry are co-founders of Know It, Name It, Love It, and ISS MA ‘18 alumnae.