Fighting Sexual Harassment and Power Abuse in Academia by Marta Oliveira

TW: This blog discusses sexual harassment and sexual assault

Jane and I started our PhD journeys at the same time and I remember back then thinking she was really cool. As is often the case, with time and work, we diverged, and I stopped hearing from her. Our campus is very fragmented and as there is so much to do in Berlin, the PhD community is not very cohesive and it’s easy to lose touch with each other.

Three years later I was swamped in my PhD, going through my own battles, with no idea where to go and what to do with myself since my research was not particularly successful, and I couldn’t see the end in sight. At that point, Jane came to see me. She told me she had been sexually harassed by the postdoc she was working with. She had asked for help from the Graduate Office, the HR department, and her group leader. Nothing. It turned out that the postdoc was one of the group leader’s favourite scientists, and that seemed to matter more than the sexual harassment.

The sexual harassment left traces of trauma, but the final punch was to be told by the group leader to stay quiet, as “it could affect the harasser’s  career.” This contributed to fear and a low self-esteem in Jane. Eventually she was outcast from her research group, while the postdoc kept his job and was peacefully transferred to a different institute in Berlin, without any consequences for his actions. All the while, Jane took sick leave for a few months as the situation in the lab was terrifying, before feeling strong enough to come forward and ask for help to colleagues. That’s how I got involved.

It can happen to anyone

In Germany, discrimination based on age, sexual orientation, gender, culture or ethnic origin, religion, marital status and mental or physical disabilities is illegal as described in the German General Equal Treatment Act (Allgemeine Gleichbehandlungsgesetz). Sexual harassment is a case of gender discrimination and clearly illegal. But these cases are  rarely easy to prove. In this case (and quite commonly), it started with a few years of occasional annoying comments about how she looked too attractive, or how he could not focus at work because of her, to give some examples. After several years, the harasser made a clear physical advance which prompted Jane to do something about it.

It is fundamental that victims learn to  detect the red flags of harassment and seek help early on. But just because Jane didn’t do this does not lay any of the blame on her. Too often victims wonder what they could have done to prevent what happened to them. The answer is that it should have never happened at all, and it is not, and never is, their fault. In fact, organisations are legally responsible for providing the a safe work environment—by making sure misbehaviours don’t happen in the first place.

There are things, however, we can do on an institutional level to help the would-be victims of harassers. In Jane’s case, there was almost no information in the institute’s webpage, nor there was a code of conduct (set of principles/values that an organisations commits itself to follow, or requires its employees to follow) available, nor any steps of what to do in the wake of sexual harassment. Sign-posting and clear reporting routes are essential. Jane did not even know who to reach out to. I guess this is why she eventually shared her experiences with her cohort and we had to take action ourselves.

I realised that I was not working in a safe place, and that this could have happened to anyone, including me. Can you imagine completing a PhD knowing that there aren’t safety nets in place to prevent mistreatment of students?

Building our manifesto

As a group of motivated students, we started writing demands to the directors, in the form of a manifesto and a signed petition. But we didn’t get to send it—the directors heard about us and sent us an email acknowledging our anger, with a date to meet us that same week. We were shocked at first, but then we got to work. We wanted to prepare as well as possible for this meeting, and not only bring a list of our demands for the institute, but to make them understand that sexual harassment is an abuse of power and that it was not isolated, but systemic.  To support this argument, we collected three anonymous testimonies of cases of abuse of power that we knew were occurring. We read them out loud in the meeting, to be sure that everyone in the room understood what moved us. They were in shock, and ready to make them stop—at least that is what they said. We were so prepared that we had an answer to all questions raised and were invited, together with an open call to all employees, to form a task force that would deal with the problem of harassment and abuse of power in the institute. Some of us took up the challenge. Little did I know I was about to embark in a year-long journey designing the policies and the code of conduct of a research institute.

The task force against harassment

The task force included a diverse representation of people of different genders, ages, nationalities, backgrounds, research fields, positions (PhD researchers, postdocs, group leaders) and administration departments. We were moderated and guided by Sabine Oertel-Prigione, a specialist in public health (yes! – power abuse is a public health topic), who specifically appreciated our grassroots nature. Sabine was there mostly to empower us to design user-centred measures but also to coach us during the process, helping negotiations and to adapt expectations, such as when to be more pragmatic versus idealistic. I had never worked with such diverse crowd before and it was incredible to hear all angles and perspectives.

The task force was divided into three groups based on the final products they would produce: a Code of Conduct, policy measures and reporting procedures (i.e., what to do in cases of harassment). We worked together and presented the results every month, giving space for feedback. When we encountered specific controversial topics, a small group would debate it further, with a time limit. It was fundamental for us, the PhD researchers, to include elected representatives as they carried formality and gave us confidence to make demands which represented the student body, upon consultation.

During this process, a strategy to navigate controversial topics helped us achieve a cohesive  position and also helped us determine how much we were willing to compromise. Sabine moderated our discussions and we focused on achieving the best possible result with the time we had. Without romanticizing it, the process was a lesson in compromise and the product was a collection of pragmatic agreements. It might sound disappointing, but it was fundamental to push for (imperfect) milestones while moving forward to avoid dwelling on frustrating discussions that never end. We decided that getting something formal in place was better than nothing at all. You can check out the final Guidelines we put in place here.

We researched and debated deeply, and often did not find a clear-cut solution to complex questions. The definitions and decisions we came to were tailor-made to our institution and are opinions based on the extensive research conducted by the task force. Here are some of the more thought- provoking questions we discussed, and what we concluded:

  • How do you define harassment, and is there a difference between harassment, bullying, discrimination and abuse of power? We defined harassment as unwanted conduct that violates the dignity of the person concerned and creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. This is defined from the perspective of the victim. In case of discrimination, the reasons for the misbehaviour may be based on cultural background, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, age and mental or physical disabilities, and it can be direct or indirect, such as scheduling a meeting in a place inaccessible to an individual in a wheelchair for example. Bullying includes a repetition of the misbehaviour and a group element to the harassment. Finally, power abuse is the misuse of a power position to gain personal advantage for oneself or for another person by disadvantaging, harming or harassing another person. Unfortunately, all of these are common in academia.
  • An important question is that if there’s absolutely no intention from the perpetrator to harm someone, it is still harassment, power abuse, or discrimination? In other words: should we define the action based on the intention? We decided – based on expert opinions, often not the way law is interpreted – that the perception of the victim is actually the deciding factor to define harassment, independently of the intention of the perpetrator. But we decided to take intention into account when defining the consequences for the harasser.
  • What is the difference between flirting and sexual harassment? We all know that  there is a boundary but it’s hard to put it into words. Firstly, personal boundaries are different to everyone, especially in an international environment; this can make it hard to say that, for example, a touch on the arm is objectively sexual harassment. We spoke several times about the topic of consent, and sexual empowerment, and debating this in a diverse group of people who perhaps were not quite used to these topics was a challenge and a privilege. We understood that the ideal goal would be to educate and empower people to express their boundaries, as well as educate everyone towards being open to hear them. We also included mandatory leadership training to make leaders aware that the hierarchy they build will influence how well employees have a chance to express their boundaries. I realised that some people had never heard about these concepts before, and some hadn’t even considered that sexual consent was a topic to be discussed in the workplace. Breaking that taboo and guiding the debate was emotionally challenging but empowering.

After reviewing the research, we realised that sexual harassment is almost never about sexual attraction, but rather about exertion of power, in an attempt to create an imbalance of power. Here, we discussed the topic of relationships between people from different power hierarchies. In many universities in the USA and UK, this is strictly forbidden and we wondered if this also should be implemented in our institute. However, after sampling opinions from student colleagues and talking to experts, we realised that forcing people to not have relationships might just encourage them to hide them and this wouldn’t help anyone. However, we still wanted to clearly express that “individuals in vulnerable, exposed, dependent or subordinate positions might not feel able to freely and fully express non-consent” in our Code of Conduct.

One of the most shocking realisations of this process is that although discrimination is illegal in Germany, abuse of power is not. This creates a problem in enforcing the Code of Conduct and it means we need to create cultural change, where people recognise and appropriately punish abuse of power. Overall, we are aware that the guidelines we came up with will not make much difference if not taken seriously by the management and a critical mass of the faculty.        

Also, how should we measure the effectiveness of any measure? Interestingly, one of the best indicators, according to the experts, is the increase of reported cases. Sometimes, instead of reflecting an increase in harassment itself, they mirror empowerment of the victims and de-normalization of inappropriate behaviours. These cases are unfortunately happening everywhere. If they are not openly addressed and talked about in the institute/university it does not mean they don’t happen; it means they are hidden and normalised in a toxic work environment.

The ongoing change

Overall, we made a range of changes to address the issue of sexual harassment and power abuse in our academic environment. For example, we co-created the first Guidelines in a German scientific institute mentioning ‘Abuse of power’. We included some careful examples of what is generally considered as inappropriate behavior and what happens when a victim decides to come forward. We also defined and compiled a list of online people who would be trained points of contact, made available a carefully designed booklet of guidelines, and started running information campaigns to inform people of their rights. We also required that a survey be conducted to better understand the problem, and hired a free therapist on campus for everyone in need, who is frequently booked out. We also implemented mandatory leadership training for group leaders and post-docs with supervision responsibilities and an on-boarding training program for everyone about the Code of Conduct.

At first I felt strangely unqualified to work on this project, and I believed that the institute management could have hired experts to come up with guidelines which would help us build a safe work environment. But unfortunately that was not our reality and we decided to change it ourselves.

During a year of researching about the topic, consulting experts and debating legal definitions and policies, we not only had the tools to understand harassment, but also to choose the best policies (adapted to our institute and communities). It’s my understanding that if directors and consultants would have designed these guidelines, there would be a risk that the guidelines would not truly reflect our needs.

Another true advantage of a supported bottom-up approach is the unity that this project brought to our institute, by bringing people together to work on a truly motivating goal. And as a result, we all felt an exceptional sense of pride and responsibility for having co-created our institute’s guidelines and policies together, endorsed by such a diverse group of employees. It was a privilege to be part of such a diverse task force and see such passion and dedication that evolved toward one common goal. We certainly channelled the anger arising from Jane’s case to create positive change rarely seen in these circumstances, and hopefully prevented many cases from happening in the future. The result is far from ideal and far from perfect, but it’s a start.

Jane is a fictional name, her story used with consent. She changed research groups and was allowed to progress her research. She defended recently despite all odds (including COVID-19). She is an incredible force of nature that I had the pleasure to have met.

Resources for sexual harassment and sexual assault survivors:

  • Sexual harassment in the workplace is illegal in most countries. Check your rights if you want to take action.

Resources for friends and supporters:

  • Learn how to respond when a survivor discloses: Thank them for telling you; Ask how you can help; Listen without judgment; and Keep supporting.

Please note: These resources have been provided by the author and have not been extensively verified, barring due diligence.  

Marta Oliverira

Marta Oliverira is doing a PhD focused on the role of microtubules in the blood vessels development, in the MDC Berlin. She studied in Lisbon, Paris and Uppsala and experienced a wide variety of research groups and institutes/universities. During her PhD in Berlin she had the opportunity of diving deep not only in the science but also in the institute culture, and participating in shaping it. As part a student representative, she wrote articles and moderated events about mental health and power abuse in academia as well as influenced policy of the MDC to cultivate a kinder inclusive academic culture. She is a collaborator of the Global Consortium for Academic Mental Health. If you’re interested in knowing more, find her in LinkedIn and Twitter and ping her for a chat.