Sexual harassment at UG
Now focus on the perpetrators
The stories she heard hit home, says Susanne Täuber. Not while she and Nanna Haug Hilton with the Young Academy Groningen were doing research for the report ‘Harassment at the UG’, but later. The interviews with the twenty-six mostly female employees at the UG were intense and hard. But they conducted them as researchers, not letting emotions get the best of them.
But when their research was finished, the feelings washed over them.
‘What hit me the hardest was the similarities between all the stories. You don’t see the pattern until you’ve collated and analysed all the data’, says Täuber. ‘There’s something about the current system that means a lot of policies from the past few years on social safety, inclusion, or complaints procedures don’t work the way they should.’
Something needs to change, she says.
She and Hilton held twenty-six interviews. Of the interviewees, twenty-two were women, twenty-three were internationals, and nine were Rosalind Franklin Fellows. They all reported discrimination and harassment by their supervisors who in most cases were Dutch and male.
The stories range from abuse of power and excessively controlling behaviour to name-calling and physical aggression. Stories of discrimination and women receiving complaints about how they look or even how they sit.
‘Another big pattern was people having their academic careers sabotaged’, says Täuber. ‘Sometimes the criteria for promotion change every year so people keep getting excluded. Or the victims are told they need management experience but are never given the opportunity to get any.’
When that doesn’t work, because other requirements have been clearly documented, they attack people on their soft skills, adds YAG chair Tina Kretschmer. ‘How do you get along with the rest of the team? Are you a good mentor? Are you amicable?’ However, these soft skills are evaluated only by supervisors. ‘But they rarely know the people well enough. It’s usually the teaching assistants, the direct co-workers, who are the best judges of someone’s character.’
The UG encourages people to report inappropriate behaviour, but the consequences are dire
When the victims spoke up, they faced a fierce backlash. ‘The UG encourages people to report inappropriate behaviour’, says Täuber, ‘but when they do, the consequences are dire. People almost always retaliate in nasty ways.’
Victims were suddenly told there was a ‘conflict’. That they were bad colleagues, that their communication skills were lacking. They received negative scores during their assessments and were forced into mediation where they were confronted with the perpetrators over and over again. In the meantime, people badmouthed them to colleagues and their supervisors would block grant requests.
The UG advises people to first talk to their supervisors if there is an issue. Unfortunately, the supervisors are exactly the problem. ‘That makes the advice fairly cynical’, says Kretschmer.
Bullied into leaving
The next step people can take, talking to the faculty board, is usually a dead end as well. Board members prefer to avoid conflicts with professors, who wield a lot of power. They tend to believe supervisors over victims. When they do try to intervene, they sometimes end up becoming the victim themselves. Eight of the twenty-six interviewees told of deans who tried to take action, only to be bullied into leaving.
Not even the confidential adviser can do very much, simply because she doesn’t have the authority, something the recently appointed Ombudsperson will hopefully be able to change.
But the problem isn’t confined to Groningen. According to Täuber and Kretschmer, the issue occurs at all Dutch universities, and probably at most institutes in Western Europe. ‘It’s to do with the strong hierarchical systems in place, which means people are dependent on their supervisors’, says Täuber.
She refers to an American study from 2018, which showed that the army has the most cases of sexual harassment, with academia in second place. The study ascribed it to the strong hierarchy in place at educational institutes. It’s also connected to the fierce competition in academia, as well as the job insecurity people feel because they only ever get temporary contracts.
It’s obvious to Täuber and Kretschmer that something needs to be done. But what?
The YAG report includes a long list of recommendations. Don’t force victims into traumatising mediation, they say. Ensure more transparency and a flatter hierarchy; the dependency relationship between supervisors and victims is a constant factor in these issues. Hold faculty boards responsible when there aren’t enough women in higher positions but plenty in lower ones.
Right now, professors are immune, and no one dare to speak up to them
Perhaps most importantly, find out what perpetuates these toxic systems, and dismantle them. ‘Right now, professors are completely immune’, says Kretschmer. ‘No one dares to speak up to them.’
People rarely have the courage to address things, in spite of the zero-tolerance policy the UG instated in 2019 and the active-bystander training it has been giving for the past eighteen months, which encourages staff members to speak up when they observe inappropriate behaviour around them. ‘We want to be a learning organisation’, says Täuber, ‘but we aren’t. Not yet.’
People are scared, in part because they’ve seen that speaking up doesn’t change anything and in part because they fear becoming the victim themselves. But it’s essential that people speak up. ‘We have to take the responsibility we have for each other much more seriously’, says Kretschmer.
The Maastricht rector magnificus does fire people, but quietly so as to not embarrass anyone
In other words, the focus needs to be on the perpetrators. Minding the victims is important and a good thing, but we rarely hear how the people responsible are held accountable, when their actions are in fact punishable. ‘That just shows people that this kind of behaviour is allowed’, says Täuber. ‘The board has a lot of catching up to do.’
She refers to an interview with Maastricht rector magnificus Rianne Letschert. In de Volkskrant, she said she actually does fire professors who discriminate against employees or harass them. ‘Except she said she does it quietly so as not to embarrass anyone’, says Täuber.
In informal meetings, Täuber was told that the UG does in fact take action, albeit quietly. ‘But if you only punish the perpetrators in secret, people don’t know the organisation is tackling the problem. You’re not sending a signal.’
Not that Täuber is a proponent of naming and shaming. But she would like to see more openness. ‘Tell people that it’s happening’, she says. ‘Let them know we don’t accept this kind of behaviour.’
These things need to happen, not just because it’s unacceptable that the victims are suffering the consequences instead of the perpetrators, but also because it’s bad for the university. Talented PhD candidates leave academics for good. ‘This group of interviewees had people with great leadership potential’, says Täuber, ‘but they’ve now been lost to the university.’