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Published: 2022-05-20

"Unequal conditions risk becoming normalised"

FEATURE A national prevalence study of sexual harassment and gender-based vulnerability in academia has been published. Based on this, the outcome for Umeå University has been analysed. “I see a great risk that unequal conditions have become normalised, and we need to discontinue that," says Britt-Inger Keisu, Director of the Umeå Centre for Gender Studies and one of the researchers behind the report.

Text: Johanna Fredriksson

Vice-Chancellor Hans Adolfsson sees the report as an important tool with the systematic work environment management. “The analysis helps us to identify the problems and take the right measures,” he says.

How does sexual harassment manifest itself in academia, to what extent does it exist and what are the consequences for individuals' career opportunities and for academia as an employer, education provider and knowledge organisation?

These were some of the questions posed by the Research and Collaboration Programme on Sexual Harassment and Gender-Based Victimisation in Academia. In the spring of 2021, a large survey was conducted among 39,000 students, doctoral students, and employees at 38 Swedish higher education institutions.

The survey was administered by Statistics Sweden (SCB) and is the first of its kind in Sweden. The national results show that young people, women, students, and doctoral students are particularly vulnerable.

Analysis by Umeå University

So what is the situation like at Umeå University?  
To find out, the University Management wanted someone to look specifically at the figures for Umeå University. Britt-Inger Keisu, associate professor of sociology and director of the Umeå Centre for Gender Studies (UCGS) was given the task by the Vice-Chancellor. She enlisted the help of Johanna Lauri, a postdoctoral researcher at UCGS, and Nils Eriksson, faculty director of studies at the Faculty of Social Sciences.

They have collectively produced the report Sexual harassment and gender-based vulnerability - a study among employees and students at Umeå University where they analysed the results from a gender theoretical perspective.

“We know from previous studies and Karin Röding's report on misconduct at Umeå University that there are major problems with how cases are handled when there are suspicions of, for example, sexual harassment,” says Britt-Inger Keisu. “This study examines the prevalence of both sexual harassment and gender-based vulnerability - which includes bullying, cyberbullying, discriminatory treatment, rude behaviour, violence, and threats of violence - and the impact this has on the work environment and health.”

Read the reports

On 20 May 2022, the Research and Collaboration Programme presented a report with analyses on a higher education sector level.

Survey on gender-based violence and sexual harassment in the Swedish higher education sector

And the Umeå based report:
Sexual Harassment and Gender-based Violence: A Study of Staff and Students at Umeå University

Read a summary translation of the Umeå-based report.

Following the national pattern

Umeå University follows the national pattern of which groups are most vulnerable. However, the survey presents many different figures, and it becomes clear that the answers differ depending on how the question is asked. When asked directly whether the respondent had been subjected to unwanted sexual attention at work or at their place of study, a total of 2.2% of employees and 6.4% of students at Umeå University reported that they had been exposed (the national figures are 2.0% and 5% respectively).

“Combined with the fact that few people make formal reports, this can be perceived as low numbers that can therefore be easily dismissed as non or irrelevant issue,” says Britt-Inger Keisu.

However, when sexual harassment is instead broken down into questions about concrete situations and actions - such as glances, comments, online abuse, groping, etc. - the numbers rise significantly. Nearly 51% of female employees at Umeå University answered yes to the question whether they had ever been exposed to at least one of the situations listed, while 29% of men responded that they had been exposed. In comparison with the higher education sector in Sweden, the levels for female employees at Umeå University are 8 percentage points higher.

Why does it look like that?

“I don't know. I can't answer why Umeå stands out among female employees, but it's very serious, not just that it's higher, it's serious in general,” says Britt-Inger Keisu. “In this reporting, we have to remember that vulnerability varies both in scope and in severity, that it sometimes consists of combinations of several unwelcome or unpleasant acts, but that the figures also hide experiences of frequent vulnerability and an unsustainable work or study situation for some people.”

By contrast, among male employees in Umeå the level is 2 percentage points lower in a national comparison.

Students also show lower figures in a comparison - 31% for female Umeå students compared to 40% among females in the higher education sector in Sweden and 14% for male Umeå students, compared to 31% among men in the higher education sector.

Both the national study and the Umeå study present a great amount of statistics that can serve as a basis for work towards a safer study and workplace free from sexual harassment, as well as provide a basis for future research and follow-up studies.

We believe that this sexism and abuse of power must be acknowledged and addressed.

Through the analyses made in the Umeå study, the researchers have seen some trends. Something that Britt-Inger Keisu particularly wants to highlight is that sexual harassment and gender-based vulnerability are in danger of being normalised in academia. 

“We see a clear pattern of a gender difference where women are significantly more likely than men to be victimised in all the areas measured,” says Britt-Inger Keisu. “We believe that this sexism and abuse of power must be acknowledged and addressed. We do not usually think about it happening because it has become normalised and hidden in everyday processes. But they continue year after year, and in this way, they recreate the hierarchies and power inequalities that exist in academia.”

Furthermore, the study demonstrates that those who report sexual harassment or other gender-based vulnerability also report having a poorer psychosocial and organisational work environment and experience a higher degree of stress and exhaustion. They are also more likely to report their health as being poor.

“If we were to break this reproduction of inequality, we would have a better organisation with higher quality in the work and studies as well, I am absolutely convinced of that,” says Britt-Inger Keisu. “If vulnerability affects both the work environment and health, it's undeniable that you can't do as good a job.”

There is a lack of prior studies that have linked sexual harassment to so many different forms of gender-based vulnerability and to the work environment.
“This is quite unique and the study is an important contribution of knowledge to the field,” says Britt-Inger Keisu.

Emphasising responsibility for the work environment at more levels

Britt-Inger Keisu believes that part of the solution lies in emphasising responsibility for the work environment at more levels in the organisation.

“It's very easy to look upwards and see that the university management is mishandling the issue, which should be done, but we also have a shared responsibility at departmental and unit level," she says, hoping for more support and training for functions with health and safety responsibilities.

She believes that there are also challenges in the academic organisational structure, where heads of department have work environment responsibilities but at the same time may have difficulty gaining insight into, for example, different research groups, where there are leaders who have not stated or formal responsibility for the work environment.

“Although heads of department are responsible for the work environment, all employees also have a responsibility to behave well towards each other.”

If we harness the energy of the criticism and together create change, we can become this good example of an equal academic institution with a well-functioning meritocratic culture.

Britt-Inger Keisu often gives lectures at workplaces on topics such as leadership, gender equality and organisational change, and good examples are often requested. But in the critical research field, it can be difficult to find and present any examples.

“I think Umeå University should be the good example and I believe there are signs that we can be. On the one hand, the management is showing courage and commitment by appointing investigations and taking it seriously, as they say and have so far shown in action, and on the other hand, there is a clear will coming from below from the employees. If we harness the energy of the criticism and together create change, we can become this good example of an equal academic institution with a well-functioning meritocratic culture," she says, but emphasises that action is now needed based on these reports.

“They must not become a shelf-warmer, that one is satisfied with having seen that there was an occurrence and then continues as before. Action is now required."

Good basis for work environment management

During the year, the university management has prioritised the work for a safer study and workplace, with a special focus on issues related to sexual harassment. The commissioning of this analysis is part of that prioritisation. Several measures have been identified so far, some have already been initiated, others are under way. For example, there is a plan to develop support functions in work environment issues for managers, heads of department, departments and faculties, something that is requested in the analysis of this report.

We are convinced that gender equality is a quality factor as well as a work environment issue.

But the analysis also sheds light on other aspects that the management sees as important to include in future work.

“The report gives us a good basis for how we can further develop our work on common basic values, so that we can also achieve more subtle expressions of inequality and vulnerability," says Hans Adolfsson, Vice-Chancellor of Umeå University, and continues:

“Obviously, it is positive that we see low response rates to the question of how many people have been exposed to unwanted sexual attention, but everyday vulnerability gets much higher numbers. It is very valuable that we get a clear picture of how less obvious gender-based vulnerability manifests itself at our university. Then we can take the right measures and break down things that reproduce inequality and negatively affect the working environment. We are convinced that gender equality is a quality factor as well as a work environment issue,” he says.