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Published: 16 Jun, 2021

A broader focus is required in the work against sexual harassment in academia

FEATURE There is zero tolerance for sexual harassment in academia. But the reality is experienced differently by people who have been victimised. How are suspected cases actually handled in the organisation and what conditions are in place to take action? This has been highlighted by researchers at Umeå University and Karolinska Institutet in the pilot study on zero tolerance and what it means in practice.

Text: Johanna Fredriksson

“The study has also brought forward the fact that it is always about a work environment issue,” says Heidi Hansson, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Umeå University.

Similar to numerous other industries and organisations, the #Metoo movement in 2017 shed extra light on sexual harassment within academia. There were higher demands to update mechanisms and methods within universities and colleges. A report from the Swedish Council for Higher Education, showed that many higher education institutions have since taken some form of action.

Consequently, it has become clear that there is a discrepancy between the organisations' zero tolerance visions against sexual harassment and the actual experiences of those who have been victimised.

“This issue should be studied qualitatively and there are some knowledge gaps,” says Britt-Inger Keisu, associate professor of sociology at Umeå University and director of Umeå Centre for Gender Studies (UCGS). “One of them is how it functions in practice. How does the issue circulate around the organisation? What do you do, what happens, what does not happen and why, who does what, which actors get involved - colleagues, friends, managers -and what considerations do you make?”

Along with Klara Regnö, PhD in industrial economics and senior lecturer in organisation and management at Mälardalen University, as well as gender equality strategist at Karolinska Institutet, she has worked on the study “What does zero tolerance mean in practice? - A pilot study on sexual harassment in academia”.

In the pilot study, fifteen employees in academia (ten women, five men) were interviewed about their experiences of sexual harassment. Some of them had personal experiences and others have worked with the issue for many years. The study has collected many stories from different perspectives.

The focus has been on the organisation's structure, culture and leadership, with a special analysis of how cases of suspected occurrences of sexual harassment are managed and resolved.

“We wanted to shed light on organisational standards and procedures that have led to this discrepancy between the stated vision of zero tolerance and how it is in reality,” says Britt-Inger Keisu.

Summary of conclusions

The researchers have reached several conclusions regarding the management of cases.
In summary:

1) The processing is difficult to grasp. There is a lack of follow-up and overall statistics.

2) Many actors are involved in the cases, there are deviations and decoupling from the formal procedure. (An actor can be several people, such as colleagues.)

3) There is low trust and poor communication between different actors. It becomes unclear about the mandate and allocation of work.

4) The legal process is at the centre of the administrative procedures and there is a lack of handling of cases that cannot, according to the law's definition, be classified as sexual harassment, even if what has happened can be clarified. This makes it difficult to implement other activities, such as support for the victim or to change the workplace's culture or working procedures.

Read the report.

“The fact that there are shortcomings in the routines of managing cases, we see as a consequence of two basic problems,” says Britt-Inger Keisu.

“Firstly, it is about suggestions of sexual harassment, which, among other things, are built around norms about gender and sexuality, how the phenomenon is defined, and what understanding and knowledge there is.

The second basic problem is the juridification of sexual harassment and that this focus places great responsibility on the individual who has been subjected. They must both report the violation to the authorities and reveal their name, and must have made it clear to the perpetrator that the behaviour is unwelcome.

If the victim has not stated that 'I do not want you to grope me on intimate body parts' then it cannot be proven that the perpetrator in question did not know that it was unwelcome and then there is no intent.”

Getting through the legal process is analogous to threading a needle.

In summary, it can be said that the legal process only captures a limited part of the problem.

“If it cannot be stated, in the opinion of the law, that it is a matter of sexual harassment, there is nothing that justifies measures under the formal procedure. Getting through the legal process is analogous to threading a needle,” says Britt-Inger Keisu.

The study also found that it is a rule rather than an exception that the person who feels violated does not want to report it, due to feelings of guilt, shame, and fear of possible consequences.

Hesitant to report harassment

A significant reason for this is that academia is a profession where there are many power-oriented and dependency relationships. To end up in a personal conflict with someone who is hierarchically superior, or to contribute to a prominent researcher's name being tarnished in public can cause too many negative consequences for one's career and work environment, of which there are several examples, according to the researchers. In some cases, it results in people changing jobs, in other cases they leave the academia entirely.

In addition, the study demonstrates that even individuals who support a victim have suffered badly.

Need for broad focus

The researchers' conclusion from the pilot study is that there is a need for a broad organisational focus in case management, one that includes the power and work environment perspective, and measures that can be taken when a person who has been victimised does not want to file a report, or that legal evidence is lacking.

In this way, you could also make zero tolerance function in practice.

They also observe that greater support is needed for both the victims and those who handle cases and suggest that resources outside the organisation should be involved in order to remove all connections to positions of power and dependency.

“In order to break this culture of silence and live up to common basic values, experience and substantial knowledge are needed centrally in the organisation and that it is integrated into operations. In this way, you could also make zero tolerance function in practice,” says Britt-Inger Keisu.

The research and collaboration programme against sexual harassment and gender-based violence is a comprehensive survey of the entire Swedish higher education sector. Britt-Inger Keisu is Umeå University's research representative. In correlation with Umeå joining the programme, the university management has allocated strategic funds for her pilot study.

“We want to join this initiative and obtain more knowledge, not just with a general feeling that there are irregularities,” says Heidi Hansson, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Umeå University with special responsibility for equal opportunities. “We want a fact-based and detailed analysis that allows us to work with this based on research and knowledge.”

To an excessive extent our processes have emphasised the legal matters, where the burden of proof is greater.

The University Management and all deans have received a review of the pilot study results. According to Heidi Hansson, the depiction conveyed was not surprising. In fact, at Umeå University, a revision of the administrative procedures has been underway for some time. The purpose is to clarify the legal work and the need for work environment initiatives. It is expected to be finalised in the near future.

“To an excessive extent our processes have emphasised the legal matters, where the burden of proof is greater. The pilot study has also highlighted the fact that it is always a work environment issue and even in that context, managers need support and tools to be able to work with the problem,” says Heidi Hansson.

The idea is to then train all heads of department and heads of unit with the materials that are produced.

How does the management view the problem of outdated norms and lack of knowledge about sexual harassment, which the researchers also refer to?

The common basic values that we have are absolutely essential and the most important thing we can work with. I believe that we have time on our side. That which caused the hierarchical system of old times and a sense of superiority and is on its way out, not least because we are moving towards a more equal academia. Gender mainstreaming and the fact that we have more women in higher positions will be crucial for us to move forward in this work, says Heidi Hansson.

A common platform for all higher education institutions

The Research and Collaboration Programme on Gender-based Violence was initiated by management members at Karolinska Institutet, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Malmö University and the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research at the University of Gothenburg, but is based on collaboration between the higher education institutions in Sweden.

All higher education institutions in Sweden participate in the programme.

The programme aims to create a common platform for the work against sexual harassment and gender-based violence in academia.

The programme will include the following activities:

A national study of prevalence, causes and consequences of sexual harassment and gender-based violence and victimisation in the entire Swedish higher education sector.

Development of new research-based knowledge of sexual harassment and gender-based violence and victimisation in various contexts of the academy: at the individual, organizational and sectoral level that can serve as support in development work.

Common platforms, arenas and networks for both research collaborations and opportunities for joint improvement work.