The Female Academics Fighting To Make Higher Education A Safe Space For Women

"Academics are not taught what proper behaviour is."

A call for academics to share the worst behaviour they have witnessed at conferences has illuminated a dark and predatory side to the world of higher education.

The conversation began with high-spirited anecdotes. One person recalled being chased down a hotel corridor by Mr Blobby during a psychology conference, another encountered a pack of wild dogs and someone ended up revealing their colleague had used a cupboard as a toilet.

But the humour quickly fell away as a number of women began sharing stories of sexual harassment and assault, and soon the thread was overtaken with a torrent of harrowing experiences.

HuffPost UK has spoken to women who describe watching predatory behaviour from colleagues go unremarked upon, and being followed into hotel bedrooms at events.

One female academic on Twitter reported receiving unsolicited dick pics during the opening speeches at a conference. Another was asked if she was willing to appear in a soft-core porn film. Someone else described having her breast groped. One recalled escorting a female colleague to safety after she had been rendered almost unconscious by a spiked drink at a post-conference dinner and then assaulted by six men.

Times Higher Education Editorial Director Phil Baty, who sent the original tweet, said he had expected replies detailing arrogance, petty behaviour and snobbiness.

He told HuffPost UK: “I’m not naïve, I’m aware that awful things happen at conferences across sectors, but it was genuinely shocking to see the sheer volume and outpouring of incredibly disturbing stories from appalling behaviour right through to illegal acts of assault and harassment.

“A big thing that has come out of this for me, particularly as me being a middle-aged man posting about it, is that men have to see it and spot it and call it out.”

Baty said the online thread made him realise that senior men have to play a much more vigilant role, ensuring they don’t turn a blind eye and “become allies to the people at the receiving end.”

“You have to spot it if people are being made to feel uncomfortable,” he said. “Spot it if someone junior is being cornered by an unpleasant, predatory character, call out verbal abuses, the hierarchical bullying dressed up as academic discourse.”

What is clear from the responses, and from the subsequent interviews that we conducted, is that far from being a presumed “safe space” for women, the world of academia is rife with sexual harassment occurring among both students and staff.

Many accounts spoke of staying silent for fear of both legal and reputational retaliation from alleged perpetrators.

Furthermore, the power imbalance between senior staff and fledgling academics is acute in higher education; a professor or mentor can hold an huge amount of power over a student in terms of access to research, equipment or recommendations, and these factors often prevent students from coming forward.

Universities have specifically come under fire over procedures in place to report harassment and institutions’ inability to investigate their own practices, after a number of women at major universities came forward saying they had been targeted after making their complaints.

Award-winning astrophysicist Emma Chapman, campaigns to end sexual misconduct in higher education with the 1752 Group.

Dr Emma Chapman took legal action against her university
Dr Emma Chapman took legal action against her university
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“About a third of universities in the UK have zero policy on whether staff can sleep with their undergraduate students. [People assume] it’s against the rules because academics are good people, right?”

- Dr Emma Chapman

Dr Chapman, a former UCL PhD student, received a £70,000 pay-out after a two and a half year wrangle both internally and legally involving harassment allegations against a male member of academic staff.

She refused to sign an NDA in favour of a confidentiality waiver, believed to be the first of its kind, allowing her to defend herself.

Dr Chapman told HuffPost UK: “People seem to think that because academia is supposed to be full of very intelligent people that they’re intelligent enough not to harass people and actually that’s not true at all. What academia is full of is power imbalances and those power imbalances are exploited all the time in every form.

“You’ve got all of these little steps and at each stage that person is basically in charge of your career.”

The 1752 group (so-called after the amount of money allocated by Goldsmiths to host what is believed to be the first UK university conference on staff-to-student sexual harassment) has been campaigning for sector bodies such as Universities UK to introduce disciplinary guidelines and professional boundaries at a national level. The group is also consulting with the government in a bid to show that NDAs should not be used in sexual misconduct cases.

Dr Chapman wants to see universities putting money towards policy development for addressing these issues and working to implement a code of conduct.

“It’s depressing that we need it,” she said. “When it comes to policing this kind of behaviour in, for example, a conference environment, it’s very hard to get people to act at the time. The organising committee are just like you or me; they’re not trained in ejecting people off the campus. It takes a huge amount of courage to stand up to these people and at the minute there is no institutional support, which is disgraceful.”

She added: “About a third of universities in the UK have zero policy on whether staff can sleep with their undergraduate students. People cannot believe that. They’ve always assumed it’s against the rules because academics are good people, right? But the fact is there are some bad people who are really taking advantage.

“The stuff we’ve come up against has included institutions saying ‘we don’t need a code of conduct’, that the allegations don’t happen on their campuses. There is enough data, there are enough stories. They shouldn’t be academics if they can’t understand basic evidence.”

Dr Kate Devlin, a computer scientist specialising in Artificial Intelligence at King’s College, has experienced “19 years of sexist comments at tech conferences” and believes a code of conduct is vital.

She said: “I say it’s vital because there are plenty of men who will not know that what they are doing is wrong. It wouldn’t occur to them that this is in some way problematic. They’ll just say ‘Oh I’m just being friendly, it’s just a hand on the knee’, without realising that this is a problem, this should not happen.

“A code of conduct will make it really clear that unwanted behaviour is a form of harassment and that’s unacceptable. There are plenty of examples out there which let delegates know this is in place and that when they sign up to a conference they are signing up to a code of behaviour.

“It’s not every conference, and as usual, it’s not all men, but it is some, and it is always men.”

The full extent of sexual harassment in higher education is hard to measure. Figures obtained last month by the BBC show UK universities spent about £87m on pay-offs with NDAs since 2017, with dozens of academics telling the broadcaster they were “harassed” out of their jobs and forced to sign non-disclosure agreements after making complaints.

Last year a Guardian investigation found nearly 300 academics, including senior professors and laboratory directors, were accused of bullying students and colleagues.

Aggressive behaviour, pressure to deliver results, career sabotage and HR managers appearing more concerned about negative publicity than protecting staff were some of the complaints made by current and former academics.

In April, Celeste Kidd, a leader in the #MeToo movement described the extent of sexual harassment in universities as “horrifying.”

Speaking in Dublin’s Trinity College, Kidd, who is an assistant professor and principal investigator at the University of California, said the true extent of sexual harassment in academia cannot be quantified due to a lack of data.

She said: “The best estimates generally come from studies of work place harassment in general, but there’s also work that shows that certain features of work places, that are very common to academic institutions, lead to higher rates of harassment and rates of retaliation.”

Perdita Barran is a Professor of Mass Spectrometry at the University of Manchester. In 2000 she was assaulted at a conference held at a ski resort in Austria.

After in an evening in the bar playing cards, Professor Barran was retiring to her room when another delegate at the meeting approached her.

Professor Perdita Barran believes abuses of power must be called out and is preparing to do just that with a member of staff within her research community
Professor Perdita Barran believes abuses of power must be called out and is preparing to do just that with a member of staff within her research community
The University of Manchester

She told HuffPost UK: “I didn’t know him, but he had been drinking with us. He was quite senior and he was quite large, physically – and I’m 5’10”. He followed me to my bedroom and said ‘Oh I’m in the room next door to you.’ Then he tried to barricade me into his room. I told him to get lost but it was very disturbing, particularly because I then spent a lot of time reliving what had happened leading to that point and blaming myself, thinking ‘had I been flirting?’ which I didn’t think I had.”

Professor Barran told her supervisor about it the day after “in a more funny way than it was because you get embarrassed” and the incident was “laughed off.”

Two years later Professor Barran learned the man who had assaulted her had died.

She said: “Of course, you don’t really wish anyone to die but when my supervisor told me, it was more like ‘he’s not going to bother you anymore.’ It was really horrific what he did… I realise that now in retrospect.”

For Professor Barran, the Twitter thread particularly resounded with her because it showed other women in academia were experiencing the same behaviours. “I thought, well, it isn’t just me that gets in these situations, even though I’m clever, even though I’m wise.”

She said: “We are all grown up women who can handle ourselves and if we’re in a bar, normally we would handle ourselves. In these situations you are talking in a professional place and that’s being abused. What I’ve always felt at the times it’s happened to me is ‘Oh God, what did I do wrong? What did I do to invoke this?’ And you feel like such an idiot because you know that men are predatory but you don’t assume they are going to be in a professional situation, and then of course they are.

She said she has seen similar situations happen multiple times in her field. “There will be a power dialogue along the lines of ‘I know a lot of people in this area, we could go to a conference together.’ They have this language ‘I’ve got a wife, you’ve got a husband, we could just meet up at conferences.’ What consenting adults do is fine, but I’ve seen this happen with a couple of people in my field who are quite predatory and it’s always the same kind of modus operandi.”

Professor Barran believes these systematic abuses of power must be called out – and is currently preparing to do so within her own research community, by calling out male colleagues who are predatory.

She said: “We are empowering this behaviour by our inaction and that’s another reason why I found that thread very good because we have to make people aware that’s it’s not them, that they’re not wrong and that they should ask for help amidst this serial bad behaviour.”

Professor Jennifer Love, a chemist at British Columbia University is also a proponent of calling out predatory behaviour – though she has been both ignored and received verbal abuse for it.

Professor Love told HuffPost UK: “One of the things that I’ve come to terms with recently is that academics are not taught professionalism. They are not taught what proper behaviour is. Management is not explicitly taught.

“I call it out. I’ve called out inappropriate comments on faculty meetings and it’s actually startling to people. A lot of times I can tell that people in the room know that it’s wrong, but everyone seems to be so non-confrontational. I don’t like confrontation but it has to be done.

“I think that’s been a change and at least in my department it has to do with the rise of women to full professor ranks who have had to endure so much they are just sick of it. We’ve decided we are just not going to put up with it.”

Having the support of one’s peers has proved to be a major factor in addressing any sort of misconduct in the academic field.

Professor Dame Athene Donald recalls being pinned to a wall in a bar by a man who informed her how much he’d rather have sex with her rather than another senior woman at a conference.

A colleague witnessed what was happening and intervened. The next morning another professor confronted the perpetrator, warning him to never to repeat his behaviour. For Professor Donald, the matter was thus informally resolved and she has kept her distance from the man on the conference circuit ever since.

Professor Athene Donald has taken action against a delegate at a conference
Professor Athene Donald has taken action against a delegate at a conference

A distinguished physicist at Cambridge University, Professor Donald said: “In hindsight I think why the hell didn’t I just slap the guy and walk away, yet we are brought up to be nice, we don’t like making a fuss.”

During her participation in the Twitter thread, Professor Donald was challenged to “name and shame” the individual who had harassed her.

She said: “The reality is that not only are there these additional problems that many women actively face or fear they might face, but there is also a complete unawareness in some sections about what it does mean. The idea that it is fine, name this Professor Bloggs and all the problems will go away, if you don’t you’re a wimp, it’s just such a failure of empathy and almost common sense.”

At another conference Professor Donald and another staff member intervened upon witnessing a woman being harassed.

“We wrote to the conference organisers and the guy was banned from ever coming to conference again. It just seemed to me that he was professionally out of line as well as personally out of line and was so obnoxious that we did act. But I wouldn’t have done that on my own. I would have thought it was my fault. Having a witness and someone that I trusted who I could talk to about it was just so important in that case.”

In April, Professor Julie Libarkin, of Michigan State University published a blog entitled Yes, sexual harassment still drives women out of physics, in which she cited a recent survey of female undergraduates in physics, of which three quarters reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment, leaving them alienated from the field.

As Professor Libarkin points out: “Experiencing sexual harassment increases a woman’s likelihood of leaving a science, technology, engineering, mathematics or medicine career. And for those women who do stick with their field, harassment hurts their career, economic standing and well-being. In short, unchecked harassment creates a drain on talent through lost work, lost ideas and lost people.”


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