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Why It Matters: Sexual harassment in Education

CMP Resolution Blog by Lesley Allport and Katherine Graham.

Sexual harassment is a problem for Britain’s universities[1]. And given that universities are where the ‘best educated’ people go, it is disheartening that so many of them appear to see university as a passport to transgress.

Thankfully, universities are at last taking notice. As the think tanks and influencers of the future, it is reasonable to hope that higher education will take the lead in finding new ways of tackling the problem of sexual violence, both for the benefit of their own institutions, and in impacting the wider UK culture.

But, before pro vice-chancellors can sleep easily in their beds, there are many issues that need to be ironed out.

Let’s start with the pro vice-chancellors themselves, because ‘leadership from the top’ was the cri de coeur of the excellent conference ‘Tackling violence against women, harassment and hate crime affecting university students’ run by Universities UK on 3 November 2016.

Leadership from the top was universally held to be the first, vital step universities must take if they are to stop sexual harassment on their campus. But is this going to happen? Women hold just one fifth of senior leadership roles in higher education[2], so can we be confident that the other 80% of male leaders are going to see that this issue needs their attention and funding?

And it isn’t just VCs who must lead on tackling sexual violence on campus – it is the governing bodies and professors, who are still overwhelmingly male. Women make up 23% of all professors, a figure that has barely changed over the past few years, and women hold on average 36% of all governing body seats (in some places as low as 7%).

So the first step for any university must be to create a space for their senior leaders to talk, and if necessary to learn, about sexism, gender bias and equalities.

As Whitley and Page summarise in “Sexism At The Centre: Locating The Problem Of Sexual Harassment”, There is an institutional form to the way sexism operates, perpetuated at the individual and organisation level through concealment within culture, policies, the hierarchies that exist within how institutions are structured and regulated, and how responsibility is allocated.[3]

Once we have the support of the leadership, the second step, which also had the consensus of the conference, was  a ‘commitment to zero tolerance’. This sounds wonderful, but is in fact a nest of vipers. Zero tolerance of what?

If I were to be called by the ‘c’ word I would be hugely offended and expect zero tolerance, yet ‘it’s only a word’ and may fall into the ‘minor’ offence category.  But there is another word which, if uttered, would (rightly) be considered racist behaviour worthy of strong disciplinary action. So how do you define ‘minor’?

Universities need to be far, far more explicit about what they will not tolerate, otherwise every complaint will vanish down the rabbit hole of ‘is this offense major or minor ’?

Equally fraught is what does ‘zero tolerance’ mean?  What are the consequences of total intolerance? Does a student fresh from school get booted out of university for trying to kiss a fellow student, who doesn’t want to be kissed?  Should this be as intolerable as a student who films a woman undressing in her room at night, and posts it on Facebook?  And if it isn’t, then what was the point of claiming ‘zero tolerance’ for sexual harassment of students if actually (and rightly) the first student is not kicked out of university, while the second should be (but probably isn’t)?

Zero tolerance sounds like a strong position – but that’s all it is – a position. What is more relevant, straightforward and therefore achievable, is to declare a commitment to a culture of ‘personal accountability and respect’.

Finally, when someone complains of sexual harassment, it’s essential that this is investigated impartially.  A university that investigates such allegations using its own staff, particularly academics, runs the risk not only of protracting the investigation itself due to the time pressures on staff, but also of applying unconscious bias. Even the best trained internal investigating officer will bring that bias to bear, for example in terms of protecting their own value to the institution. The nature of university work can silence people from complaining and from responding to a complaint “because of fear for their own precarious positions inside the institutional hierarchy. There may be reasons linked to fears about career retention and progression that motivate silence[4]It is not only cheaper and faster to use a professional external investigator, but the complainant, the respondent, and the university will know that the process was unbiased and fair.

Not until complainants believe that they will be taken seriously, and treated sensitively and fairly, and everyone on campus understands their responsibility to respect their fellow students and staff, will sexual harassment begin to become less of a problem for Britain’s universities.



[2] [2]




Katherine Graham

Katherine Graham has worked in the field of dispute resolution for over 15 years’ as a mediator and trainer. She has mediated on the BBC Learning Zone and has given keynote speeches on conflict management and mediation for The MOD’s Equal Opportunities Conference, Women in Business Annual conference and “Getting Beyond… MORE >

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