Learning from painful experiences

8 April 2022

The past year has been characterised by questions about what the university does to guarantee a safe study and work environment. It has been a period of soul-searching for me, and a reason to contemplate how we can create a safe and secure workplace, and why people react the way they do.

During the #metoo movement many people, including myself, took an immediate stand against the unacceptable sexual oppression prevalent in practically all professions. The personal stories shared were upsetting and touching, and it felt natural to immediately condemn the power games that damaged so many women's lives and careers. Why was it so easy to take a firm stand at that point? Why is it easier to speak up against wrongdoings that take place at a distance than those occurring close by?

Heidi Hansson, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of education

Photo: Mattias Pettersson

My reflection is that our degree of proximity to incidents affects how we act and react. It is easier to condemn distant occurrences than those that happen close by, not least when the story of what has happened has already been packaged in some form. Taking a stand against a phenomenon is easier than to pass judgment on an individual.

The complexity grows when organisations or colleagues that we meet in our everyday lives are affected. The situation is further complicated when matters are close to our skin and there are two, or several, sides to take into consideration. The number of parameters to take into account seems to increase the closer to ourselves an issue comes. Suddenly, acting on pure instinct is not quite as simple.

We have recently received the results of an investigation of the university's processes in relation to instances of misconduct. The report will help us identify what has worked well, and what needs to be improved. Having mutual core values and solid processes to hold on to is important when the university's staff and students are faced with difficult or unclear questions.

Part of the toolbox consists of the university's core values, based on the state sector's common basic values, as well as each individual's ethical and moral compasses. Another part consists of policy documents and routines that can guide us in creating a safe and secure work environment for everyone, and to address any work environment issues in a good and legal manner for everyone involved. This is particularly important when people's accounts of events contradict each other.

As Deputy Vice-Chancellor, part of my responsibility is to make sure that the university's students and staff have the support they need. My tasks concern strategies, resources, structures and necessary bureaucracy. These constitute the scaffolding that supports our daily work.

Nevertheless, most of the time we rub along quite well together. So why is that? How can we ensure that things continue this way? The answer cannot be summarised in bullet points or a number of specific actions, but is connected with relationships and attitudes. I would like to emphasise the importance of respectful conversations. Mutual exchange of thoughts and attentive listening build trust and confidence. When we trust each other, we create the conditions for moral courage and for speaking up when something goes wrong.

Everyday conversations keep our values alive and help make it clear what is acceptable behaviour. We can never accept harassment, sexual harassment, bullying or victimisation. Respectful and continual conversations mean that we establish common ground so that we can take a stand against discrimination, inequality and abuse of power. Mutual exchange of thoughts counteracts insecurity and silencing. We need to take every opportunity to have open, and sometimes painful, conversations about sore and disturbing topics to build a good work environment together. This is the most important lesson I have learnt from the many, often difficult and sometimes upsetting, but in the end liberating, conversations I have taken part in over the course of the last year.

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