We are each other’s work environment

25 May 2022

On 20 May, a national prevalence study of sexual harassment and gender-based vulnerability in academia and a local analysis of the data for Umeå University were published. We now have a solid foundation to work on to create gender equality and safety at our university.

I am one of the 1,766 individuals at Umeå University who responded to the national survey on sexual harassment and gender-based vulnerability last year. Last Friday, the 20th of May, we finally received the results. Unfortunately, there are not many surprises in the report. Female students and staff in all categories are still the most vulnerable. If anything should surprise us, it is perhaps why there is still not a collective and forceful opposition to sexism and sexual harassment in academia.

Heidi Hansson, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of education

Photo: Mattias Pettersson

The survey was conducted among students, staff, and doctoral students, and with 39,000 respondents, it is the single largest study that has been conducted of gender-based vulnerability in academia. The survey included more than 100 questions about different behaviours that can lead to experiences of vulnerability. The questions ranged from experiences of sexual harassment in the legal sense to experiences of bullying, cyberbullying, discriminatory treatment, and incivility.

It may seem unexpected to categorise incivility or rudeness as a form of sexism, but this is where things begin. Gender-based vulnerability is part of a larger and much more complex pattern in which some employees take it for granted that they have the right to disregard the opinions and desires of others. If you consider the occasions when this happens, it is often, although not always, a case of male colleagues taking up space and energy from female colleagues. The consequence is that we lose knowledge, job satisfaction and creativity and, in the long run, quality in research and education. We cannot afford that.

Together, the survey responses reveal a pattern of how academia maintains and recreates inequality. Young women - especially students - are more likely to be subjected to unwanted sexual attention, while older women are more likely to report various forms of bullying. Predominantly, there is vulnerability within one's own group, between students and between colleagues. The different groups means that we need to be more targeted in our measures.

The survey is not an employee satisfaction survey, but part of a research programme. This means, among other things, that there is now an extensive basis for continued research efforts and excellent opportunities to identify research gaps. One such gap is that there is still too little knowledge about which preventive measures have the best effect.

We know that inequality is a question of power, and the survey results suggest that it is informal power that risks being most harmful. One way to commence the work could be to reflect together, in student groups and among staff, on what power relations look like in our particular contexts. Who has the formal power and how is it used? Are there informal power structures that threaten or undermine formal power? How do collegiality and participation function? Can we revise our criteria for merit and excellence so that they also include how we contribute to a positive work environment?

When we observe bad power structures, we can also do something about them. If we shake the kaleidoscope, other patterns will emerge, and in the long run we will eliminate the abuse of power and inequality. It's exciting and very future-oriented. That's what a university should be.

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