Academic women are experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace, and the numbers have increased over the last five years. If 100 academics read this article, at least 29 of them will have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.
Australia’s National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) has recently released findings from a national survey of sexual harassment against university staff which showed that 29% of respondents had experienced sexual harassment. Women represent the majority of the victims. Five years ago, the figure was 19%. Things are clearly not getting better.
These numbers are depressing, and frightening. But for those who research gender in universities, they are not even slightly surprising.
While the #metoo movement has raised awareness of the pervasiveness of sexual harassment across broad sectors, this still exists. Moreover, most cases are going unreported! This is despite the recent recognition by the Queensland’s Work Health and Safety Amendment Regulation (2022) of the vast range of ways in which sexual harassment in the workplace impacts upon people.
Why is this the case?
If this is happening in our higher education institutions, what can we say about other sectors? Shouldn’t our universities be safe havens for diverse women? Universities are viewed as places underpinned and driven by core societal values, ethics and behaviours, including social justice, and as institutions that teach and instil reflection, debate and evidenced based decision making. They are places where data makes a difference, and the latest sets of data provide an opportunity to ask more questions.
Sexual harassment is a psychosocial hazard in the workplace, ranging from harassment, unwanted sexual attention, to sexual coercion. It doesn’t come out of nowhere. It is fundamentally enabled by our environment, our culture, our unquestioned beliefs.
To address the issue of sexual harassment, we need to pay attention to everyday sexism and gender discrimination in organisations. These could be seemingly innocuous or unintentional gendered remarks, but they lay the foundation for more serious offences.
A team of interdisciplinary researchers funded by the Gender Equality Research Network at Griffith University are leading the way in developing new data to help change the way universities respond to gender equity and harassment. Our research investigates the experience of women and non-binary academics in Australian universities.
Our interdisciplinary team conducted an online, anonymous survey with 420 academics in Australia, asking questions about everyday sexism, gender discrimination and sexual harassment.
The data demands urgent attention.
90% of our respondents have experienced various forms of everyday sexism in their workplaces. 86% were treated with disrespect, 86% experienced ‘mansplaining’ and 89% were interrupted or talked over in meetings. 81% reported incidents where people try to ‘put them in their place’.
In this context, it is not surprising that 50% of our respondents have experienced sexual harassment in Australian universities, with the majority of harassers being senior co-workers.
"90% of our respondents have experienced various forms of everyday sexism in their workplaces. 86% were treated with disrespect, 86% experienced 'mansplaining' and 89% were interrupted or talked over in meetings. 81% reported incidents where people try to ‘put them in their place’. "
What are the consequences?
Gender inequity and sexism have negatively impacted our respondents’ careers, mental health and wellbeing. 74% of respondents believe gender-based discrimination or everyday sexism have impacted negatively on their employment, career or work. 67% reported negative financial consequences. The impact on health and wellbeing was significant, 71% reported negative impact on self-esteem. The same percentage reported an impact on general wellbeing, and 68% reported an impact on their mental health.
In the context of this data, it is perhaps surprising that 50% of respondents feel hopeful about gender-based challenges. Of course, the corollary is that 50% feel hopeless. That’s half of all women feeling that the challenges of gender are never going to be dealt with.
Worryingly, the people with the most insight into the realities of everyday sexism may not feel able to speak about it. 93% of respondents have felt unheard, which is a complicated statistic for research-based universities to respond to. As one respondent said, “Not only are we disadvantaged through systems that are clearly biased against us, but we are not allowed any agency to raise questions about them. Raising questions puts a target on you, gets you labelled as a troublemaker”.
What needs to change?
No one should feel unsafe at work, and no one should have to put up with any harassment in the workplace. If we listen to this research (and all related research it connects to) there are several direct ways forward. Here we offer some starting points:
- Recognise the size, scope and complexity of the problem and make a visible commitment to change.
- Listen. Diversity initiatives and policies are in place, but they are often developed by people who are well intentioned but may not have a background in gender-based research. Moreover, these initiatives need to be better monitored.
- Recognise and call out everyday sexism. In order to shatter the foundation for sexual harassment, universities need to take everyday sexism more seriously. Bystanders make a difference. Understand the sexist origins of behaviours and be aware of our unconscious bias and unexamined beliefs about women. This education cannot be done with a brochure. We need to invest in large scale, organisational wide education to make visible unconscious bias and the myriad of ways in which women are still positioned as the ‘other’ academics.
- Get to grips with intersectionality. Gender-based discrimination cannot be considered in isolation. Intersectional feminism demonstrates how patriarchy intersects with other oppressive structures, including racism, colonialism, ableism, queer- and transphobia, and ageism, to shape people’s experiences within an institution. We know that women face risks in universities, and we know that some women and non-binary academics face more risks than others. We need more intersectional research to help the development of effective interventions. And once again, we need education.
- Get back to the basics: Research-led education. If we use the existing expertise we have regarding the origins of gender inequity, we could—as a sector—use this knowledge to construct a whole new approach to gender-based reform in university contexts.
It would be insulting to suggest that centuries of sexist behaviour can be undone overnight. But as with most things that matter, the first step is to name the problem, to really listen to those with the most at stake, and to co-design respectful, evidenced based, multi-dimensional ways forward.
What is Griffith University doing?
Griffith supports this change and takes the task of safety and wellbeing of our academic staff very seriously. Like many universities, Griffith University has legally appropriate policies preventing overt discrimination, as well as parenting facilities, initiatives to support women in STEMM, and parental leave provisions. And we have clear evidence of some impressive initiatives such as the Gender Equality Research Network and events led by our Equity and Pride committees.
But the persistence of gender-related discrimination provides a compelling case to be made for going further. In our research, we have seen gender-based approaches within universities described in four different ways: desert, mirage, oasis and utopia.
By supporting the research reported in this article Griffith University is helping to make utopia a reality, not an illusion. This will take on going work, and we look forward to reporting on next steps.
Imagine what it would look like if we turned this around. What if we really faced up to all the data. What if we were truly brave and looked at the consequences of entrenched sexism?
Griffith supports this change and takes the task of safety and wellbeing of our academic staff very seriously. What are your universities doing?
Dr Elaine Chiao Ling Yang is a Senior Lecturer in Tourism at Griffith University. Elaine’s work focuses on the empowerment of marginalised groups in tourism, including women, children and migrants. Most of her work entails an intersectionality lens that foregrounds the intertwined gender, race, and cultural identities. Elaine has received multiple research awards, including the CAUTHE Fellows Award in 2023.
Dr Dhara Shah is the Director of Engagement and Senior Lecturer with Griffith’s Department of BSI. Her research interests include women and social entrepreneurship, social innovation, disadvantaged aging women, cross-cultural adjustment. Dhara has led social innovation projects to empower precariat and disadvantaged women, capacity-building for women social entrepreneurs, awareness of Diversity and Inclusive Leadership. She has published many high-ranked journal articles and book chapters. She was a recipient of the PVCs Research Excellence Award in 2021
Professor Leonie Rowan is the Director of the Griffith Institute for Educational Research. Her research and teaching focus explicitly on issues relating to gender; particularly the multiple ways in which gender is made to matter in contemporary texts and contexts.
Dr Natalie Osborne (School of Engineering and Built Environment, Griffith University) is interested in feminist, queer, anti-colonial and crip theorising for urban and climate justice, and research and teaching for collective liberation. She co-organises Radio Reversal and the Brisbane Free University, and is a white settler on unceded Jagera and Turrbal Country.
Dr Sonal Nakar is a Lecturer and Graduate Teacher Performance Assessment (GTPA) institutional lead for School of Education and Professional Studies at Griffith University. She is an experienced practitioner with research expertise in the teaching of ethics, ethical reasoning, teacher education, the beginning teacher workforce, and work-integrated learning in education.
Dr Sakinah Alhadad is a senior lecturer and researcher at the School of Education and Professional Studies and the Griffith Institute of Educational Research. As an interdisciplinary researcher working at the intersection of psychology, the learning sciences, and education, her research is focused on equity and justice-oriented educational possibilities in higher education, particularly for the minoritised and marginalised, from an intersectional perspective.
Dr Roslyn Donnellan-Fernandez is a midwife and Director of Primary Maternity Care Programs at Griffith University with experience in teaching and curriculum development at three Australian universities. She is actively engaged with strategic, policy and funding initiatives for scale-up of midwifery models as a primary, public health strategy to enable access and equity for under-served groups. Her teaching and research are informed by critical emancipatory social theory, principles of life-long learning, advocacy, and political and professional engagement that facilitate transformation of people, structures, and communities toward social justice, health equity, and gender equality.
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