Survey Shows High Rates of Sexual Abuse in Academia6 September 2018
Academics and PhD students experience a high level of sexual harassment and gender discrimination in Australian universities, according to a recent survey conducted by Australian Women’s History Network (AWHN).
Last month, AWHN released a report for their online survey on sexual violence against academics conducted in March.
The survey collected 159 responses of former and current academics from various disciplines in Australian universities, 90.6 per cent of whom identify as female.
The survey found that 48.7 per cent of the participants experienced sexual abuse or harassment in the workplace, and 66.2 per cent of the participants experienced sexual or gender-based discrimination in academia.
“In the words of one respondent, ‘Sexism is rife in universities’,” states the AWHN’s report.
The report also notes that junior academics and female PhD students are some of the main victims of sexual violence committed by their male colleagues or supervisors.
Dr Jordana Silverstein, Dr Mary Tomsic and Dr Katherine Ellinghaus, who are the co-convenors at AWHN and academics at the University of Melbourne, said the hierarchical nature of academia and precariousness of employment are the main factors that disempower young academics.
“When you are a PhD student, a casual employee or employee with short term contract, you rely on the good will of a lot of people,” said Silverstein. “A lot of academia is about connection—it’s about being invited to do part-time jobs or speak in a conference or contribute to something.”
So if you rock the boat in any way, people might stop inviting you to things, and that’s obviously could affect more junior people than it would with senior people,” she added.
The report also shows that only six out of 130 respondents to this question made formal complaints and were satisfied with their institutional responses. Forty-seven per cent of respondents made complaints which were ignored, dismissed or mishandled.
“We found that, unsurprisingly, so many people are leaving academia, even if they are not finishing their PhDs … because they are unsupported and traumatised, because they are in hostile workplaces,” said the convenors.
They also mention that many participants suggested structural changes in regards to positions of power, complaint processes and trainings.
The convenors said they hope the survey could raise awareness on sexual violence against academics. They admitted the survey could have limitations, and they look forward to other organisations conducting research on the issue.
In June, Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) launched a 12-month inquiry on sexual harassment in the workplace, including within the higher education sector. There are currently several individual surveys on sexual violence against academics being conducted.
National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) National President Jeannie Rea said she welcomes the AHRC’s investigation.
“[After the AHRC survey for students] we then asked for a similar survey to be carried out for university staff, and it was not done,” she said.
“So we don’t know the stats or where the magnitude or the problem … we only know these in anecdotes fully, we don’t know them via a comprehensive survey like that was carried out with students which we will then be able to identify a particular area and focus on action.”
We think it’s a good idea to do all unions but we still concern the focus on our particular area, the higher education sector.”
The NTEU has also joined Universities Australia, the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations and the Australian Council of Graduate Research to make the Principles for Respectful Supervisory Relationship. The guideline, which was released on 1 August, has banned sexual or romantic relationships between supervisors and students.
“Universities understand that supervisors have power over their students. A sexual or romantic relationship that develops in that context also raises questions about capacity for consent and academic integrity,” said Universities Australia Chief Executive Catriona Jackson in a media release.
“[The Principles] have been designed to protect the safety and wellbeing of both students and staff.”
Both academics and postgraduate student representatives say they support the Principles.
“I think the supervisor–student relationship is a long and ongoing one, it’s one that you know can be conducted often in one-to-one meetings,” said Silverstein. “So it’s great that there’re principles in place that make people think about what could go wrong in a relationship like that.”
“As the [AWHN] survey mentions, Australian universities still have an unacceptably high level of sexism and gender-based discrimination in their cultures, and this obviously plays a major role,” said Zimo Wang, the women’s officer at the University of Melbourne Graduate Student Association (GSA).
“We also support the call for better training for supervisors and other staff who work closely with postgraduate students, and GSA representatives are currently working on committees to decide what that training will look like at the University.”
If you or someone you know requires counselling or support, the 1800 Respect national support line is open on 1800 737 732.