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Academia has a harassment problem, StatsCan study finds

The majority of perpetrators are men, while women with disabilities and Indigenous women are the most likely to be targeted.

BY IAN MUNROE | AUG 13 2021

Harassment is much more common in academia than in many other workplaces, according to a recent study from Statistics Canada.

Thirty-four per cent of women and 22 per cent of men employed at postsecondary institutions reported experiencing some form of harassment in the preceding 12 months, the study said. The findings are based on results from a 2019 survey of about 27,000 full- and part-time university faculty, researchers, postdoctoral fellows, doctoral students and college instructors.

By comparison, a 2016 StatsCan survey found that 19 per cent of women and 13 per cent of men across all sectors of the economy reported harassment in the previous year.

The study was authored by Darcy Hango, a sociologist by training. He noted there has been “very little research” on the issue in the postsecondary sector to date.

Evidence that harassment is pervasive in the halls of academia doesn’t surprise Lise Gotell, a professor in the department of women’s and gender studies at the University of Alberta. “Unfortunately, this is a common experience,” she said, but having data showing the problem is worse in the postsecondary sector is still significant.

The findings underscore that workplace harassment is “a highly gendered phenomenon,” Dr. Gotell said, noting that most of the perpetrators were reported to be men. They also show that women with disabilities and Indigenous woman experience “shockingly high” rates of harassment, she said. The figures for those groups were 52 per cent and 45 per cent respectively.

Dr. Hango examined five types of harassment, including humiliating behaviour, verbal abuse and sexual attention or sexual harassment. He points to several characteristics of postsecondary institutions that may put workers at greater risk: a hierarchical authority structure, the degree of interaction between faculty and students, and the high number of young adults at these institutions who are more likely to be the targets of harassment.

Among postdoctoral fellows and PhD students, two-thirds of those who reported being harassed said the perpetrator was in a position of authority, such as a supervising faculty member.

Amy Conwell is chair of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Local 3902,  which represents postdoctoral fellows, graduate students and other contract workers at the University of Toronto. She said harassment is such a major issue that her local chapter has pushed successfully to make academic supervisory conflict part of its purview. If a graduate student who is a member of the local brings a complaint, union officials can raise the issue directly with the vice president of human resources and equity at the university.

But Dr. Conwell said many of the PhD students she has been hearing from are reluctant to take formal action. “There’s a power dynamic when you are working for someone who also is going to be the one determining whether or not you graduate with a degree you’ve been working on for years and investing so much time in during a critical period in your life, and also when that same person is going to ideally be writing you reference letters to help you move on in extremely competitive areas, where it’s quite difficult to get work,” she said. “And there are also concerns about reprisals.”

Dr. Hango also looked at the ways in which harassment damages the postsecondary sector. Individuals who are targeted often report diminished job satisfaction as well as impacts on their physical and mental health. At an institutional level, harassment can hurt productivity and lead to more absenteeism and staff turnover.

Although the data predates the pandemic, Dr. Hango speculated that face-to-face harassment may have declined since the spring of 2020, when most postsecondary institutions in the country halted in-person classes.

That’s consistent with Ian Rakita’s experience. He’s president of the Concordia University faculty association and an associate professor in the school’s finance department. While Dr. Rakita said his 1,000-member association saw a growing number of complaints after the #MeToo movement, the coronavirus has changed that. “It seems that there are far less reports of harassment. They still go on, but they may relate to a period of time before the beginning of the pandemic,” he said.

Dr. Hango believes the problem may have shifted further online since campuses made the leap to remote work, suggesting that incidents of cyberbullying may now be more common.

Dr. Gotell agrees. She said changes are needed to address power dynamics at postsecondary institutions by, for example, increasing oversight. More training could also help ensure that faculty, graduate students and researchers are aware of policies toward the problem and the mechanisms in place to at their college or university to address it. “My view is that harassment and bullying are not going to go away just because COVID has reduced our intrapersonal, face-to-face interactions,” she said. “It’s going to take on new forms, unfortunately.”

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  1. Valentina Galvani / August 18, 2021 at 14:34

    It is heartbreaking that students are subject to harassment. My two cents: Hire more women. In a gender-balanced department things are less likely to go awry.
    I would also like to know which disciplines are more prone to the problem. Is this data available (National level survey). Is it correlated with a particularly hierarchical structure of the discipline?

  2. Tracy / August 24, 2021 at 16:23

    The problem is even if you manage to get a concern in and looked at by the faculty association or university administration – it gets swept under the rug. When I was doing my Ph.D. – I was continually harassed because I was female but I was also told by one of my supervisors I had to “surrender” a chapter of my thesis to another colleague of his so that he could work on a project together with him as an act of (good faith). I was told if I didn’t it would affect my thesis – I tried to get help and was laughed at by the university. The person took my data and basically published my work word for word with this supervisor.
    Ph.D., even M.Sc. students are money for the university and there are always more