Creating structures to prevent sexual harassment and violence in the workplace

It is estimated that 18% of men and 40% of women have experienced some form of unwanted sexual behaviour in the workplace. Sexual violence disproportionately (but not exclusively) impacts women, BME women, and LGBTQ* people.

Sexual harassment and violence are chronically under-researched, but also under-reported in our sector. This certainly reflects my experience, and when I think of conversations with the women I work with and students I teach, I struggle to believe that 40% accurately captures what happens. Or worse still, we’re so accustomed to daily acts of harassment that we see them as something to be endured and don’t report them. Like many other women in our sector, I have experienced sexual harassment at work but never reported it.

Why have I never reported? Partly, I learnt to cope with regular infractions and avoid contact with harassers, but mainly because I have seen what happens when women who experience harassment report it or speak out about it. They rarely get justice, and often get further abuse. Reports never make it out of the departments where the harassment takes place. Abusers can be in positions of power and privilege, acting as gatekeepers to opportunities. They are able to use the structures to defend themselves. Procedures to tackle harassment are often insufficient because they don’t acknowledge this. The person who has experienced sexual harassment and violence must relive their trauma as part of the reporting process. In worst case scenarios, the identity of the predator will be an open secret in their discipline or department, but the abuser will still torment many over the course of their career.

The 1752 Group’s excellent campaigns and strategic priorities have gone unsupported by our national union. Members have had to rely upon whisper networks to warn each other about predators in our classrooms, offices, and libraries, and branches have been overburdened by treating sexual harassment through casework. We can do more. As well as urgent issues relating to pay gaps, retention and promotion, our sector cannot pretend to be progressive or inclusive if we fail to address the epidemic of sexual violence and harassment in it. We must provide the basics of respect, dignity and safety for all of our members.

As a first step, we need to quantify the problem better. The government does not collect data on the prevalence of sexual harassment at work, and nor does UCU. We must quantify and make public not just the number of harassment cases reported in our workplaces, but also the number of hours and the expenditure allocated to dealing with them. As General Secretary I will create positions for specialist, full-time equality casework officials. These officials will be key to this process. They will collate information, identify emerging trends and patterns of discrimination, target potentially high-profile cases for special assistance, and work towards precedent-setting legal challenges and broad-based agreements with employers.

As a union we must start recording data on the misuse of Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) to silence survivors of bullying, sexual harassment, or racial discrimination. Armed with data and successful legal challenges, we will then run a national UCU campaign to reform disciplinary procedures and also implement professional boundaries for the protection of staff and our students. As UCU General Secretary I will work with student groups to lobby our employers to adopt new disciplinary procedures and to ban the use of NDAs in such cases.

Once we have formulated a set of concrete demands, we should consider putting them to employers as part of our annual pay, equality and anti-casualisation claim. We need to signal to our bosses, our members, and our students that we regard harassment as a core issue rather than a peripheral one, and recognise that the gender and ethnicity pay gaps are far from the only ways in which women and BME staff can be socially and materially disadvantaged.

However, we cannot claim the moral high ground as a union if we do not set the very best example to our employers. We must conduct an urgent review of UCU’s own internal procedures, to ensure that complaints of sexual harassment are dealt with in a sensitive yet decisive way. Using the expertise of our members (something our institutions rarely do), we could produce a confidential harassment reporting app. Such technologies do not further traumatise the survivors, but work proactively to subvert cultures of abuse through prevention and support. If we are to demand best practice from our employer, we must ensure we implement and follow it in our union.

Photo credit: Professor Anita Hill, by Gage Skidmore