CONTRAPOWER: SEXUAL HARASSMENT IN ACADEMIA

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A recent report on sexual harassment in Australian academia reveals the need for more research into the continued misuses of power.

The Australian Women’s History Network’s (AWHN) recent report on sexual harassment and discrimination in Australian academia reveals the need for more research into the continued misuses and abuses of power in the academy.

The findings of the report released last week, expose a disturbing collection of inappropriate and widely underreported behaviours, from gendered bullying to sexual coercion, predation, and even assault.

One recurring scenario that was reported by survey respondents involved female PhD students being pressured into sex by their male supervisors. According to the authors, ‘Respondents wrote about being lured into men’s offices, hotel rooms or homes on a professional pretext, and then having to fend off unwanted sexual advances. In many cases, coercion and intimidation were involved’.

These reports draw attention to the complex interplay of gender and power in academia, while pointing to the need for structural change, including both the decentralisation and diversification of institutional authority. However, the report’s focus on ‘top-down’ discrimination overlooks another important aspect of this multi-faceted problem, which is the fact that many female academics are sexually harassed by students too.

This is known as contrapower harassment and it occurs when someone with seemingly less formal power in an institution (e.g. a student) harasses someone with more formal power (e.g. a professor).

Thirty-five years ago, psychology academic Katherine Benson called for future research on sexual harassment in academia to investigate the problem of contra-power harassment, so that systematic data on the issue is available. The phenomenon has since been well-documented in American institutions, with several studies finding that academic contrapower harassment (ACPH) is now a routine part of being a university educator in the twenty-first century.

In the Australian context, however, there is a lack of formal research surrounding academics’ experiences of this type of harassment, including its statistical occurrence and the effectiveness of institutional policies and processes put in place to deal with such reports. This is why preliminary research, such as that conducted by the AWHN, is important.

Most universities have a student code of conduct that provides a general framework for acceptance standards of behaviour; however, these codes, while clearly articulated, are often unable to account for the varied and complex situations that arise in practice. What’s more, most students only find out about the code once they’ve breached it. We can’t expect students to abide by the code if they don’t know it exists! Rather, all students should be required to read and agree to the code as part of their enrolment.

I also worry that if we can’t access clear and supportive reporting mechanisms, without fear of retaliation or reprisal, then more cases of assault will go unreported.

At the moment, there are approximately four times as many casuals as permanent full-time staff members in Australian universities. Generally, casual employees have the most direct contact with students: they’re directly responsible for conducting tutorials, delivering guest lectures, marking assignments and exams, and providing feedback to students on their work. Yet casual staff have limited access to basic support services, such as WHS training, professional development opportunities and mentoring. When I started work as a casual academic, I had no idea of the correct protocols for reporting sexual harassment because I didn’t receive an induction. I signed a contract, received my timetable, and turned up in Week 1 to teach.

For this reason, I also worry that current preventative measures, such as anti-bullying courses and equity awareness seminars, are ineffective because they’re not reaching the people who need them most: sessional staff and students.

As one respondent in the AHWN’s survey remarked:

The answer is not more training. Our university just made all staff go through bullying training again … and it was a waste of time. Those sorts of trainings are 1. An HR tick-the-box joke, and 2. Do not actually reach the people who need them, who … will never believe they are actually doing anything inappropriate

Regardless of the effectiveness of anti-harassment policies and procedures, the bottom line is this: we should expect more from our universities in their work to combat sexual assault and discrimination. We need to start with more research into the problem of contrapower harassment because this issue goes to the heart of the system: our students.

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