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Raising Awareness on Gender-Based Violence in Academia

Psychological harassment and violence, sexual harassment, physical and sexual violence, forced marriage, forced abortion and sterilisation, and 'honour' crimes are all expressions of violence against women. With this article, the Eurodoc Equality Working Group hopes to raise awareness on gender-based harassment and assault in academia.

Sexual harassment and sexual assault in academia were brought under public scrutiny with cases such as astronomer Geoff Marcy, paleoanthropologist Brian Richmond, and Antarctic geologist David Marchant. Paralleling the #metoo movement, the publication of these cases and many others encouraged women to come forward with their own accounts of sexual harassment and assault.

Some may be surprised to discover that a study has shown that the prevalence of sexual harassment in US academia is 58% of respondents, second only to the military’s incidence of 69%. Academic conferences are also a breeding ground for sexual harassment, as most of them lack appropriate procedures to deal with cases of misconduct. On field trips, the situation seems even more dire: a survey showed that 64% of respondents reported sexual harassment and just under 22% said that they had experienced sexual assault. If this seems like a high rate, it should also be pointed out that sexual harassment in academia is underreported.

However, things are slowly changing. Following an avalanche of publicly-visible cases of sexual harassment, funding agencies such as the NIH have established a set of guidelines to handle sexual harassers and bullies. What seems clear is that the roots of gender-based violence in academia are deep. Sustainable solutions are therefore needed to change the organizational culture of universities and research institutions, with the involvement of the academic community and the support of the leadership at each institution (as pointed out by this systematic review of studies on sexual harassment in higher education, pp. 9-13). 

From the perspective of early career researchers, it is important to point out that the time-limited nature of their academic contracts and fellowships, combined with a high dependence on senior academics for career advancement, makes ECRs especially vulnerable to sexual harassment and assault, and other forms of gender-based violence (ivi, pp. 5-6).

Working from home: a safer environment for women?

In the last months Eurodoc highlighted the struggles of ECRs during the pandemic.

Due to lockdowns and other confinement measures, field trips, conferences and day-to-day interactions in universities were greatly reduced, yet gender-based violence did not. On one hand, with increased home working, domestic violence increased as well. On the other hand, female researchers seem to be more exposed to hate speech, defamation and sexually explicit messages when sharing their scientific work on online platforms.

Be it sexual harassment, sexual assault, domestic violence or sexism, the numerous barriers found along the academic career paths are still difficult to overcome for female researchers, and especially ECRs. This is only magnified further when they receive insufficient support from their own institutions.
We need to once again acknowledge these barriers for academic women and resolve to eliminate violence against women, always and everywhere.

Eurodoc Equality Working Group

Special thanks to Andreea Scacioc and (in alphabetical order), Véronique De Herde, Luciana Forti, Giulia Malaguarnera (Eurodoc President), Sara Pilia (WG co-coordinator), Mathew Tata.