#Ukraine: providing and receiving support

Boldness required: to end gender-based violence, we need to change academia altogether

One hand with attached thorns in hurting the other. Gender-based violence concept.

On the 24th and 25th of November, Eurodoc joined the Conference “Ending Gender-Based Violence in Academia,” organised by the Centre for Gender & Science of the Institute of Sociology (Czech Academy of Sciences) with the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports, under the Czech Presidency of the European Council.

The Conference program devoted the first day to analysing the problems, while the second day was focused on potential solutions. Through the different panels, participants reflected on gender-based violence from the perspectives of all groups and actors active within the European academic system: from students and early-career researchers to universities’ Gender Equality Officers and Ombudspersons, from Research Funding Organisations to Universities’ umbrella organisations, from Member States Ministries to European Institutions.

To consider the same issue from different perspectives was useful to clarify that each group has its own needs and specific problems in dealing with gender-based violence without hiding that some categories of people are more vulnerable than others. These people are mostly those who occupy the lower ranks in the power pyramid, such as ECRs, students, and university officers working on implementing concrete measures against violence. It was striking to notice that these more vulnerable, less powerful groups seem to be those working the hardest to end gender-based violence in academia.

This should, however, not be surprising because it is scientifically proven that gender-based violence is an expression of power imbalance: where Institutions do not offer proper and effective measures, the less powerful groups cannot wait to protect themselves; thus, from Eurodoc's perspective, the choice to open the Conference with the voices of survivors' testimonies, and of representative organisations of students and ECRs was highly commendable.

The data presented by the UniSafe Project team show clearly that the phenomenon is geographically widespread and, sadly, very common (2 out of 3 people have experienced gender-based violence), with a higher prevalence among LGBTQ+ people, people with disabilities, and ethnic minorities. In this framework, we, as Eurodoc, believe that one of the greatest merits of this Conference was to remind everyone that gender-based violence is, first of all, a human right violation.

As highlighted clearly in the keynote speech by Fredrik Bondestam and Sofia Strid and in various panels, each single event of gender-based violence impacts deeply and painfully the life of the victim, leading to psychological suffering and even suicide.

For the same reason, we do not like the productivity-based approach that emerged, in particular from the panel dedicated to Universities’ umbrella organisations. From the ECRs perspective, one of the most exploited groups in academia, this is an approach that focuses on victims more as “damaged productive tools” that reduce the economic power of Universities than as human beings stripped of their basic right to safety and dignity. 

From a more detached point of view, however, this approach has the merit to make evident where the stakes really are: gender-based violence stems from a power imbalance, and power in academia is, first of all, economic power.

This makes it easy to see the core of all effective solutions to this problem, as pointed out by Joanna Drake, Deputy Director General at the DG Research & Innovation of the EU Commission Money talks.

A few concrete ongoing projects presented and some proposals raised during the Conference seem to go exactly this way. For example, the system of support for victims presented by Miguel Lorente Acosta, Advisor of the Equality, Sustainability and Inclusion Vice-rectorate at the University of Granada. Its best aspect is to recognise victims as human beings undergoing a terrible experience, thus providing immediate and effective support to deal with and overcome the effects of the violence they experienced. But, from our perspective, another powerful implication of this system is its economic impact: the more victims there are, the more the University administration has to pay for guaranteeing support. Similarly, the proposal raised by the Funding Agency Wellcome Trust (UK), to suspend all funding towards those professors that commit violence attacks the principle by which the more a professor is able to get funding, the less the University leadership is keen to prosecute them.

These approaches are going to transform gender-based violence into a costly business for Universities. We hope that this will help them to take serious and effective action against perpetrators.

However, we cannot easily relax. From our advocacy experience, the more violence becomes an economic issue for Institutions, the higher the danger that some Institutions’ leaderships will try to discourage victims to complain and escape controls. This danger is rooted in the extreme vulnerability of some academic groups that are easy to threaten and isolate.

That is why it is important that powerful stakeholders such as Research Funding Organisations and Education and University Ministries take a bolder stance on this matter and find ways to exert the power they have to end gender-based violence. One of the most urgent measures to take is to protect vulnerable groups by providing financial independence from their managers and supervisors. As raised at the Conference by Eurodoc’s Gender Equality Officer, Sara Pilia, and echoed by Anna Bull from The 1752 Group (GB), Institutions cannot delay any longer the approval of a clear and easy procedure for supervisor change for both PhD candidates and postdocs, together with undergraduates who face mandatory exams and final thesis.

Last but not least, we positively value the implications of the proposal raised by Ross Woods from the Irish Higher Education Authority about University rankings: if the quality would be evaluated from the wellbeing of the people working in an Institution, from the ability to include different perspectives and approaches and to contrast epistemic injustice and violence, then the quality of our Institutions would be evaluated by the ability of the academic community to cooperate, support each other, to empower each of its members to actively join the community and enrich it from all points of view. In other words, in this way, we would evaluate our system from its ability to embody those values the European Union was firstly built on.

Sara Pilia, Eurodoc’s Gender Equality Officer and WG Internal Management Co-coordinator: “To rethink the academic system starting from the values of ethics, academic freedom, and human rights protection, will help us to rediscover our identity as a Union of Equality. At the Conference, I met many people who are sincerely committed to ending gender-based violence in academia. I am sure with this EU-wide network of allies, we will succeed”.