Sexual harassment rife in UK universities, warns staff union


One in 10 college staff experienced sexual violence, with women, disabled, LGBTQ+ and minority ethnic workers more at risk

Rachel Hall
Wed 22 Dec 2021 00.01 GMT

Sexual harassment is “endemic” in universities and colleges, with one in 10 staff members saying they have experienced sexual violence in the past five years, according to a report.

Women were nearly two-and-a-half times as likely to experience sexual violence as men, while staff on insecure contracts, those with disabilities, LGBTQ+, or black, Asian or minority ethnic were also at greater risk, according to a survey of nearly 4,000 staff members by the University and College Union.

Jo Grady, UCU general secretary, said there were “cultural problems” within universities stemming from a reluctance to discipline perpetrators for fear of damaging institutional reputation, especially where these are star academics who bring in large amounts of research funding.

This is compounded by the prevalence of insecure contracts which make staff hesitant to report unwelcome behaviours due to anxieties about jeopardising their careers, she said.

Although she acknowledged that sexual violence in the workplace wasn’t unique to the education sector, Grady said there had been particular “failures to acknowledge the prevalence of it and the scale of the problem”.

“Survivors say managers are often dismissive towards those reporting sexual violence, complaints processes are hardwired to frustrate claims and non-disclosure agreements are used to silence them, forcing many to leave their employment without justice. With practices like this, it is little wonder over half don’t report their abuse at all,” she said.

Of the staff members surveyed, 52% said they hadn’t disclosed their experience of sexual violence, which was defined in the report as any unwanted sexual advance, ranging from uncomfortable comments and harassment to assault and rape.

This is despite 70% saying it was a pattern of behaviour rather than a one-off incident. The report warned that this is concerning because “over time, a pattern of seemingly small and innocuous acts can set the scene for physical forms of sexual violence such as sexual assault to be carried out”.

The report said that survivors do not trust the complaints process, with some worrying about the implications for their careers, since 28% of those surveyed experienced sexual violence from their managers.

Others simply do not believe that anything will be done, or are not aware of the reporting procedures. Some staff said they had been pressured into resolving complaints informally or asked to sign non-disclosure agreements to safeguard the institution’s reputation.

One survivor interviewed for the report said that when they had attempted to raise a complaint they were told the perpetrator’s behaviour was “just the way he was”, while another said senior managers laughed about inappropriate behaviour being “just the boys”.

Some respondents said uncomfortable behaviours had become normalised. One said “everyone knew that these men were ‘creepy’ and ‘sleazy’ but no one did anything”. Another added: “If they are a prof with a large grant record, you may as well forget about it.”

Staff members were also unhappy with the drawn-out and complicated nature of the formal investigations process and the traumatic experience of being asked to re-tell their story on multiple occasions. They were also frustrated by universities’ reluctance to disclose the outcomes of investigations to complainants on GDPR [data protection] grounds.

The chair who led the report, Prof Lesley McMillan, said it showed promising signs that “the sector is waking up to the problem” but warned that “progress is variable, and in some cases, slow or yet to begin”.

A spokesperson for Universities UK said the report made for “difficult but important reading” and that it would use it to step up work with universities and the UCU.

They said: “University senior management take these matters extremely seriously and universities are committed to becoming safer places to live, work and study so that no student or member of staff is subject to any form of sexual violence or misconduct.

“However while progress has been made, including in encouraging survivors to come forward and report, we know – and this report further emphasises – that there is much more to do to end all forms of harassment in higher education.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said the universities minister, Michelle Donelan, had written to vice-chancellors in July to stress that they must take a zero-tolerance approach to sexual violence and implement “robust procedures” to tackle it. She also set out plans to tackle the misuse of non-disclosure agreements, on which the government will provide further detail “in due course”.