The academic handmaiden’s tale


Yesterday we got a damning report on sexual harrassment and assault in Australian universities.  It’s truly harrowing reading. I’m not going to recap the report, you should read it for yourself, but one thing is clear: the research workplace is no different to many others. Sexual violence happens here.

Yesterday was a difficult day around campus for many of us, especially survivors. Yesterday we began to speak freely of the times we have experienced sexual violence, or witnessed it. It was raw and difficult. Exhausting, but necessary. I have mostly stayed silent about my own experiences, but yesterday I felt I needed to tell some people. Now I feel compelled to write about it.

Sadly, many women will have experienced what I have: a scary encounter that leaves you profoundly shaken, but not physically hurt. I struggle with the idea of calling myself a survivor, and this is part of the problem. The difficulty of recognising, and calling out, sexual assault and harrassment is part of what makes it so pernicious in our culture – and one of the many reasons why most of it is unreported.

I can’t help contrasting the University with my experience of harassment in the building industry. In architecture offices male colleagues would frequently ‘massage’ my shoulders while they peered at my screen – and down my top. In the building industry, in the 1990s at least, sexual harassment was right in your face. In the university, sexual harassment and violence tends to be much more covert. Most of it happens behind closed doors, or in labs after hours.

In over a decade of working with PhD students at multiple universities I have only had a handful of people disclose sexual harassment to me, but I have no doubt that’s the tip of the iceberg. There must be many PhD students out there, all over the world, who never report. Some will fear their perpetrator, others will worry about their future career, still more will be confused and even ashamed. I wish I could say, hand on my heart, “report and all will be well”, but I think it’s clear that universities around the country have not done well in this respect. Failure to believe disclosures of sexual assault, or minimising the poor behaviour of others, can contribute to a general atmosphere of fear.

The vast majority of disclosures PhD students have made to me are not about sexual assault, but about ‘micro-aggressions’. This is poor behaviour which is largely non-violent and non-sexual in nature, but serves to make research workplaces hostile and unwelcoming. It’s not exactly bullying because it’s not directed from one person to another over a period of time, but it’s similar. Excessive aggression at presentations for example, or questioning your right to be in a space, in a conversation or even in a PhD program. Women, men and people who don’t identify as a either gender can experience micro-agressions from the academics who are meant to be there to teach and mentor them, or even from other students, but I’m sorry to say the majority of the stories I have heard are from women and the majority of the culprits are men.

And what are we supposed to make of the way some academic men seem to treat their female colleagues and students as a combination of surrogate girlfriends and help-meet? Just this week a young woman told me how her lab leader treated her like an unpaid servant, expecting her to organise his diary, take phone calls and do other kinds of secretarial paper work. This young women didn’t even identify the behaviour as inappropriate until another man said “I’m glad I’m a guy – he doesn’t ask us to do all that stuff”. The only thing that gives me comfort is that, at least in the incidents reported to me, it seems to be older men who act in these entitled ways. Perhaps generational change is happening. I hope so.

I’m sure some people will object to me making any kind of connection between sexual assault, micro-aggressions and excessive demands on women’s time and emotional capacities, but they all abuses of power and position that are just not OK. I have never formally reported anything that happened to me, so I totally understand the difficulties of reporting and speaking back to power – but if any of this is happening to you, I really hope you will at least reach out for support.

I also hope that this report starts a process of thinking about how to respond better to disclosures and make our university workplaces safer. I’d love to hear your point of view or even your experiences, should you choose to share them, in the comments, but I trust the conversation will be respectful. I will not hesitate to delete comments that attempt to shame others or minimise their experiences.

I’ll leave you with some contact numbers to seek help and support (Australia only) should you, or someone close to you, need them. I’d appreciate people in other countries offering details of support services if you have them.