Universities ‘uniquely’ prone to workplace abuse, union warns

New reports uncover widespread gossip, harassment, verbal abuse and ‘scientific sabotage’ in Dutch universities – with women particularly affected

May 13, 2019
Source: Alamy

A Dutch labour union has warned that university workplaces are uniquely prone to harassment and abuses of power, after a survey discovered that about half of staff felt they were “socially unsafe” at work.

A survey of more than 1,000 staff members across the Netherlands discovered that around a third of respondents said they had been bullied, and nearly half undermined by having important information, like the time of meetings, withheld from them.

The investigation, carried out by the Dutch Federation of Trade Unions (FNV) and the Vawo academic union, asked not only about issues such as sexual harassment, but also about other problems like corrosive gossip and “scientific sabotage”, where researchers were made to feel that they were not good enough to publish articles or apply for jobs.

“We know [about] actions like sexual harassment,” said Jan Boersma, director for universities at the FNV. “But it’s far more than that.” He said this was the first survey to look at the broader “social safety” of university workplaces.

Universities had a “unique” cocktail of factors that made them prone to abuse, he warned. They were organised very hierarchically, facilitating abuses of power; workloads were intense; and job insecurity made competition for posts fierce, Mr Boersma warned.

The survey results found that female staff were more likely to report being victims of every type of behaviour, particularly gossip about their performance.

In a separate piece of research, the Dutch Network of Women Professors (LNVH) collected 53 accounts of harassment from female academics across the Netherlands.

They ranged from sexual jokes and groping to stereotyped denigration of female academics as “emotional” or “hysterical”. Seventy per cent of the harassers were the supervisor or manager of the victim, while 78 per cent were men, according to Harassment in Dutch Academia.

None except one of the victims had been happy with how their complaints had been dealt with, explained Marijke Naezer, one of the report’s authors and a gender studies researcher at Radboud University. In some cases, “people simply didn’t believe them”, she said, or, despite being sympathetic, did not have the power or inclination to take action.

The findings have triggered calls from both the union and the LNVH for independent ombudspeople who can investigate workplace complaints and even have the power to fire faculty.

At the moment, explained Dr Naezer, universities employed “confidential advisers” who can listen to and advise victims but “cannot take other types of action”.

“They can’t even start an investigation, or even talk to the harasser,” she said.

Harassers, often senior academics, were protected by their value to the university. “If you bring in money, people come to see you as indispensable. That acts as a shield,” Dr Naezer said.

Some victims interviewed by the LNVH saw that their harassers seemed to be “above the law”, she explained, hence the need for independent ombudspeople. “It has to be someone from outside the academic structure,” she said.

The Association of Universities in the Netherlands said that institutions were “committed to providing their students, employees and visitors with a safe environment”, and stressed that they were trying to improve the confidential adviser system.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (2)

That's nothing you should see what happens to the private clients of the university by staff well tutored in bullying. What hope for the female older student. Statistics matter.
Bullying and psychopathy are intimately related and so any bullying within universities should be a red flag for an immediate internal investigation of the personality and behaviour of the bullying leader. As we are seeing in the media, there are often multiple victims of a single bully who regularly and repeatedly bullies those around them. Staff surveys can identify this as long as the questions haven't been so sanitized that they are meaningless. If you have been the victim then you may benefit from looking up 'corporate psychopaths and bullying' to gain a small modicum of therapeutic insight into a possible cause of what happened to you and why. Good luck, Clive Boddy.

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