Sexual harassment of PhDs linked to academia’s ‘leaky pipeline’

Women who complete their PhDs in workplaces with high harassment rates less likely to remain in research, Danish study finds

April 3, 2024
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Women who encounter a high level of misogyny and sexual harassment during their doctoral studies are less likely to remain in academia after completing their PhDs, a new study has found.

Researchers at the Danish Centre for Social Science Research (VIVE) surveyed more than 5,000 PhD students who started their programmes in Denmark between 2010 and 2018, combining the results with national employment data in order to determine the career impact of workplace harassment.

Of the women questioned, 37 per cent reported experiencing at least one “verbal act that objectifies, excludes or degrades them on the basis of their gender”, while 32 per cent had experienced at least one “malicious sexual comment, gesture or exposure”.

Almost a quarter of respondents had experienced unwanted physical contact, attempts at unwanted physical contact or sexual coercion. More than half of the acts of harassment reported were perpetrated by coworkers with more seniority, while 36 per cent were carried out by managers and 31 per cent by supervisors.

Fewer women with PhDs progressed to subsequent academic positions, the study indicated: only 19 per cent of women, compared with 26 per cent of men, had postdoctoral posts in the year after completing their doctorates. Eight years after completion, 13 per cent of women held lecturer roles, compared with 16 per cent of men.

Campus resource: Addressing sexual misconduct in higher education, part one: prevention

Poorer retention of women in academia, the researchers say, is influenced in part by the prevalence of gender-based harassment. “Women who have started their PhD education in a professional environment with a relatively high level of sexist incidents are less likely to remain in a research position at the universities after completing the PhD course,” the authors write.

The probability of a woman remaining in academia in the year she completes her PhD, according to the study, rises by 14 percentage points if “the proportion who have experienced sexist incidents in the professional environment falls from over three out of four to under one out of four”.

VIVE senior researcher Rune Vammen Lesner, one of the study’s authors, told Times Higher Education that the academic workplace involved several “risk factors” for gender-based harassment, including “hierarchies, small working groups, lack of job security and highly competitive hiring processes”.

“We embarked on this study because we were interested in understanding why so few women succeed in academia – the leaky pipeline,” Dr Lesner said. “In fact, the pipeline seems to be more leaky in Denmark.” In 2018, according to the European Commission’s 2021 She Figures report, only 20 per cent of academics in the most senior roles in Denmark were women, compared with the EU average of 26 per cent.

Ea Høg Utoft, assistant professor of gender and diversity studies at Radboud University, told THE that the dynamics of a PhD-supervisor relationship disempowered those experiencing harassment. “It’s very difficult to establish a relationship where a junior researcher is able to say no, because you depend on the supervisor,” she said, noting that supervisors could often offer jobs or crucial academic connections. “Sponsorship is a career-maker if you have it and a career-breaker if you don’t have it.”

Dr Utoft, who completed her PhD at Denmark’s Aarhus University, said senior academics with distinguished records often appeared “untouchable”, adding: “Leadership is more likely to protect that person than the person who made the complaint. As a PhD, you’re just less important.

“The vulnerability is compounded if you are a person of colour, if you are an LGBTQ+ person,” she added.

“Many of us have experienced that ‘drip, drip, drip’ of sexist comments or unwanted sexual attention,” Dr Utoft said. “They stick with you...I can’t blame people for wanting or hoping to find workplaces where they don’t have to deal with that.”

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