Addressing sexual misconduct in higher education, part one: prevention

Sexual harassment and violence perpetrated by academic faculty or staff towards students and early career researchers is a complex issue that requires a proactive institutional response, writes Anna Bull

Anna Bull's avatar
University of York
20 Feb 2024
bookmark plus
  • Top of page
  • Main text
  • More on this topic
Young woman with her palm facing the camera

You may also like

Five ways universities can protect faculty from online harassment
4 minute read
online protection

About 10 per cent of women postgraduate researchers (PGRs) and 2 per cent of undergraduate students are subjected to staff-to-student sexual harassment in higher education, and those with minoritised sexual and gender identities are more likely to be targeted. The impacts can be profound, including detriment to their studies, physical and mental health, finances and career. Despite student and survivor activism drawing attention to this issue, higher education institutions across the world have often struggled to address it.

Sexual misconduct in higher education is a complex issue to address as it spans different parts of the institution and challenges entrenched cultures. However, there are steps that can make staff/faculty sexual harassment less likely to occur and can prevent harm from being compounded by poor institutional responses.

Part one of this series examines key steps for prevention, while part two outlines how institutions should respond to reports.

Develop clear professional boundaries and shared standards of behaviour

My research has shown that about 80 per cent of students are uncomfortable with policies that allow staff or faculty to have sexual or romantic relationships with students, with no difference in attitudes between PGRs and undergraduate students.

It is important to devise boundaries and shared standards of behaviour at a departmental or disciplinary level through bottom-up discussion. This process should start with carefully facilitated discussions within different groups in a department or discipline. PGRs and postdocs need to be allowed to discuss these issues in a separate forum from permanently employed staff/faculty to enable them to speak more openly. The 1752 Group, a research and lobby organisation working to end sexual misconduct in higher education, offers workshops for PGRs and supervisors on sexual harassment and professional boundaries. The aim is to develop a shared ethical awareness within academic communities, ultimately creating a safer space to have these discussions.

Carry out institution-level surveys and include questions about specific sexual harassment behaviour

Surveys asking: “Have you been bullied or harassed?” without asking about specific behaviours can underestimate the prevalence of sexual harassment. Instead, draw on widely used surveys such as the Sexual Experiences Questionnaire or an adapted version relating to staff-student sexual harassment from The 1752 Group. An example question would be: “Has a supervisor/colleague ever attempted to draw you into a discussion about sex?”

Minimise gender and other inequalities and hierarchies

Highly gender-unequal environments can create a culture where sexual harassment is normalised or invisibilised. Other inequalities relating to race, class, disability or sexuality can also create vulnerabilities.

Following guidance from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, departmental and disciplinary cultures should minimise power imbalances, including academic hierarchies. This could include minimising precarious employment, embedding 360-degree feedback (including from postgraduate researchers) in review or promotion criteria and ensuring all students and postgraduate researchers are meaningfully represented and remunerated for participation in departmental decision-making processes.

Implement safer recruitment processes

Institutions should join the Misconduct Disclosure Scheme to ensure that perpetrators of sexual misconduct are not moving between organisations undetected. The scheme was set up in the humanitarian sector in 2018 and now has hundreds of members worldwide. It requires member organisations to commit to systematically checking with previous employers about any sexual harassment issues relating to potential new hires and to respond systematically to such checks from others. As such, it gives employers a common framework to share the relevant information they need to make better hiring decisions, reducing organisational risk.

Implement mechanisms that allow individuals to raise concerns about low-level incidents

Owing to the strongly hierarchical nature of academia, students rarely feel safe to raise concerns. However, ensuring staff with appropriate workload capacity and training are available to discuss options informally and confidentially is a crucial step in building trust. This allows individuals to raise concerns at an early stage.

Seemingly minor incidents should not be dismissed as they may be part of a wider pattern of grooming or boundary-blurring behaviours. Examples of such behaviours include staff using social media platforms to send private messages to students, buying presents for a student, asking students intrusive personal questions, arranging meetings at weekends or late at night or singling out a student for special attention in other ways.

Even in the absence of a formal report, institutions can implement precautionary measures to ensure students’ safety and ability to continue their studies – for example, a no-contact agreement, where all parties voluntarily agree on how they will share space on campus. Institutions should also ensure all disclosures are documented, regardless of whether action is taken, and act on patterns of behaviour when identified.

Handle informal responses carefully

Informal responses may be appropriate if the allegation is less severe, there have been no other formal or informal reports about the same person’s behaviour, and this is what the reporting party wants. However, they can be very harmful if not implemented carefully. Ensure trained staff with expertise in gender-based violence are responsible for handling and documenting these.

Behavioural interventions can be put in place to ensure that, moving forward, the accused party’s behaviour is appropriate – for example, establishing agreed modes of communication. However, it’s important to be aware that this behaviour is unlikely to be a one-off; faculty/staff are likely to target multiple people.

The person who has been harassed should never be asked to directly approach the person responsible or to undergo mediation with them, and they should be offered specialist support from staff trained in sexual violence.            

This work should be carried out alongside work with research funders, academic staff unions and disciplinary communities such as professional societies.

With these steps implemented, it is likely that institutions will start receiving increased numbers of reports of sexual harassment. Part two of this resource explores how institutions should respond to reports.

Anna Bull is a senior lecturer at the University of York and co-director of The 1752 Group.

If you would like advice and insight from academics and university staff delivered direct to your inbox each week, sign up for the Campus newsletter.


You may also like

sticky sign up

Register for free

and unlock a host of features on the THE site