I think in some ways I have been naïve to the problem of sexual harassment.

I thought that my involvement in academia, and not the corporate rat race, that I would be free from the troubles of the ‘Me Too’ movement. But I was wrong. Sexual harassment can happen anywhere and to anyone.

My experience of sexual harassment

I chose not to report what happened to me to my institution, and that was my decision (it is definitely not the right choice for everyone, however). I was come on to in a very crude manner by a colleague of mine, at a work event. And whilst I believe that person did not intend me harm, and we have worked it out amongst ourselves, it still had a big impact on my experience as a student.

I was incredibly anxious about going to the department…not sure whether that person would be in that day. I would have to hear about their accomplishments and about how fantastic they are, while biting my tongue. I feel like I did something wrong, not them.

But I work in issues revolving gender and sexual health, so why did I not report it? I preach to others that there is support out there, that they can tell someone! I consider myself a strong woman who could never become a victim, or if I was harassed that I would (without a doubt) report that person.  Even though I know my institution would have handled a complaint with the utmost respect, has brilliant reporting policies in place, and does not foster a culture of sexual harassment. All this and yet, I couldn’t say something.

And although reporting these instances can be an important way to change the culture of sexual harassment in our society and can support universities’ growing effort to enact sensitive reporting policies, I like to think just talking about it can be radical in itself.

Dealing with sexual harassment within an academic setting

So, I have spoken to other students and early career researchers about sexual harassment, and there seems to be a common concern about not knowing what to do when you’re feeling uncomfortable with a colleague’s behaviour.

In a professional setting, there isn’t always the language to let a colleague know that what they are doing is inappropriate or making you feel some type of way. Whereas at a bar, or at a social event, it can be much easier to either escape the situation or tell the person off, with less chance of having to interact with them again.

Yet academia is often a small world, especially if you work in a niche subject area. You might have contemporaries that you see repeatedly at a lot of work-related events. So what can you do if the person making you feel uncomfortable is not at your institution? How can you deal with misconduct?

While there is no one right path to dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace, here are some options:

  • Tell someone: it doesn’t have to be the HR department necessarily, but even just telling a friend or co-worker can help. Sometimes the most important thing is to have someone validate your experience. To tell you, ‘yeah that was pretty creepy, they shouldn’t have done that’. It can also help you to get a sense of the wider experience in your environment. Do other colleagues report similar instances? Is this an institutional issue or is there one name that keeps coming up? This may help you decide what, if any, further action you feel is appropriate.
  • Talk to the person making you feel uncomfortable: I know this is definitely easier said than done. I couldn’t face doing it in person, so I texted the individual that harassed me. But, I did feel better for confronting them, and the behaviour hasn’t happened since. Mostly, it made me feel strong and brave to talk to the person about it. I think that, more than anything, else helped me. I feel like talking to them let me take control back of the situation and felt really empowering.  When confronting them, you can point out the behaviour that you feel was inappropriate and say, “That made me feel uncomfortable.” And get out of the situation if you can. Sometimes just calling someone out on their behaviour is enough of an incentive for them to get a grip of themselves.
  • Report: You can report to your individual institution. Or you can contact the University and College Union to report the individual, particularly if they work outwith your University. Keep all records of communication between yourself and the person making you feel uncomfortable, and if possible try to find witnesses of the unacceptable behaviour.

Whatever path you choose (and there are many more ways to process harassment than I have had scope to mention here) I am truly sorry if you have experienced it. Unfortunately, academia (and society more broadly) has a ways to go to dismantle the culture of harassment and discrimination in the workplace. But hopefully, by talking about it here, we can continue to open up the discussion regarding this issue. Sexual harassment is unacceptable and has no place in academia or anywhere else!

Please, if you are feeling unsafe or just want to talk, you can contact:

Scottish Women’s Rights Centre (Scotland): 08088 010 789

Victim Support (England and Wales): 08081 689 111