What happened in academia after #metoo?

Svenska 2020-01-22

#Metoo was an eye-opener for many and the beginning of several initiatives against sexual harassment in academia. Lisa Salmonsson, who led the Swedish #akademiuppropet, thinks that it has become easier to talk about abuse in academia, but at the same time notices a fatigue.
“There’s just not the same outcry anymore,” she says.

During autumn 2017, calls to action arose from profession after profession in Sweden. Actors were first, with #tystnadtagning. After them came the lawyers with #medvilkenrätt and the politicians with #imaktenskorridorer. Lisa Salmonsson, researcher in sociology at Örebro University, just waited for things to explode in academia.

“Then I thought, ‘Perhaps I should do it?’. I have a permanent job and a good work environment. I don’t need to worry about losing my job, or having problems at work,” she says.

9 000 members in just two weeks

In just a few weeks, #akademiuppropet gathered 2 400 signatures. After two weeks, it had 9 000 members on Facebook, and stories were flooding in. Testimonies arrived from all over the country, from different subjects and faculties.

“They concerned everything, from sexist comments and making women invisible, to full assaults. There were cases where the woman who had been the victim had to leave, while the perpetrator remained at the university,” says Lisa Salmonsson.

So what has actually happened since autumn 2017?

“It feels like an incredibly long time ago. On good days, I feel that a lot has happened. Other days, I feel that not much has happened at all. The culture within academia remains the same.”

Status hierarchy causes harassment

After the #metoo autumn 2017, the Swedish Council for Higher Education (UHR) produced a report, at the request of the Government, on the work done by higher education institutions (HEIs) against sexual harassment, Universitets och högskolors arbete mot sexuella trakasserier. This indicates the status hierarchy within academia as an important reason why sexual harassment occurs and is permitted to continue. Vulnerability also increases due to insecure employment conditions and other power and dependency relationships within academia.

Following #metoo, several HEIs have starting working on making power relationships visible between groups such as students and teachers, or between doctoral students and supervisors. For example, the University of Gothenburg is conducting a review of their doctoral student supervisor training, and Karolinska Institutet (KI) has produced new guidelines to clarify the teacher role.

The report from UHR shows that many HEIs have undertaken some form of action following #metoo. Many have improved their information about sexual harassment, for example, and some have introduced or refined their whistle-blower functions to simplify anonymous reporting. Several HEIs have also started inquiries to get a better picture of the vulnerability situation at their own HEI.

One such example is the Tellus project at Lund University. In this project, researchers at the university have conducted interviews and focus group discussions with students and employees. During autumn 2019, a questionnaire study was also carried out, which will form the basis for future changes.

Great engagement in new collaboration

The most comprehensive initiative following #metoo is the collaboration programme against sexual harassment and gender-based exposure initiated by the vice-chancellors at KI, KTH Royal Institute of Technology and Malmö University. All HEIs in Sweden have now been invited to join, and the level of engagement is high, according to Annika Vänje, who is a research leader at KI.

The fact that it was the vice-chancellors who took the initiative is important, she thinks.

“I think that is good. It must come from the top. If anything is to happen, it is a prerequisite that the leaders believe in change.”

The starting point of the programme was in summer 2019, when participants from different HEIs met for a day of dialogue in collaboration with the Association of Swedish Higher Education Institutions (SUHF).

“There were a lot of discussions, and it was clear that there existed a strong will to start concrete work at the HEIs,” says Annika Vänje.

She is employed as research leader of the collaboration programme for two years, but the programme itself does not have an end date; instead, it is an operation that is now being built up.

“This is long-term work. The idea is that it will become permanent.”

Dialogue days and questionnaire study

As part of the programme, regional dialogue days will be held in January in Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Malmö. The purpose is to create a platform for networking that may lead to new research collaborations and development projects.

The collaboration programme has also initiated a questionnaire study on the prevalence of sexual harassment in academia, and how cases are handled. The study is conducted by the National Secretariat for Gender Studies, which will be sending out a questionnaire to HEI personnel and students during spring 2020.

“We know that sexual harassment does occur, but we don’t know to what extent, or the forms it takes. For example, does it vary between different scientific fields? And what action is taken when a case is discovered? Does anything happen? These are question that we are hoping to find answers to,” says Annika Vänje.

She also hopes that the study will provide a clearer picture of the perpetrators.

“We need to know more about who they are, in what environments their behaviour emerges, and how it can be accepted to such a large extent.”

International research shows that having a bystander perspective on the work of change is effective. This involves programmes directed at all the persons surrounding the perpetrator and the victim, with the intention of making more of them intervene against sexual harassment. In a US research project, such a programme was evaluated on campuses in the USA, and the researchers saw long-term positive effects[1].

Involve all who are affected

Annika Vänje believes that involving all who are affected is key to moving forwards and achieving real change in the work against sexual harassment.

“It is important that the leadership is onboard, but the engagement must not just come from above. Those who are affected, we who work and study at the HEIs, must feel that we own this issue. Otherwise, there will be no sustainable change.”

She hopes that the collaboration programme will function as a coordinating hub and a knowledge node for the work against sexual harassment within academia in Sweden. A new website is under construction.

You might think it is surprising that KTH and KI in particular, an institute of technology and a medical university, are leading the work against sexual harassment in academia in this way.

“I don’t know why this is so. There is great commitment to gender equality issues within the managements at both KI and KTH. It might also be because the resources are greater there, compared to within humanities.”

Beginning to fade

Although engagement within the collaboration programme is great, she is feeling that the pressure on issues relating to sexual harassment in general has started to fade within academia.

“I think awareness has increased at management level, but it is not a live issue at the HEIs any more; not like during #metoo.”

Lisa Salmonsson says the same:

“There is just not the same outcry any more. There is a fatigue. The issue is back again with safety representatives and gender equality representatives, who already worked with them before #metoo.”

She describes how issues relating to sexual harassment always need to be pushed upwards, both up to HEI managements and up to politicians.

Natural part of research policy

Since last summer, Lisa Salmonsson has been part of the research assessment team. She is using her position there to try to anchor the issue on the research policy agenda.

“I interpret the fact that I have been included in the research assessment team as showing that the research minister wants to make this issue a natural part of research policy.”

She thinks the most difficult part of leading #akademiuppropet was that there was no opportunity to follow up and support those who submitted testimonies. #akademiuppropet’s Facebook group closed down after #metoo, but she still occasionally receives testimonies from researchers and students who have been subjected to sexual harassment.

“This shows that something in the HEI’s procedures for these cases isn’t working properly.”

She feels, for example, that many do not sufficiently trust their managers. This could be related to how managers are appointed in academia. Researchers often have the role of manager as part of their job description, and collegiality can become a problem, she thinks, but adds that the system also has many advantages.

“There are many good leaders within academia, but they usually don’t have any managerial training. And then being a manager doesn’t give a lot of status. This could lead to some doing it in a slapdash manner.”

Did not point out individual perpetrators

Contrary to some other #metoo-inspired initiatives, #akademiuppropet did not point out individual perpetrators.

“If all the focus had been on certain men, they could quite easily have been turned into scapegoats. It’s just not the case that you can pick out a few scumbags, and that’s the problem solved,” says Lisa Salmonsson.

At the same time, it would probably have created a bigger scandal if highly lauded professors had been hung out to dry, she thinks.

“I’m sure there are some who think our initiative was too lame, but in the longer term I think the structural approach has contributed to us maintaining our integrity and becoming a voice that is listened to.”

[1] Coker, A.L., Bush, H.M., Fisher, B.S., Swan, S.C., Williams, C.M., Clear, E.R. & DeGue, S. 2016. Multi-College Bystander Intervention Evaluation for Violence Prevention. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 50: 295–302.

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Text: Charlie Olofsson

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