Harassment and inappropriate behaviours

Professor Naomi Ellemers: 'It would really help to say sorry'

Naomi Ellemers. Photo: Jack Tillmans

Intimidation, discrimination, threats, bullying, unwanted sexual advances... The topic of a safe work environment is a sensitive one. Victims don't feel heard, perpetrators often don't think they did anything wrong and bystanders don't know what to do.

"It is really awkward, people get scared of doing something wrong," says behavioural scientist Naomi Ellemers, Professor at Utrecht University. "Next thing you know, someone gets offended."

Ellemers is the leader of a committee within the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) tasked with advising the Dutch government on how to guarantee a safe work environment in academia. The members of the committee didn't want to write yet another report that would be initially well-received but quickly put on the back burner. That's why they did their best to come up with a practical guide (available in Dutch only, Ed.)

The report in a nutshell
The report is structured like a travel guide. The premise is that good science requires a safe working environment. It does not suffice to establish protocols and rules. 

Scarce resources and power disparities promote an unsafe working environment. Complex structures don't help, either. Therefore, being organised is key to preventing problems from arising. Although prevention might seem costly in terms of time and money, it actually prevents big problems in the long run. 

The writers of the report hope the document is going to help institutions to set changes in motion. The sensible questions addressed include: what is our code of conduct and is it clear to everybody? Do managers get enough support in dealing with tough situations? What can we learn from the issues of the past?

The document also provides "first aid" to accidents. The process of solving an acute problem begins with a manager who listens to the employees and takes responsibility for their wellbeing. So, give space to different perspectives and communicate effectively about improvement plans. Don't forget to keep following the case after that.

The report does not cover the safety of students. They can experience and cause unsafe situations, but the advice is mainly intended for directors, managers, and employees.

The conclusion: much like scientific integrity, a safe work environment should be an ordinary topic in the academic world. "They actually go hand in hand. Fraud becomes more likely when people don't feel safe."

Managers should take it into account even when everything is going well in the department. Don't wait until something gets out of hand, advises the document, as that means you're not prepared. "Fire drills are done before a fire breaks out."

What do you hope to change with this report?
“We're offering a renewed perspective. Much is written about victims in the hope that things will change if they realise that there is a problem. But that's not enough. Even if people in influential positions care about investing in this, they don't always know what to do. That's what we're hoping to help with."

You've been in academia for quite some time. Have you ever experienced or witnessed inappropriate situations yourself? 
“Yes, of course.”

As a victim, bystander or perpetrator?
“All three of them.”

Do you prefer not to say anything about it?
“That's not what we should be focusing on. In the document, we do use personal experiences as a starting point, but what we want is to show how these problems are structured and how one can solve them. Much is already known about this topic in the behavioural sciences, but people in general often have no clue where to look for information. They are too quick to think: 'we're all people, I know how this goes."

Is working towards a safe work environment so hard?
“Apparently, yes, otherwise people would do it more often. It's a topic that scares people. That's why we strived to avoid using the word "should" as much as possible, because people are not exactly amused when they read it. That's not something that makes people rub their hands and go: 'okay, I'm going to start doing this tomorrow'"

A personal example could be useful to illustrate why this topic matters so much. 
“Okay then. At the first international congress where I presented my dissertation, a professor told me he thought my research was very interesting. He invited me to his hotel room to discuss it. It was only at the last minute that I realised that was not a good idea."

That's nasty...
Ellemers is quiet for a little while. “I felt so stupid. How could I possibly think that the professor was actually interested in my work? That's one of the consequences: it undermines your self-confidence. There are even men who do this on purpose to put women in their place: you don't think we actually take you seriously, huh, girl? At the beginning of our career, we're so insecure and vulnerable."

This effect on one's self-esteem is something that doesn't occur to many people.
“A lot of research has been conducted into this. This type of experience can even make women score lower on an IQ test. That was long ago, but just from telling you about it, I get emotional. Almost all women researchers from my generation have gone through something like this. They had a choice between leaving academia altogether or repressing their emotions. Everyone who stayed opted for the latter."

You said you've also been a bystander. What happened?
"We've all been in situations where, afterwards, you think: 'wait, what just happened?' And it's only in the evening that it suddenly occurs to you what you could have said. That's how it goes for most people, but once I said something right there and then and I was so proud of myself. Someone made a stupid joke poking fun at someone else and I called them out on it. Their answer was: 'True, we shouldn't do this anymore.' It wasn't an issue. But it remains difficult. You don't want to be the whiny bitch who kills everyone's joy. That's why it's so important to talk about these things regularly in our workplaces. That way, you're more prepared."

And you've also been a perpetrator?
“The problem with being in a position of power is that you have a different perspective of reality than those who depend on you. Literally. That is even visible in the brain. You end up giving a completely different impression than you think. For example, I've heard people say that I'm intimidating, even if I don't realise it myself."

Can you give us an example?
“A PhD student of mine had worked on an analysis for a few weeks and I thought they were taking too long. 'That's what you were working on this entire time?', I asked. I didn't realise it was a new analysis, which required a lot of research. But sometimes I'm also stressed out, didn't sleep well, or have issues in my private life."

Do you think you're a good manager, in general?
“That's the thing: there's no way for me to know. I can't say I do everything well because everyone makes mistakes, but I encourage people to point out my shortcomings to me. And they do that: the second supervisor of that PhD student told me that my remark was too harsh, so that I could apologise. You have to consciously counter-steer, instead of trusting your own gut feeling. I often ask my employees: what do you need from me to perform your job properly?"

Who is Naomi Ellemers?

Naomi Ellemers is a behavioural scientist working as a Professor at Utrecht University.

She is one of the most prominent scientists in her field, winning the Spinoza Prize (the highest scientific accolade in the Netherlands) in 2010.

She is one of the founders of Athena's Angels, an organisation denouncing sexism in Dutch academia.

KNAW's advisory document is not directed at malicious people, but they do exist. "Yes, but perhaps less than one would assume. We talked to a lot of people who have been accused of misconduct and they were all very emotional. They were shocked, they thought they were doing things right, nobody had ever told them that there was a problem and, suddenly, they had to retire early."

But they did behave badly.
“Sometimes they calculate things badly. Others just don't know any better. Managers often say to each other: 'you should get really mad from time to time, you have to keep them feeling insecure, that's how you make them work harder.' But it also makes them stressed out and neurotic. There are outdated ideas about leadership which I come across often when conducting research at large organisations."

How can we change those outdated ideas?
“By preparing managers better for their work. At knowledge institutions, people often think it's all about content, people are smart enough, so it's not necessary to talk to them about the social aspects of the job. In addition, we pay too little attention to social skills when hiring and promoting leaders. Recently, somebody said to me: 'but I'm not a social worker." But the social aspects of the job matter, too — especially if you're the one guiding the team. So, people should develop themselves in that regard as well."

But there are also people who are easily offended.
“That's hard for a manager to estimate. Something you consider innocuous can be tough to hear for others and small incidents can pile up. That's why you should make sure that the structures to provide a safe work environment are well organised and people can talk about these situations. Suppose you have a brilliant jerk in your team, an outstanding researcher with poor communication skills. You can help them by putting people around them to serve as a support system. That may seem costly and inefficient, but consider the hidden costs of a young, broken researcher or the costs of a procedure in case an official complaint gets filed."

Power disparities will always exist. Isn't it inevitable that problems will continue to arise?
“In a way, it is. There are many young, talented people and only a few gatekeepers determining who will be given a chance. Those who make it through often say: 'they've always treated me well.' But how did they treat the others? If something happens, it's not a matter of simply finding work elsewhere, because those gatekeepers are not easily outrun. Almost everybody is extremely specialised, you're not qualified enough until you're 30, and there are very few people in the world who can actually appreciate your work. And then, bam, you bump into that same editor again. In some fields, whether or not you get a letter of recommendation from a colleague at the top can make a lot of difference in your career. The only way to escape their influence is by leaving academia altogether." 

But you can avoid some pitfalls, can't you?
“This requires a structural approach within the organisation. If I tell you how power disparities work once, are you already equipped to avoid problems from arising? No, that's not how things work. If you only offer one course about bias, that doesn't mean that everyone is going to start evaluating others objectively the day after."

If you want to be good at something, you've got to practice. Is that what you're saying?
“And maintaining it. New insights are always emerging. That way we can professionalise things."

But if you're busy with a pile of exams to grade and barely have time to conduct your research, you're not exactly inclined to spend time talking to your colleagues about a safe work environment.

"You'd rather spend every dime and every hour on your research. I get it. But look at how much these problems cost if things get out of hand. It involves so much time and money that we really can't do anything else but try and prevent it. Things may be going well now, but maybe next year you'll have a postdoc with a different point of view in your team, and tensions will run high. Should you only be concerned with it then?"

Are managers interested in doing that?
“It's quickly seen as an obligation. That came out again and again in our conversations with leaders. You can push off your responsibilities and just shop around for a course, without giving much thought to why it is needed. This way, you can say you've done your part and then carry on with 'real work.' But that's worthless, which is why we would really like to prevent that from happening."

Academia is an international work environment. How can we avoid cultural differences from causing problems?
"At the end of the day, you're not going to overcome those differences, but you can learn to share your insights and experiences in another way. When people work well together, sometimes half a word is enough for them to understand each other, but in a multicultural team you cannot assume that's going to happen."

Some will think: 'wow, will I get to do my actual job?'
“Yes, working on this takes time, but you will get a return on your investment. After all, the way we're going things now also costs time and money. Those costs come in the form of a foreign researcher who doesn't feel comfortable at work and leaves to work somewhere else. Are these people not ambitious enough, do they not fit in? Or are we losing talent because we don't offer them what they expect?"

What can be improved in the way complaints are handled?
“We should do everything in our power to prevent them, but if problems arise anyway, then you should communicate well and be clear about what you're going to do about it. In the talks we've held, we often heard: 'if someone had said sorry to me, that would have helped me a lot.' Lousy communication only makes things worse. You could say that's easy to avoid, but people tend to underestimate the importance of it enormously."

Why is it so hard for the insights from the behavioural sciences to reach the universities?
“That research takes place inside the universities, it is delivered by our own research groups. But, usually, as an organisation, the university does not make use of it. That's a missed opportunity."

The announcement of your lecture at the Opening of the Academic Year states that everyone can contribute to a safe work environment and that we should embrace awkwardness more often. In your view, what should Utrecht University do to ignite a cultural change?
"Also at Utrecht University, this means it is necessary to systematically examine the usual procedures and manners that we have become accustomed to. That's why we should always ask ourselves critically whether these procedures and manners fit in the way we would like to work with each other in the future, and whether it contributes to a shared ambition to build a renewed, inclusive, and independent university."

You're one of the four founders of Athena’s Angels, which combats sexism in Dutch academia. That was before the #MeToo movement. 
“It was scary to set up Athena's Angels. No wonder there were four of us. And, at the time, two of us already had a Spinoza prize! Can you imagine how hard it would be for a PhD candidate to raise such a problem? Building Athena's Angels website was one of the things we spent the money from the Spinoza prize on. Then people asked us why we were doing that. That was indeed way before the #MeToo movement."

Has anything changed in academia since then?
“Sometimes I think that a lot has changed and sometimes I think nothing's changed. I thought to myself: 'okay, I am a pioneer, I'm the first university professor to get pregnant, of course no one else ever considered maternity leave for a professor before. But the generation after me will surely have it better.' So, it's sad to see the same things happening ten or twenty years later. On the other hand, it makes me hopeful to see that people are talking about these things a lot more now, even those in positions of power."

An unsafe work environment can cost 300,000 euros
An unsafe work environment is expensive: an incident can quickly cost tens of thousands of euros or even a few tons. That's one of the conclusions drawn by the advisory report handed by KNAW to the Dutch Minister of Education, Robbert Dijkgraaf.

The committee names three examples, from the small scale to the large scale. The first one concerns a PhD candidate who takes a sick leave after the sexual advances of a supervisor. The supervisor gets other tasks and coaching, while the PhD student goes back to work after three months. The costs related to lost working hours, substitutions, advisors and so on can reach about 29,000 euros.

In the second example, the PhD student leaves the university after six months. In this case, the costs are even higher, with almost 100,000 euros in severance pay and a supplement to unemployment benefits. That amounts to some 167,000 euros.

The third example involves serious sexual harassment complaints made by an associate professor against a professor. The associate professor takes a sick leave and the professor is moved to a non-active position. Colleagues must take on their research and educational tasks. Following a one-year investigation, the professor is sacked and the associate professor goes back to work after 14 months. The attention from the media also costs time and money.

The third case is the most expensive: 292,000 euros in substitution costs, severance pay, and unemployment benefit supplements. This sum does not include medical costs and absenteeism costs.

Therefore, it's better to spend money on prevention than handle cases after they happen.

HOP/ Bas Belleman