Naomi Ellemers:

'Don’t wait any longer to tackle inappropriate behaviour'

Naomi Ellemers. Foto: Jack Tillmans
UU Professor Naomi Ellemers. Photo: Jack Tillmans

This month, two cases of sexual abuse involving university professors made news in the Benelux region. First, an astronomy professor in Leiden, the Netherlands, was banned permanently from the university over sexual harassment. Then, a Flemish professor from KU Leuven was jailed for rape.

Unfortunately, the problem is anything but new. The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) has recently written an advisory report on the topic to the Dutch Minister of Education, Robbert Dijkgraaf, and the Dutch universities.

Published in July, the report is a guide with practical tips for tackling inappropriate behaviours (which can be of a sexual nature or not). The behavioural scientist Naomi Ellemers, a Professor at Utrecht University, chaired the committee that wrote the report.

What were your thoughts when you read the news about the two professors?
“Universities are large organisations where many people work. I imagine that these things happen in many places, so I’m not surprised when news like this comes to light. But I hope we are reaching a tipping point. We have to clear out the attic and deal with cases that have been going on for years. Then, we must think about the future.”

Why do sexual harassment cases like these tend to go on for so long?
“These are never isolated incidents. Every time, you hear that there’s a pattern and that people were aware of it for a long time. But, if no formal complaint is made, people believe there’s nothing they can do about it, so they allow it to go on. Universities often tend to approach these cases from an excessively legal perspective: they want to assemble all the evidence before taking action. But it's not all or nothing.”

Could Leiden University have taken action much sooner?
“Yes, the President of their Executive Board, Annetje Ottow, has admitted that (in an interview with the Dutch newsaper NRC, Ed). Hopefully things will change.”

The Astronomy Professor is no longer allowed to come to the university but he hasn't been dismissed yet.
“I only know the case from what I read in the press but, in my opinion, that’s actually a good sign. Apparently they cannot fire him but they are taking action. All kinds of restrictions apply under employment law but there is still plenty of scope to do things. If the university acts early, it can impose a smaller or temporary measure. For example, they could forbid someone from supervising PhD candidates for a while. They could also demand the person to take a course on appropriate behaviour and demonstrate an improvement. But, currently, this sort of thing rarely happens.”

You advocate a change of culture, but such a change must happen among people used to the old culture? How can you do that?
“It can definitely be hard but the first question is 'what do we consider to be acceptable behaviour? And what is unacceptable?' Both things are subject to change, of course. People sometimes think: 'I once made a joke that went too far, will I be burned at the stake for it now?' This sort of reaction actually stops people from discussing the issue. Instead, we should think that we didn’t give certain things a second thought 20 or 30 years ago, but we want to do things differently now.”

This summer, you stated that people in a position of power have a different worldview compared to those who are dependent on them. Ultimately, they cannot know how their behaviour comes across to others. Is that the source of this kind of problem?
“Yes, that certainly plays a part. For my colleagues and me, that’s basic knowledge but, for some people, it’s a real eye opener. When it comes to inappropriate sexual behaviour, sometimes people say: 'if the woman doesn't want it, all they have to do is say ‘no’. But, if you say that, you're not taking into consideration the fact that it's very hard to say no to someone in a position of power.”

Can this problem ever be solved?
“A culture can be changed. Sometimes women my age say: 'I have experienced all sorts of things. It wasn’t always pleasant but you have to be able to take the rough with the smooth. But young women nowadays think otherwise. They're like: 'Why? Why do we have to accept this?' And that’s absolutely right.”

What can universities do?
“You can start small. There are still people saying they haven’t had a performance appraisal for 20 years. Needless to say, that is unacceptable. During such appraisals, one shouldn’t only ask about publications, fundraising and teaching, but also about appropriate behaviour and leadership qualities. After all, that’s really important. We should also keep an eye on satisfaction, staff turnover and sick leave. Let’s monitor how people are feeling and take action if necessary. We have to start somewhere.”

But would that bring about a cultural shift?
“It definitely helps, if you do it systematically. Universities also need to have a network of people victims can turn to, so they don’t have to go to that solitary confidential counsellor who is not in touch with the workplace. They must be able to turn to someone at their own level for advice, without it becoming a legal matter.”

So, for example, does there need to be someone among the PhD candidates in a particular department to whom other PhD candidates can talk to about inappropriate behaviour?
“Yes, but can a PhD candidate also make the head of the department accountable for poor leadership? To do that, you also need colleagues who occupy a similar position to that of the head of department and who have duties in the field of social safety. Administrators must therefore ask themselves what duties they want to delegate and to whom. Universities provide education and research but how can they make that happen without good relationships? People need to be given time for it and have to be trained for it. This must become part of the evaluations. It all has to be made more professional.”

So, what now? Do we simply wait for the next case to emerge?
“Maybe, but it’s definitely a good sign that young people are coming forward. The topic is gathering more and more attention, which is good because people are only going to report problems if they expect something will be done about them.”