‘University staff feels unsafe’

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Unions FNV Education and Research and academic union VAWO asked 1,110 supporting and academic university staff members about their workplace experience. Almost half of the respondents indicated that they experience, or have experienced, a socially unsafe working situation where they are affected by gossip and the purposeful withholding of information. 

Four in ten staff members have personally experienced socially unsafe working conditions at some point. Women more often than men: 44 percent against 35 percent. Such unsafe conditions usually involve withholding of information (44 percent), abuse of power (35 percent), and intimidation (34 percent) by a professor or a superior. One of the respondents writes: “My work was plagiarized by a prominent professor. I was told to remain silent or else I was in danger of losing my job.”

Almost half of the respondents still feel unsafe at their department. “A male colleague makes comments about my body. I ignore him as much as I can,” writes one respondent. Employees whose situation has improved say this is mainly the result of intervention from someone at a higher level, a change at management level, or a new contract. One of the respondent writes: “I have a permanent position now, and as a result the imbalance of power has largely disappeared.”

Incompetent leadership
The most cited reason for a socially unsafe working condition is incompetent leadership (37 percent). This is considered a problem especially by older employees. The hierarchical culture (49 percent) and high work pressure (43) also play an important role according to the respondents.

Unions FNV and VAWO find the results “shocking.” They call on the universities to set up an external, independent complaints commission and to appoint an ombudsman/woman. Jan Boersma of FNV: “Currently, universities only have internal complaints commissions, and the existing national complaints commission doesn’t apply to universities. The results of our research clearly show that an external, independent commission is sorely needed.”

Uncomfortable truth
The Dutch Network of Women Professors (LNVH) also published a report on harassment and intimidation today. The LNVH described these practices in Dutch academia as an “uncomfortable truth.” They are the result of cultural and structural factors, and could possibly have disastrous consequences.

The research by the LNVH is based on twenty in-depth interviews with female academics and thirty-three written testimonials about experience with harassment. The researchers made a distinction between scientific sabotage, sexual harassment, physical and verbal threats, denigration, exclusion, and problematizing special needs.

The hierarchical nature of academia, the highly competitive and individualistic culture, the inadequate responses to incidents of harassment, and the self-silencing (forced or not) of victims can easily create situations of misconduct and intimidation that are insufficiently addressed, or not addressed at all.

Starting point
The report is explicitly meant as a starting point for more elaborate and extensive research. The LNVH calls on universities to enforce an explicit zero-tolerance policy and to make the procedure for raising the issue of harassment easier, more transparent and more effective. This has to eventually lead to a cultural shift in academia.

The Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) takes the signals and recommendations “very seriously,” says chairman Pieter Duisenberg. “The university has to be a safe environment for its employees, and every type of inappropriate behavior is unacceptable.”