This project has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 788204.

e-discussion Addressing Sexual Harassment in Research Organizations

ACT e-discussion on Addressing Sexual Harassment in Research Organizations

Link to e-discussion


On April 16, 2020, the ACT project ERA priority group on careers hosted an e-discussion on GenPort about Addressing Sexual Harassment in Research Organizations convened by Claartje Vinkenburg. With around 30 participants and invited experts from around Europe, we discussed the occurrence of, response to and prevention of sexual harassment in research performing and research funding organizations, and the higher education sector more broadly. Next to questions to our experts, we welcomed and encouraged any lessons learned and practice examples of "what works" from the participants, in line with the ACT Community of Practice approach.

Short profiles of our experts and a list of resources on the topic provided by our experts can be found on GenPort.


What we discussed

After a short round of introductions, our first topic was the occurence of sexual harassment in research organizations and higher education. What is it about this setting that makes sexual harassment (especially) likely to occur? Fredrik Bondestam replied that according to their review of the literature, scholars agree on specific concerns in the HE-sector: asymmetric power relations, strong dependence on senior staff, insecure or precarious employment conditions, high levels of mobility, and uninformed passive leadership. Often the HE organizational environment is characterized by hypercompetition, masculinity contests, and hegemonic or toxic masculinity, as argued by Marijke Naezer and Claartje Vinkenburg. Susuana Amoah added that the normalisation of sexism on university campuses which together with factors such as structual inequality and elitism makes these spaces furtile ground for sexual harassment. Marijke Naezer also explained how the hierarchical nature of the academy enables perpetrators to continue to behave as they wish without being held accountable, especially if they are academic "stars". Victims and bystanders may resort to "self-silencing" (a problematic term, because this is about systemic, not individualistic factors) due to lack of support and safety. Leadership can remain unaware and/or able to deny there is a problem.

It is important to note that there are different kinds of harassment which often "go together" (e.g. denigration, othering), and it is important to take an intersectional perspective when studying harassment that takes into account race or ethnicity, age, physical ability, etc. Prevalence of sexual harassment differs between institutions, hierarchical levels, and the strength of the stereotype of the ideal academic. Being or looking "different" from that norm is often a starting point for microaggressions and harassment.

Underreporting is problematic for prevalence studies and tied to the second topic - organizational response. If incidents are not reported, how can we study prevalence and how can we monitor and improve organizational response? Asking specific rather than general questions in employee or student surveys helps. Victims' fear of career consequences is very real, and needs to be addressed when improving organizational response.

Our second topic is the response to sexual harassment. There are many cases where institutions have handled sexual harassment complaints inadequately, with secondary consequences for the victims as a result. Support systems and formal complaint structures are often in place, but what is more difficult is what to do about the harasser who often remains (or is reappointed elsewhere) in a senior position. These issues are exarcebated by the fact that the system that allowed the harassment to continue, is also the system that now has to act to prevent it in the future. While some institutions are getting better at tackling sexual harassment between students, when members of staff are involved, many institutions tend to "circle the wagons" or unite in defence of the interest of the perpetrator. One recommendation is to design a complaint system that provides the complainant with a quick response that does not spark retaliation. A second recommendation is to have clear and transparent legal procedures, but also offering alternative channels of support. In order to build trust in the investigation and sanction process, institutions must be prepared to publish the number of cases, the number and type of sanctions, all the while maintainting confidentiality of the parties concerned. As research careers take place beyond organizational borders, it is crucial that explicit steps are taken against perpetrators by research funders, academies, learned societies and disciplinary associations.

The third topic is the prevention of sexual harassment. Being more transparent about the procedures and have support systems in place may have consequences in terms of prevention, but it is no guarantee for the type of systemic or transformative change needed to eliminate the cultural elements that make sexual (and other kinds of) harassment likely to occur. There are cultural differences in the degree to which non-disclosure (of the name of the perpetrator) is expected and normalized, and non-disclosure agreements are sometimes considered "gagging orders". Some collected examples (in- and outside the e-discussion) of promising practices for prevention and culture change are a) the use of a code of conduct to be signed before entering employment which explicitly states among other things "I shall not cause or contribute to sexual misconduct and harassment", and b) active bystander training  that treats all involved as victims’ allies and gives them problem-solving tools. The importance of signaling intolerance of sexual harassment is not to be underestimated; and inclusive leadership is a crucial element in reducing prevalence and building prevention. 



Bondestam, F., & Lundqvist, M. (2020). Sexual harassment in higher education – a systematic review. European Journal of Higher Education, 0(0), 1–23.

Berdahl, J. L., Cooper, M., Glick, P., Livingston, R. W., & Williams, J. C. (2018). Work as a Masculinity Contest. Journal of Social Issues, 74(3), 422–448.

Connell, R. W., & Messerschmidt, J. W. (2005). Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept. Gender & Society, 19(6), 829–859.

Perry, E. L., Block, C. J., & Noumair, D. A. (2020). Leading in: Inclusive leadership, inclusive climates and sexual harassment. Equality, Diversity and Inclusion.