#metooscience – Abuse of power, sexual and gender-based harassment in science

Victoria S. and Franziska S.

What it looks like under the guise of the “academic elite” 

According to recent studies, approximately 60% of employees and students at universities experience sexual and/or gender-related harassment (UNI-SAFE). A look at the statistical predictors of harassment reveals that the numbers in the university context are not randomly high. Research shows that competitive systems with strict hierarchies and an imbalanced gender ratio are associated with the likelihood of harassment. Therefore, the academic system with its short contract durations, rigid hierarchies, and emphasis on (mostly male) experts who have immense authority over the careers and reputations of their employees based on their publications, serves as a prime example of how a system can foster abusive behavior. According to Tenbrunsel (2019) the issue of gender-related harassment is more prevalent in the academic context than in other contexts.

In contrast, there is a cross-industry narrative called “we don’t have such problems here.” However, research has shown that this is a myth!. The persistence of such narratives is primarily due to a lack of effective complaint management and insufficient awareness. There are few independent and trustworthy complaint mechanisms, the burden of proof in cases of discrimination lies with the victims, often there is no legal representation for the victims, and the reports submitted by the victims are often not taken seriously enough by the initial points of contact in the system, as they lack the tools to address the issues beyond determining the legality. As a result, less than 10% of the victims take action against what they have experienced.

How is gender-based harassment addressed at European universities? 

The measures that universities take in cases of discrimination, harassment, and abuse depend on the employment status of the accused individuals, their civil servant status, and the severity of the offense. When assessing the severity of the offense, European universities are not solely bound by existing laws. They have a considerable degree of autonomy in determining what constitutes harmful or unethical behavior and how to address it. However, if they only adhere to the limited criminal framework regarding sexual violence, the well-known deficiencies in victim protection and prosecution of discrimination and sexual violence come into play. The European General Equal Treatment Act (AGG) obliges employers to protect employees from sexual discrimination. From our perspective as metooscience, as well as the perspective of other experts like Prof. Dr. Eva Kocher (Faculty of Law at Europa University Viadrina, Frankfurt), most universities do not adequately implement these protections. The significant difference between the AGG and criminal laws is that the perceived unequal treatment is sufficient to be recognized as an experience of discrimination, which is a crucial factor for the protection of victims.

In general, universities keep the documentation of proceedings confidential. Therefore, reports from victims and involved parties remain as the primary basis for evaluating the effectiveness of these procedures.

The support services available to victims seeking assistance at universities are part of the university structure. There are very few exceptions in the European context. Consequently, these services primarily represent the interests of the university itself. According to Dr. Eva Kocher, the university aims to avoid wrongful convictions based on the principle of “in dubio pro reo” (meaning “in doubt, for the accused”), which aligns with how criminal law is handled.

Statistically, the likelihood of a wrongful conviction is extremely low. However, this approach primarily protects the perpetrators and places the burden of proof entirely on the shoulders of the victims. The dynamics of the burden of proof have psychological effects on the victims, similar to victim-blaming, and explain why meeting the burden of proof can negate the experienced distress. The psychological harm caused by discrimination, harassment, and abuse cannot be proven with bloody knives and visible wounds. Therefore, it is essential to find approaches to dealing with cases of harassment that go beyond criminal law and incorporate the knowledge we have from research on this topic.

Bringing change and societal awareness is essential

Change is necessary! We, Franziska and Victoria, launched the initiative “metooscience” in 2021 to raise awareness about abuse of power, particularly gender-based discrimination in science. From our perspective, it is crucial to promote broad societal awareness of the psychological mechanisms and societal conditions related to gender-based discrimination and violence. Awareness fosters solidarity and combats abuse of power and bystander behavior. However, it should be ensured that a central aspect of this awareness is empathy for the victims, and the focus of the debate should not be solely on the perpetrators. By focusing on solidarity and social cohesion, positive incentives are created for everyone to help create a safe community for all, while a focus on perpetrators and law enforcement measures tends to perpetuate the “individual case narrative” and contribute to shame and guilt among the victims.

We demand a public debate and enlightenment about the deficiencies that arise from the “in dubio pro reo” principle in criminal and disciplinary proceedings. The shift away from a focus on guilt, as provided by the AGG, and towards a focus on the experience of the victims should become a broad societal consensus through education. Educational institutions, especially universities, should serve as role models not only in education but also in their handling of relevant incidents. This should ideally be reflected in transparent procedures, independent support and counseling services for victims, and mandatory training for all employees and students at universities. Complaint management and support services must be highly visible, as well as consent rules that are widely disseminated and taught. Only in this way can existing societal myths and implicit attitudes towards power relations and practices be dismantled and sustainably changed. The goal is to ensure that public spaces become safe.

#metooscience – Advocacy, Awareness, Workshops

Our platform (https://www.instagram.com/metooscience/) provides a voice for victims and sheds light on the psychological mechanisms behind it. On December 16, 2022, an article was published in the German news magazine SPIEGEL based on an interview with us about our experiences as female researchers at a German university. This article sparked a public debate about the #MeToo issue in science. Alongside reports from other industries and cases of sexual violence that regularly appear in the media, this story joins the long list of #MeToo cases. Furthermore, studies reveal that gender-based harassment at German universities is a problem of epidemic proportions. It can no longer be dismissed as isolated incidents. Therefore, we need a cross-industry understanding of abuse of power and gender-based discrimination, which arises from public attention to the issue and empathy for the victims.

Individuals affected by sexual discrimination can share their stories through our anonymous contact form (https://portal.metoo.science). On Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/metooscience/), we provide scientific information and insights on the topic, contextualizing your experiences. Additionally, we offer awareness workshops for universities and organizers in cultural venues.

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