Networking is crucial in academia, but does that have to mean fighting off unwanted advances? We need to start talking openly about this issue
Sexual harassment in universities is real, it is ugly, and it is well known about – certainly in my departments. Yes, plural. I have heard about it, seen it and experienced it myself, throughout my career.
It usually comes from nice, affable, older male academics who are all hot on equality and feminism until they’ve had a few drinks at the pub, or, worse, when we’re away for a conference. At conferences there are no wives to go home to, there is no one to check on them, and there are hotel rooms available.
Things can get pretty out of hand, but even I was surprised the morning I saw a young woman who had been left with bite marks on her face from the advances of a male lecturer, 20 years her senior. She said she blamed herself for not having pushed him back quickly enough.
Why do we not speak about this? Rather, why do we not speak out about it in public? We do in private. Do senior academics not realise that we talk to each other, and that they are earning themselves reputations as predators to be avoided? You don’t want to be the last one left in the pub with them and you never, ever agree to share a taxi. But avoiding them altogether is not an option: it is through socialising that career-boosting networks are built.
A precarious position
I am known as an early-career researcher, or an ECR – a euphemism to describe a person stuck in a series temporary contracts and fixed-term posts that can often stretch into their late thirties. If and when we ECRs emerge from these precarious contracts, once we are in a position to choose, many of us will be careful in selecting who we work with. I’d sooner get out of academia than work with some senior male staff I have crossed paths with.
And that is the problem. The inappropriate comments and the unreasonable requests (and worse) all stem from a system where many, many men are now safely established in permanent posts.