The trade unions FNV Education and Research and the Academic Union (VAWO) polled 1,110 university employees (both support staff and academic staff) about their experiences in the workplace. Close to half the respondents indicated that they observed, or have observed, a socially unsafe situation in their department – with people gossiping about colleagues or consciously withholding information, for example.

Intimidation

Four out of ten employees are also, or have also been, affected by a lack of social safety. Women more often than men: 44% vs 35% respectively. In many cases, this involves withholding information (44%), abuse of power (35%) and intimidation (34%) by a professor or superior. For example, one respondent writes: “My work was plagiarised by a prominent professor. I was told to keep my mouth shut or fear for my job.”

Nearly half of the respondents still don’t feel safe in their department. “A male colleague regularly comments on my body. I try to ignore him as much as possible,” notes one of the respondents. Employees who report that the situation has improved in their department say that this was mainly thanks to an intervention by senior staff, the arrival of a new manager or a different employment contract. For example, one respondent notes: “I have a permanent position now, which has resolved most of the power imbalance.”

Poor leadership

The factor that is most frequently identified as contributing to a socially unsafe work environment is poor leadership (73%). Older employees in particular experience this as a problem. Other factors that play a major role according to the respondents are the hierarchical culture (49%) and the strong pressure of work (43%).

Trade unions FNV and VAWO call the results “shocking”. They call on universities to appoint an external, independent complaints committee, as well as an ombudsperson. FNV board member Jan Boersma: “Right now, the universities only have internal complaints committees, while the national complaints committee for the education sector does not extend to universities. The results of our survey show that it’s high time for an external, independent committee.”

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Unpleasant truth

The Dutch network of Women Professors (LNVH) also published a study dealing with misconduct and intimidation today. LNVH calls it an “unpleasant truth” that this kind of thing also occurs in Dutch academia. The problems are caused by cultural and structural factors and can potentially have disastrous consequences.

The study is based on 20 in-depth interviews with women academics and 33 written testimonies about people’s personal experiences with harassment. In the study, the researchers have distinguished the following forms of harassment: obstruction of research activities, sexual intimidation, physical and verbal threats, verbal abuse, exclusion and treating special requirements as a problematic issue.

The extremely hierarchical character of the academic sector, the highly competitive and individualistic culture, the inadequate response to cases of harassment and the – voluntary or involuntary – silence of the victims all conspire to create an environment in which misconduct and intimidation can thrive and are often not, or hardly, addressed.

Starting signal

The report is explicitly intended as a starting signal for a broader study. LNHV calls on universities and other research institutes to adopt an explicit zero tolerance policy and ensure that procedures for addressing cases of harassment are accessible, transparent and effective. All in all, it is hoped this will lead to a change of culture within academia.

The Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) takes these alerts and the associated recommendations “very seriously” says VSNU President Pieter Duisenberg. “Universities need to form a safe environment for staff members, where every form of improper behaviour is considered unacceptable.”

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