The academic handmaiden’s tale

Content warning – this post contains details and discussion of sexual assault and harassment. For more information and services, please visit the ANU Respectful relationships page.

Yesterday we got a damning report on sexual harrassment and assault in Australian universities.  It’s truly harrowing reading. I’m not going to recap the report, you should read it for yourself, but one thing is clear: the research workplace is no different to many others. Sexual violence happens here.

Yesterday was a difficult day around campus for many of us, especially survivors. Yesterday we began to speak freely of the times we have experienced sexual violence, or witnessed it. It was raw and difficult. Exhausting, but necessary. I have mostly stayed silent about my own experiences, but yesterday I felt I needed to tell some people. Now I feel compelled to write about it.

Sadly, many women will have experienced what I have: a scary encounter that leaves you profoundly shaken, but not physically hurt. I struggle with the idea of calling myself a survivor, and this is part of the problem. The difficulty of recognising, and calling out, sexual assault and harrassment is part of what makes it so pernicious in our culture – and one of the many reasons why most of it is unreported.

I can’t help contrasting the University with my experience of harassment in the building industry. In architecture offices male colleagues would frequently ‘massage’ my shoulders while they peered at my screen – and down my top. In the building industry, in the 1990s at least, sexual harassment was right in your face. In the university, sexual harassment and violence tends to be much more covert. Most of it happens behind closed doors, or in labs after hours.

In over a decade of working with PhD students at multiple universities I have only had a handful of people disclose sexual harassment to me, but I have no doubt that’s the tip of the iceberg. There must be many PhD students out there, all over the world, who never report. Some will fear their perpetrator, others will worry about their future career, still more will be confused and even ashamed. I wish I could say, hand on my heart, “report and all will be well”, but I think it’s clear that universities around the country have not done well in this respect. Failure to believe disclosures of sexual assault, or minimising the poor behaviour of others, can contribute to a general atmosphere of fear.

The vast majority of disclosures PhD students have made to me are not about sexual assault, but about ‘micro-aggressions’. This is poor behaviour which is largely non-violent and non-sexual in nature, but serves to make research workplaces hostile and unwelcoming. It’s not exactly bullying because it’s not directed from one person to another over a period of time, but it’s similar. Excessive aggression at presentations for example, or questioning your right to be in a space, in a conversation or even in a PhD program. Women, men and people who don’t identify as a either gender can experience micro-agressions from the academics who are meant to be there to teach and mentor them, or even from other students, but I’m sorry to say the majority of the stories I have heard are from women and the majority of the culprits are men.

And what are we supposed to make of the way some academic men seem to treat their female colleagues and students as a combination of surrogate girlfriends and help-meet? Just this week a young woman told me how her lab leader treated her like an unpaid servant, expecting her to organise his diary, take phone calls and do other kinds of secretarial paper work. This young women didn’t even identify the behaviour as inappropriate until another man said “I’m glad I’m a guy – he doesn’t ask us to do all that stuff”. The only thing that gives me comfort is that, at least in the incidents reported to me, it seems to be older men who act in these entitled ways. Perhaps generational change is happening. I hope so.

I’m sure some people will object to me making any kind of connection between sexual assault, micro-aggressions and excessive demands on women’s time and emotional capacities, but they all abuses of power and position that are just not OK. I have never formally reported anything that happened to me, so I totally understand the difficulties of reporting and speaking back to power – but if any of this is happening to you, I really hope you will at least reach out for support.

I also hope that this report starts a process of thinking about how to respond better to disclosures and make our university workplaces safer. I’d love to hear your point of view or even your experiences, should you choose to share them, in the comments, but I trust the conversation will be respectful. I will not hesitate to delete comments that attempt to shame others or minimise their experiences.

I’ll leave you with some contact numbers to seek help and support (Australia only) should you, or someone close to you, need them. I’d appreciate people in other countries offering details of support services if you have them.

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21 thoughts on “The academic handmaiden’s tale

  1. Victoria Lister says:

    It was a little difficult to ‘Like’ this blog given the content but thank you for opening this up here, Inger. I’m possibly one of the few who hasn’t personally experienced the type of harassment (and worse) described but I certainly know those who have (and yes, they’re women – though perhaps men under-report). I feel this conversation needs to continue in some way, shape or form not only as support for those who have been affected but to provide a platform from which people feel empowered to call out the abuse.

  2. Victoria Firth-Smith says:

    You are brave, strong and I deeply respect you sharing your story with all of us. Let this be a continued conversation in Universities, about universities, with Universities. #speakoutANU

  3. ozzietassie says:

    Micro aggressions keep occurring when you become a female academic. Ironically in my experience it’s actually in departments with more females than males is when it becomes really bad.

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      We should never lose sight of the violence that women are capable of, I totally agree. Female forms of violence often take the form of othering and shunning – which is exactly why I raise the issue of micro-agressions. We all need to do better.

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      What an absolutely appalling story. I’m so sorry to hear this happened to you and find myself really angry on your behalf. This is exactly why we need to do better. I will think of your story should I feel tired in my efforts to fight this culture, pick myself up and carry on. I really appreciate you sharing this and thank you for speaking out.

  4. Bron Milkins says:

    The aggressions I’ve encountered during my time as a PhD Candidate have been solely from my research participants, sadly. One male participant whistled at me to get my attention when I had told him my name and another participant nearby had addressed me by my name. He claimed it was a joke. Another male participant told me I was a mess. Of course, this is 2 participants out of the 300+ that have kindly participated in my research, but 2 is all it takes to leave a nasty memory. In hindsight, I should have asked both participants to leave rather than continuing to test them, but I didn’t because the pressure is on to get data as quickly as possible during a PhD and, sadly, I felt that my feelings were irrelevant.

  5. Anon says:

    This isn’t a new thing on any campus.
    I had a nightmare of a supervisor many years ago. He would tell me he needed to know me better so he could help me more. First, there were small touches. Gradually it got worse.
    I saw a couple of people at the university who proceeded to ask me what I was doing wrong, implying that everything that was happening was my fault. I was a naive 23/24 year old and I thought that they were right. I believed that it was something I had done to make him force himself on me or behave the way he did.
    I wrote to the Vice-Chancellor and the Head of School. Nothing was done. In the end I simply quit my Masters and ended up with an enormous student loan that I am still paying back, 17 years after.
    The entire experience knocking the stuffing out of me, I lost all confidence in my abilities. My personal life suffered too.
    I’m very fortunate now though, I have a fantastic PhD supervisor that isn’t weird or creepy, just helpful and straight to the point.

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      Thank you for your brave sharing here – I’m sorry to hear this was your experience and glad to hear the PhD is better. I really hope we can all do better in the future.

  6. Anon says:

    It is true that males under-report – we tend not to be believed or are just ignored. I have not been harassed during my studies, but I have been while working at the university. When my manager harassed me I tried to report it to her manager, who dismissed it with ‘By all means, make an appointment and come and see me if you want to, but I cannot see what it will achieve’ (her exact words – in an email!) With that sort of support I could see there was no point in taking it any further. Some years later I am still occasionally getting counselling for post-traumatic stress. And I am sheltered by male privilege from the vast majority of the crap women experience….

  7. Haitham Al-Sheeshany says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts & story on such a subject, you are brave and compassionate.

    I do not have much to add but I am happy that there are measures and regulations to better handle such an issue.

  8. Nina says:

    Thank you for heads up! Sharing this means that we are still learning how to fight and how to react against sexual harassment. Keep up!

  9. Angry says:

    This report was released a few days before the 14 year anniversary of my rape on an Australian residential college. At the time when I reported it to the assistant manager of the colleges, he didn’t want to know anything about it, despite it happening on his college. I got an awkward “oh okay I guess you can stay on college despite failing this semester”. They didn’t even want to know who did it, he got to keep living there. I got my own help with the uni counsellors.
    So surely in 14 years things have gotten better? I was so happy with the response of my current uni – any harassment or assault is too much, we need to do better. My old uni? Not so much. I fear if I paraphrase their response it might become obvious which uni I mean. But they seem reactive, not proactive. They announced “oh it doesn’t happen on our colleges” like my experience & the experiences of all the other women who said “me too” when we talked about our assaults never happened.
    I wasn’t upset. I was angry. Angry that there could be another scared 19 year old like me. I was just a kid. One person is too many. I was too many.
    So this report was very important to me. Thanks for writing your article.

  10. anothertassie says:

    The microaggressions towards PhDs is appalling and the department ignores it. One staff member doesn’t want PhD’s in the staff room (we also teach, and are therefore staff), tells us that we shouldn’t have any space on campus (we get a desk each) and repeatedly isolates individuals to tell them that they don’t deserve scholarships. You won’t be surprised to know that he’s male and all of the PhDs are female.

  11. Senepi says:

    I have never had the opportunity to share my experiences until now. I am in the final stages of my PhD journey and had to stomach bad supervision. Because my supervisor was not doing her job I took it upon myself to ask for the kindness of another male professor to read and comment on my work just so that I could make progress. After all I am accountable to the project and not my supervisor.. Sadly though the male professor behaved in ways that I knew were horrid and unacceptable. Like picking me up to give me a huge hug behind his closed office door felt really weird but somehow I felt ashamed to call him out let alone report it. I honestly felt like it was my fault for putting myself in that position just because I was desperate to complete my PhD. He did it twice and thereafter I avoided one-on-one meetings with him but still sent my work for comment. I do not know how far we are supposed to go to get these Phd’s but I am appalled by the entire university system wherein supervisors are not held accountable and thus can do whatever they want with students

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      I’m so sorry to hear that this has happened to you. You’re right – it’s weird and uncomfortable. Know that there are people you can talk to for confidential advice. Email me if you want some leads x

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