Thirty-seven per cent of female PhD students have been exposed to gender-related offensive behaviour at Danish universities, according to a new report. At Aarhus University, the figure is 35 per cent. This is completely unacceptable, says AU’s management. The PhD Association at AU expects the management to put measures in place.

Twenty-two per cent of female PhD students at universities in Denmark have been subjected to unwanted sexual comments related to their body, clothes or lifestyle. Photo: Lars Kruse/AU Photo

Sexism towards PhD students is a widespread problem at Danish universities. It mainly involves PhD students being subjected to sexual comments and verbal incidents that demean them on the basis of their gender, but almost one in four women have also experienced unwanted physical contact. This has been revealed by a new survey conducted by VIVE – the Danish Center for Social Science Research.

At Aarhus University, 35 per cent of female PhD students have been exposed to gender-related offensive behaviour, 32 per cent have experienced sexually offensive behaviour, and 21 per cent have been subjected to unwanted physical contact and coercion.

In comparison, 21 per cent of male PhD students at AU have experienced gender-related offensive behaviour while 13 per cent have been exposed to sexually offensive behaviour. Five per cent of male PhD students have been subjected to unwanted physical contact or coercion.

Chair of the Aarhus University PhD Association (AUPA), Thomas Tandrup Lamm, calls the results of the survey “surprising and concerning.”

“This is an important issue that is being highlighted, and it needs to be addressed. Gender discrimination and sexism are deeply troubling and damaging to our work environment. I find it shocking that one in three women experience sexists comments, and it’s alarming that 20 per cent experience various forms of physical advances,” he says and continues:

“This might result in fewer young researchers choosing to pursue a career in research, and we know that it’s already difficult to be a PhD student. There is a lot of work pressure, so if the social and psychological work environment is also poor, this could push people over the edge. We already know that stress is highly prevalent among PhD students,” says Thomas Tandrup Lamm.


Categories used in the survey:

Gender-related offensive behaviour: Verbal incidents that objectify, exclude or demean PhD students on the basis of their gender during their doctoral studies.

Sexually offensive behaviour: Malicious sexual comments, actions or indecent exposure.

Unwanted physical contact or coercion: Unwanted physical contact or attempts at unwanted physical contact, sexual coercion or other forms of sexual behaviour in which power imbalances play an active role, such as threats or rewards.


For gender-related offensive behaviour, the most common type of behaviour was “somebody has spoken derogatorily about women/men in a way that was uninvited and unpleasant.” Thirty-four per cent of women and 19 per cent of men have experienced this.

For sexually offensive behaviour, the most common type of behaviour was “unwanted sexual comments about my body, clothes or lifestyle.” Twenty-two per cent of women and four per cent of men have experienced this.

For unwanted physical contact and coercion, the most common type of behaviour was “unwanted physical contact with sexual undertones, for example patting, kissing or embracing.” Fourteen per cent of women and one per cent of men have experienced this.

Source: VIVE.


Although the high figures are shocking, Thomas Tandrup Lamm says that many members of the association can recognise the problems:

“Many people end up tolerating this behaviour because it doesn’t seem worth making a stand, so they just carry on and finish their PhD project. It’s definitely something that our members can recognise and that we don’t talk about enough. Now the report is shining an empirical spotlight on it,” says Thomas Tandrup Lamm.

The AUPA chair believes that responsibility for the issue ultimately lies with AU’s management, because they are responsible for the general culture at the university, but he also acknowledges that action needs to be taken at the individual departments.

“As the management have already announced, they are in the process of deciding on measures to tackle this problem. At the end of the day, it is of course the management’s job to ensure a good and safe working environment for all researchers at the university. But it is managers at every level – from the university to the faculties, departments and individual research teams – that have this responsibility. I expect that new measures will be put in place relatively soon, and that universities will review their policies on how to deal with sexism and gender discrimination. Because from the report it is clear that this problem is not being handled properly,” he says.

Thomas Tandrup Lamm believes we need to look at our work culture.

“If you have a healthy work culture, I think you would automatically crack down on incidents of sexism. It’s also important to have the right channels in place so that people know where to go if they experience something unpleasant. We know that, in organisations, culture is often driven from the top and trickles down. For this reason, I think it’s largely the professors in charge of the research teams who have the responsibility of ensuring that the work culture is healthy, and it’s vitally important that they themselves do not engage in sexism,” he says.

The survey also shows that those engaging in offensive behaviour are typically higher up in the professional hierarchy than their victims. Female respondents said that 55 per cent of cases were perpetrated by colleagues with more seniority, 36 per cent by managers, and 31 per cent by supervisors. For 17 per cent, it was a fellow PhD student.


The results for Aarhus University and the University of Copenhagen are fairly similar, but the problem of sexism seems to be even more prevalent at Copenhagen Business School (CBS) and the Technical University of Denmark (DTU). At these institutions, more than 50 per cent of female respondents claimed to have experienced gender-related offensive behaviour, and, at CBS, over 40 per cent of female respondents said they had been subjected to unwanted physical contact and coercion.

The VIVE report claims that the work environment at universities in Denmark, which have a hierarchical structure, lots of fixed-term contracts, small working groups and competitive recruitment processes, is a “potential breeding ground for sexist incidents.”

Member of AUPA also recognise this issue.

“As a PhD student, you often start off at the bottom of the hierarchy and have to work your way up. If you want to stay in academia, it’s important that your supervisor likes you, that the rest of the department likes you, and that key people in the research field support you and help you progress. In this way, it can be costly to speak up against a bad work culture,” says Thomas Tandrup Lamm.


The report also investigates whether sexism affects the likelihood of female PhD students continuing on the research track at universities. It concludes that departments with a “relatively high level of sexism” make it less likely that female PhD students will pursue a career at university. The same does not apply to men, the report says.

“This will have major implications, because we are reducing the pool of talented researchers who can work their way up and conduct cutting-edge research. This is a problem for us all. We cannot afford to lose excellent researchers because of hostile work environments,” says Thomas Tandrup Lamm.


It was not possible to get a comment from Rector Brian Bech Nielsen before our editorial deadline, but AU’s management has addressed the report in an email to all members of staff at the university. The management describes the results as “completely unacceptable.”  

They also point out that they have been focusing on the problem in recent years but that the results of their increased efforts are not yet visible in the survey.

“There can be no doubt in anyone’s mind that we must combat sexism. Or rather – we must continue to combat sexism. Because this is not a new issue, as all of you know. In 2020, we gained insight into the gravity of this problem at Danish universities, when a group of woman academics published testimonies about their encounters with sexism and hostile workplace culture in the national newspaper Politiken. In response, we took this up at Aarhus University and increased the urgency of our efforts to tackle sexism and our workplace culture challenges, for example through increased managerial focus, workshops and improved procedures for handling reports of harassment and unacceptable behaviour,” writes the management.

The survey underlines the importance of continuing and intensifying efforts at all levels of the organisation, the management team also claim in their email.


The survey was commissioned by the Ministry of Higher Education and Science and came in the wake of testimonies from almost 700 researchers about sexism in the university world, which were published in Politiken in 2020. Minister Christina Egelund describes the results of the survey as “entirely unacceptable.”

“PhD students need to be able to feel safe at our universities, and so I expect this to be taken seriously and for everyone to do their utmost to ensure a good work environment at these institutions. Sexism doesn’t just have major personal implications for those exposed to it. It is also a huge waste of talent if sexism and hostile work environments stand in the way of a woman’s desire and opportunity to pursue a research career. For this reason, university management must take the lead and ensure that gender is never a decisive factor in the future opportunities of individual researchers,” says Christina Egelund in a press release.

Translated by Sarah Louise Jennings.