Sexism at the university: what does this mean? And what has happened since 107 researchers from AU signed an open letter collectively calling for change

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In the beginning of October, 107 researchers from Aarhus University signed an open letter stating that they had experienced sexism in the world of academia. But what drove the researchers to do this? And what has happened as a result of it? Some did it because of memories of past experiences. Others to support their junior colleagues. And one head of department was quite shocked when he realised the number of signatures from his department alone.

2020.12.16 | Marie Groth Andersen

[Translate to English:] Grafik: Astrid Reitzel

107 researchers from AU signed the open letter

A total of 689 researchers signed the open letter, stating that they had experienced or witnessed sexism in the world of academia. 

107 of the researchers are from Aarhus University. 

Faculty of Arts (79): 28 from School of Culture and Society, 26 from School of Communication and Culture and 25 from the Danish School of Education.

School of Business and Social Sciences (16): 12 from Department of Political Science, 3 from Department of Psychology and Behavioural Sciences and 1 from Department of Law. 

Faculty of Natural Sciences (7): 5 from Department of Physics and Astronomy, 1 from Department of Bioscience and 1 from Department of Computer Science.

Faculty of Health (5): 4 from Department of Clinical Medicine and 1 from Department of Public Health. 

The open letter was not distributed to all researchers at all research institutions i Denmark. The distribution was network based. Thus, the fact that many researchers from one particular department has signed the open letter does not necessarily mean that the department has many cases of sexism.

689 researchers from institutes of higher education in Denmark caused a stir when they spoke openly about having experienced or witnessed sexist behaviour in academia. Of the 689 signatures, 107 were from Aarhus University. And three-quarters of these (79) are from three departments and schools at the Faculty of Arts.

READ MORE: #MeToo movement now being used to focus on sexism at Danish universities

At the School of Culture and Society, 28 employees signed the letter. Two of these are Professor MSO Lene Kühle and Associate Professor Marianne Qvortrup Fibiger, who are employed at the Department of the Study of Religion.

 

Associate Professor Marianne Qvortrup Fibiger (left) and professor MSO Lene Kühle, both from the Department of the Study of Religion.

”Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about what it was like being a young PhD student or a newly employed female researcher almost 20 years ago. And want we experienced,” explained Lene Kühle. 

When asked what she experienced, she explained:

”There were times when I avoided being in a lift with an older, male colleague – both at AU and when abroad with work – or avoided going to social work events so that I didn’t end up in an uncomfortable situation. I got a lot of comments that usually had more to do with my personality and looks than about my research. For example, an older colleague of mine said to me after my first research presentation that he thought I was very sweet and didn’t actually know that I could be so on the ball.”

We have a duty as permanent staff members

Marianne Qvortrup Fibiger described how as junior members of staff, they were met with a sort of ”unusual communicative and behavioural code”.

We were basically the only female researchers in our department at the time and as a result the form of communication used was different – which would probably in today’s context be considered inappropriate and offensive,” she said.

The associate professor points out that we’re currently in a different era and there’s never been a better time than now to address the problem. 

”It means that as permanent members of staff, we have a duty to bring up these kinds of discussion about what and how we communicate in the workplace.”

We can make a difference

When the younger female employees at the university highlighted that something needs to be done about the culture – that doesn’t seem to have changed much over the last 20 years – it certainly got Lene Kühle and Marianne Qvortrup Fibiger thinking about how to take action.

”We thought – you know what – we can help change this. And now is the time to do it, while there’s a real momentum to implement change,” explained Lene Kühle. 

So she contacted one of her colleagues who conducts research in gender equality to hear what options were available to get something off the ground. And that’s how they got involved with the open letter. 

If it’s difficult for us, then how tough must it be for our younger colleagues?

They both hesitated slightly at adding their names to the letter. 

”And I think that says something about how difficult it is to break this taboo. If I find it difficult to know whether to sign and I’m in a secure position, then how difficult do you think it must be for an early career researcher starting out?” asked Lene Kühle rhetorically.

Not just a women’s issue

But Lene Kühle and Marianne Qvortrup Fibiger did add their signatures. And sent the open letter around to their female colleagues at their department to sign.  

”We actually made a mistake not getting our male colleagues involved and asking them to sign,” added Lene Kühle, who noted:

”It’s not about men vs. women. This is about men and women.” 

Both Marianne Qvortrup Fibiger and Lene Kühle stressed that their signatures are not meant as a way to hold people accountable for previous violations.  

”It’s about looking towards the future,” added Marianne Qvortrup Fibiger.

A toxic culture?

A total of 6 women at the department signed the open letter.  As a result, colleagues from other departments wondered if there is a toxic culture at the Study of Religion. But this is a sign that the exact opposite is true, believed Lene Kühle.

”This actually shows that we have a healthy culture at our department and we want to stand up and be heard,” she said. 

Difficult to come forward - in the right way

In another of the department’s red buildings at Nobel Park, Helle Strandgaard Jensen, associate professor of history also considered whether she should sign the letter.

Helle Strandgaard Jensen, associate professor of history 

A few years ago, the associate professor was physically violated while at work, but she prefers not to come forward and talk about the incident. 

”I am afraid of the pressure I would be put under that comes with going public with such a specific incident. The women who went public with details of violations have had to deal with a lot of pressure, and I just couldn’t cope with the possible consequences of coming forward with my story,” she said. 

Afraid of the consequences

She wasn’t able to stop the incident from happening. Partly because she was in shock and caught up in the situation. And partly because she was afraid to confront the perpetrator afterwards, because it could have negatively affected her career.

”For example, what if the person in question was asked to peer review an application I submit in relation to awarding research grants. He has higher academic status than me and I’m working within a relatively small research area – I would be afraid of the consequences.”

Please know that this kind of thing does happen

In the end, she did sign the open letter to make people aware of the fact that this kind of thing is happening within academia. 

”I hope that the university management does more to raise awareness around this problem. And also that people who commit these violations start thinking about their actions and behaviour.”

Is there anything specific that you want the university management to do?

”Yes – to see the connection of how structural sexism in academia can lead to violations. An example of this is that there are too few women professors. And it’s still expected that women take care of  “housekeeping duties” including participating in ad hoc committees or providing assistance to a student who needs help.  There are some gendered structures, which keep women down and help men to move forward,” explained Helle Strandgaard Jensen.

Male signatures

It has overwhelmingly been women who have signed the open letter. But there are also men, who wish to be part of the change, to put the spotlight on the fact that sexism is alive and well at the university.  One of these men is Morten Hesse, associate professor at the Centre for Alcohol and Drug Research at the Department of Psychology and Behavioural Sciences. 

Morten Hesse, associate professor at the Centre for Alcohol and Drug Research at the Department of Psychology and Behavioural Sciences.

”I have seen how young female colleagues have been treated by older male colleagues in positions of power in a way that was uncomfortable for them ,” he said, but he declined to elaborate on the specifics.

”That sort of thing shouldn’t happen at the workplace, and I want to be a part of the call for change,” he said, and added:

”It’s about creating a warm and productive workplace, where we can work on projects that excite us and make a positive change to the world. It’s not a great use of resources if talented people are on sick leave or stressed because they have been violated or have to put up with inappropriate behaviour,” said Morten Hesse. 

Shocked to discover the extent of the problem

The head of the Department of Political Science, Peter Munk Christiansen, is very clear about the fact that he was surprised by the email he received from the faculty secretary the same evening the article about the open letter was published in Politiken. He read in the email that no fewer than 12 female employees at his department had signed the letter.  

“I was so shocked that I nearly choked on my coffee while reading the email,” he said. 

”I knew that a few employees had signed the letter, but I didn’t realise it was so many. I’d like to think that I have quite a good idea about what goes on at my department and I know that my colleagues are very engaged with politics and society. Even so, I had to investigate whether or not I had been deaf and blind not to notice one or more cases of sexism,” he explained.

As a result, the head of department sent an email to employees who had signed the letter and made it clear that he was available if any of them wanted to talk with him.  

No recent examples of sexism

Peter Munk Christiansen explained that he had been in contact with everyone who signed the letter from his department either by email or a meeting in person. After talking to his colleagues, he concluded that there were no recent examples of violations at the department.

Peter Munk Christiansen, head of the Department of Political Science. Photo: Maria Randima

”Some referenced a few older harassment cases at the department.  And others mentioned the use of male-dominated language at the department including comments that it’s not a clever idea to have any children if you want to get ahead in your career. Even though there are no recent harassment cases at the department, it’s clear that everything is not hunky dory.

The head of department explained that in the near future he will address sexism and workplace culture at a meeting with the local liaison committee and at the department’s annual Christmas meeting. Also, last week he took part in a management meeting that focused on workplace culture and workplace harassment, which was initiated by the senior management team. 

“Within research, there’s a culture influenced by competition and collaboration. If the competitive part is too full-on, it can be biased towards a particular gender. And it is really important to be able to work together within academia. It also applies to collaborative work between junior and senior researchers. The tone between senior researchers can be harsh and direct, and almost done in a teasing manner, but this tone isn’t acceptable when it’s a senior researcher talking to a PhD student. Here, the tone needs to be more constructive,” said Peter Munk Christiansen. 

The head of department is considering several different approaches in order to create a better workplace culture at the department. 

”But I think that it’s best to discuss it at department level first before I start talking about it to the press,” said Peter Munk Christiansen.

An old case – but an important case

Professor Vibeke Lehmann Nielsen from the Department of Political Science agreed with the head of department’s findings that the relatively high number of signatures from the department does not stem from a specific problem of sexism at the department. This point has also been backed up by another staff member who spoke to Omnibus.

Vibeke Lehmann Nielsen, professor at the Department of Political Science

”We are a department with many politically-conscious employees who believe that it’s an important case to support,” said Vibeke Lehmann Nielsen.

She also signed the open letter. And she mentioned two reasons for this:

”First, many years ago when I was the union rep, I had to deal with a sexual harassment case on behalf of an employee and the subsequent exploitation of a position of power. Secondly, in general I sympathise with the problem.  Personally, I’ve never been subjected to sexist behaviour, but through my network I’ve heard of examples of behaviour that really crosses the line.”

The definition is too broad

Vibeke Lehmann Nielsen was a little hesitant at first to sign the open letter, because the case she worked with was from so many years ago.

”I also think that the definition of sexism used in the open letter was too broad. I would say that we’re dealing with two very different things – first, there’s sexism (i.e. sexual transgressive behaviour) and then there’s gender discrimination (i.e. statements and actions, which on the basis of gender stereotypes put men and women into different boxes and thus limit thoughts and opportunities) – two very different issues.  Yet both important issues. But by mixing them together into one debate, you end up muddying the waters.” 

With the exception of her head of department, Peter Munk Christiansen, who asked the reasons for why she signed the open letter, no one else has really reacted to her adding her signature.

”But understandably some of my male colleagues have been worried and are unsure whether they might have unconsciously stepped over boundaries, because so many women from the department signed the open letter,” she explained.

On the whole, she hopes that the signatures will spark a much-needed debate on the topic and that both men and women take a moment to reflect on their own behaviour in this context. 

Problems at SCS are no worse than at any other department

The open letter has resulted in the discussion of sexism and workplace culture at the School of Culture and Society (SCS), where they will continue to be discussed at both the school and across the faculty, said head of school Bjarke Paarup. 

Bjarke Paarup, head of school of Culture and Society (SCS)

In the wake of signatures being collecting, union reps at the school and faculty have tried to gather data on whether there have been cases which haven’t been reported. But no new cases of harassment have come to light. 

Bjarke Paarup didn’t contact any of the people from his school who signed the letter: 

“I believe that it might have seemed intimidating towards the employees, if I had contacted them directly. But I do hope that all employees at the school know that my door is always open,” he said. 

The fact that many of the signatures came from employees at Arts, which includes his school, didn’t really surprise Bjarke Paarup, when you consider that we’re talking about large schools with many employees.

”Why did many people from the School of Culture and Society sign the open letter? That, I don’t know. But we have several researchers here who are interested in gender research. We also have many contract researchers, because our School attracts the most external grants within Humanities. And contract employees may be particularly vulnerable in these situations. But I don’t have the impression that we have more serious problems than any of the other schools and departments,” he said. 

Vulgar and sexist talk as well as a difficult career path 

But it certainly doesn’t mean that he has kicked the ball into touch and won’t respond to the signatures. These signatures show that there’s a need to talk about the culture and social interactions at the department, said Bjarke Paarup. 

”You’ll also hear vulgar and sexist talk at the university, but it’s unacceptable in the workplace. In addition, some have experienced gender differences in relation to career possibilities. The career path at the university is difficult, and as it stands, more women than men are opting to leave. This is clearly part of the problem,” he said.

Bjarke Paarup highlights how his hands are pretty much tied in relation to opening up permanent positions to those on fixed-term contracts as long as the majority of funding coming into the department is connected to external grants. But he believes that the hiring process is really important for his ability to make a positive difference and bring about change to the culture at the department.

”I see employing more female applicants as a big part of the solution. A priority of ours for many years has been to attract strong female candidates and to hire women in all types of academic positions,” said Bjarke Paarup. 

A neutral, independent body should deal with cases of sexual harassment

Currently, as the head of department highlights, employees who are sexually harassed in the workplace can go to their union rep, head of section or to HR to report this. But he would really like a new initiative to be added to this list. 

”I would really like for there to be a neutral, independent body that you can contact if you are worried about taking a case and fear any possible consequences or repercussions that your actions might have on your career. We’ve talked about this at the department and believe that an independent body should be set up at university level,” said Bjarke Paarup, who will present the suggestion to AU’s diversity and gender equality committee, of which he is a member.

Transparency is the way forward

At the Department of the Study of Religion, the signatures on the open letter have resulted in concrete initiatives. Lene Kühle together with the head of department Jørn Borup held a theme meeting for all employees at the department, where the topic of sexism was on the agenda

Marianne Qvortrup Fibiger explained that at the meeting they also discussed the various grey zones, which often make the complex problem of sexism and sexual harassment a minefield to negotiate. For example, is it still ok to meet with students for a beer at a social gathering? 

”We have a tradition of running a sky bar with the students from the department on the roof terrace. And it’s a great opportunity for a social gathering outside of the classroom. We concluded at the meeting that there should be space for in-depth discussions with the students outside of the classroom. And this includes having a beer together into the early hours. I’m personally really pleased about this. Because you know it can often become too sterile and impersonal if we can only interact with the students between the hours of 8am and 4pm.”

However, neither Lene Kühle nor Marianne Qvortrup Fibiger believe that a few signatures and a theme meeting can solve the problem.

”It’s not nearly enough. There needs to be a real change in the culture before I’ll be fully satisfied. But we’ve started something now. And moving forward we need to make sure that we follow up on everything,” said Lene Kühle.

Marianne Qvortrup Fibiger added:

”We’ve sown the seeds among employees of being more aware of how to behave – what we say and what we do. And that it’s a shared responsibility to say no to what could be deemed offensive behaviour.  We’re more equipped to do this now at the department, because we’ve started the discussion.”

I’m even more sure that I’m not alone   

Helle Strandgaard Jensen’s signature has not caused much of a fuss. 

”I spoke with one of my colleagues about it, and I know that my union rep is aware of the problem, and my head of section is also addressing it. But right now, we’re seldom on campus. If we were back to how it was before covid19, I would hope that it is something that we could chat about at the coffee machine.”

For me personally, it has really made a difference that I signed my name along with 688 others:

”I’m even more sure that if I was violated again, then I am not alone in this situation. And I would definitely find a way of bringing someone’s attention to it,” said Helle Strandgaard Jensen.

107 researchers from AU signed the open letter

A total of 689 researchers signed the open letter, stating that they had experienced or witnessed sexism in the world of academia. 

107 of the researchers are from Aarhus University. 

Faculty of Arts (79): 28 from School of Culture and Society, 26 from School of Communication and Culture and 25 from the Danish School of Education.

School of Business and Social Sciences (16): 12 from Department of Political Science, 3 from Department of Psychology and Behavioural Sciences and 1 from Department of Law. 

Faculty of Natural Sciences (7): 5 from Department of Physics and Astronomy, 1 from Department of Bioscience and 1 from Department of Computer Science.

Faculty of Health (5): 4 from Department of Clinical Medicine and 1 from Department of Public Health. 

The open letter was not distributed to all researchers at all research institutions i Denmark. The distribution was network based. Thus, the fact that many researchers from one particular department has signed the open letter does not necessarily mean that the department has many cases of sexism.

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