Will academia ever have its #MeToo moment?

Why is it that universities still cannot figure out how to address sexual harassment by academic staff?

Recent reporting from Al Jazeera has revealed that prominent male academics at elite universities in the United Kingdom have sexually harassed multiple students and staff, and that this has continued unabated for decades, across different institutions and even continents. Sadly, this is a familiar story for many university students and staff. Many reading these stories may wonder if academia will ever really have its #MeToo movement – is sexual harassment simply the price you pay for being a woman or LGBTQ+ in academia?

Together with colleagues in research and campaigning organisation The 1752 Group, I have been researching and trying to effect change in this area for several years. In 2018, we worked with the National Union of Students, to survey students across the UK and found that 15 percent of women respondents had been touched by a staff member in a way that made them uncomfortable. Subsequently, we published a study of women’s experiences of trying to report sexual harassment from staff, finding that the process was exhausting, drawn-out, sometimes retraumatising, and ultimately ineffectual.

In order to try and improve processes, last year, we published guidance with discrimination law firm McAllister Olivarius on how universities should handle such reports. I am now carrying out further research, together with Erin Shannon, research associate at the University of York, examining the complaints process for sexual harassment in universities in more detail.

Many higher education institutions are currently in the process of updating policies and procedures and attempting to make changes to improve their handling of sexual misconduct complaints. There has been progress during the last five years, particularly around provision of specialist support in universities for the large number of students who are subjected to sexual violence and harassment.

The majority of the resource and focus, however, has gone towards student-student sexual misconduct. While this is clearly an urgent area to address, staff as perpetrators should be equally important since the institution is directly responsible for the professional conduct of those it employs. For some reason, this issue has proved surprisingly difficult for them to tackle.

A central problem faced by universities is that students – or indeed other staff – who are harassed by academics are often too scared to formally report their experiences. This fear is not misplaced – in my research, I have heard accounts of staff members retaliating by threatening the complainant, failing to teach a student after a complaint, spreading rumours that damage the complainant’s career, or putting in counter-complaints so that the institution investigates the complainant herself.

After all, these staff members have huge amounts of power over the student – and often over other staff members. As a result, while many people may be aware of serial sexual harassment, often alongside other problematic behaviours, the institution claims that they are unable to act without a formal, named report with evidence. This leads to a stalemate, with no action taken.

This is not good enough. First of all, institutions need to do much more to keep people safe during the reporting process. Second, in the absence of a formal reponse, there are proactive steps that institutions can take to find out more about what’s going on and to build trust with students and staff to support them to report. For example, University College London has introduced “environmental investigations” which take place if the administration receives a number of anonymous reports from the same department.

These steps can lead to students or staff feeling confident enough to report, or it might be the first step towards building that trust. As my research shows, reporting is not a one-off decision but instead a long-term series of steps, so institutions need to help create an environment that will support reporting. Unfortunately, however, the wider conditions of higher education including unmanageable workloads and high levels of precarious labour mean that trust in institutions is currently in short supply.

As a result, it is even more important that institutions demonstrate that they will deal with formal complaints in a timely and sensitive manner. This is challenging, and even when universities do receive a formal report, we have evidence that these are often not taken seriously, or the reported staff member is protected at the expense of those reporting. There are some signs that the tide is turning – while it seems to be rare for academic staff to lose their job, it does happen. But more often the staff member will resign during an investigation and get a job elsewhere, a phenomenon colloquially known as “pass the perpetrator”.

Many of these ways of covering up sexual harassment are rooted in academia’s acceptance of power imbalances and abuses of power. As professor of sexualised violence Liz Kelly has described, these are “contexts where men’s status and authority, rather than inducing an ethic of care, can be used by abusive men to intimidate and silence”, or in short, a “conducive context” for violence against women. Such contexts take the form of “institutionalised power and authority that creates a sense of entitlement, to which there is limited external challenge”. The longer-term work that is needed, therefore, is to change cultures of teaching and learning.

In the meantime, however, there is a lot that could be done around improving institutional responses through a joined-up approach across the sector. One urgent step is for the UK’s Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service and the Office for the Independent Adjudicator – which oversee university staff and student complaints respectively – to update their guidance to be fit for purpose for tackling staff sexual harassment and other equalities issues.

Many of the problems with dealing with sexual harassment reports are similar for students reporting racial harassment or other forms of discrimination, as independent scholar Sara Ahmed has described. For example, due to universities’ prioritising data protection over wider legal duties – including equalities, health and safety, and human rights – many universities do not even inform complainants of the outcome of their complaint or any sanctions taken against the reported party, despite updated guidance last January from the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

There is also a lot more that can be done around prevention and around data collection and reporting. In Ireland, a national, government-led survey of sexual harassment in higher education – across staff and students – is about to be published, but in the UK, we have no comparable studies at a national scale. As well as lacking knowledge at national level, at an institutional level, there is also a dearth of data. Most universities do not even publish figures on the number of reports they receive and outcomes of these reports. Making such data publicly available would be an easy win to improve transparency.

But these steps are too late for the students and staff who have already lost careers, jobs, years of their lives, and suffered the effects of being harassed and undermined while their institutions failed to protect them. The effects of sexual harassment and violence can be deep and long-lasting. Universities and other institutions in society are only just starting to wake up to the scale of this challenge. There are no quick fixes for a complex and longstanding issue such as this, but it is possible to make things better. Let us get to work.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.