Sexual harassment in higher education is back in the news. But this time there are signs of progress: almost two-thirds of universities provide sexual harassment training for staff, while three-quarters have trained student services advisers. Although these statistics are promising, they say little about the depth of interventions. With the history of naming and shaming on this issue, compliance may be out of fear, and some institutions may be doing the minimum they need to. The negative tone of much media coverage may also be compromising openness in the sector.
When sexual harassment revelations emerge, we often call for the removal of offenders through codes of conduct and disciplinary procedures. While these are important, without wider cultural change they can simply create compliance through fear of punishment, which is the opposite of systemic reform.
Such procedures also often result in zero tolerance approaches, which impose strict punishments for any infraction of a rule. These conflate behaviours and don’t help us understand or tackle the roots of unacceptable actions. Dysfunctional systems can’t be fixed by purging a few individuals. This is what I call “institutional airbrushing” – the visible blemish is removed and the underlying malaise left to fester.
The problem with punitive zero tolerance approaches is that they don’t treat us all equally. Intersectionality, which looks at identity as a mix of interwoven characteristics, including race, gender and sexual orientation, shows us that certain groups of people are more likely to be seen as aggressors or bullies. A victim becomes more “believable” the more privileged they are, by every demographic measure. Seeking justice on sexual harassment without acknowledging the injustices built into the fabric of institutions will protect some at the expense of others.
Intersectionality pushes us to understand our lives as complex mixtures of victimhood and perpetration. Like other privileged women, I’ve been sexually harassed at work. However, I can’t be certain that I have never perpetrated discrimination myself – racism, ableism or transphobia, for example. This doesn’t invalidate my experiences of sexual harassment, but it does make me loath to cast the first stone. Zero tolerance works only if perpetrators and victims are easy to tell apart. In an area as complex as sexual harassment, this isn’t always the case.
Punitive conduct codes also carry the risk that institutions will use them as a pretext to cut the “dead wood”, especially given escalating cuts and the implications of Brexit for international recruitment. The teaching excellence framework and proposals for the next research excellence framework are further significant. We should be cautious about advocating anything that makes it easier to manage staff out of their jobs, either to cut costs or improve performance in government assessments.
This isn’t to diminish the desperate need for accountability. It may be necessary for some academics to stop working with young people. But naming, shaming and punishing is an inversion of, not a departure from, the power relations that produce sexual harassment in the first place. Implementing this unthinkingly isn’t the best basis for policy. Instead, we need better evidence on the scale of the problem, and an approach that is case-by-case, not one-size-fits-all, and which is restorative, not retributive.
Changing behaviour instead of policing it means addressing dysfunctional cultures and gendered (and many other) forms of entitlement. Tackling sexual harassment doesn’t end with punishing individuals; it’s about changing culture at institutional and systemic levels. Working from this place, where the institution is considered not as neutral but as deeply gendered, raced and classed, means being careful about wielding disciplinary powers and daring to imagine something different.
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