Insiders claim sexual harassment rife in Australian academia

by John Maguire16 Oct 2015
The medical profession faced intense scrutiny in recent months after a senior female surgeon exposed a workplace culture rife with bullying and sexual harassment.

And now, it seems that academia may follow suit.

According to reports by Fairfax Media, elite universities around Australia are overlooking cases of sexual harassment and assault among their staff members in order to protect their reputations.

Melbourne University physicist Katie Mack told Fairfax that she has warned her students on several occasions to avoid renowned perpetrators before they attended conferences, applied for graduate positions, or visited departments.

She claimed that the culture was cultivated by academia’s vast power disparity between established professors and junior academics.

Mack – who has been employed by Melbourne University for three years – said it was ordinary to hear of inappropriate touching, comments or propositions within academic circles.

According to Mack, although women feel comfortable with confiding in one another, official complaints were very rarely made to employers or the police.

Mack called on universities to sack staff members known to harass co-workers, although she accepted that internal investigations were difficult because it was difficult for academic institutions to remain objective when investigating themselves.

“Universities have to hold themselves to account and they're not doing that,” she said.

Meanwhile, Catharine Lumby, professor of Media at Macquarie University, said that Australia’s oldest universities had a “lockdown mentality”.

“Wherever you find privilege and power you will find people very concerned about reputation,” she said.

Their speaking out comes as high profile academic Geoff Marcy, a physicist at the University of California Berkeley, was found to have repeatedly sexually assaulted women in his department at the prestigious US university.

According to media reports, the internal investigation conducted by the university resulted in a threat of suspension or dismissal if he did not change his behaviour.

Marcy resigned on Wednesday following pressure from the research community.

Lumby, who consulted with Sydney University on a pro bono basis following a series of incidents at its campuses, said universities needed external educators and investigators to change their male attendees and employees’ “culture of privilege”.

Lumby noted that many of the Australian surgeons involved in perpetrating the notoriously widespread sexual harassment on subordinates had attended the nation’s elite universities.

Melanie Thomson, a microbiologist at Deakin University, told Fairfax that she had been propositioned by a senior male colleague during a work placement as a Masters student.

“It really threw me quite a bit,” she said. “He propositioned me and then after I knocked him back offered to give me a lift home.”

She added that because of a power imbalance within academia, alongside a system where juniors relied on references, had created a culture in which predatory behaviour was tolerated.

“The cost to a woman making a complaint outweighs the benefits, to which there are almost none,” she said.

Female researchers working in the field are also commonly subjected to sexual harassment – however, many academic disciplines require its scholars to take part in field trips.

A survey of scientists’ experiences of sexual harassment and assault in the field found that female trainees were the most targeted, while their superiors were almost always the perpetrators.

Published in July 2014’s PLOS ONE journal, the Survey of Academic Field Experiences showed that female respondents were 3.5 times more likely to have experience sexual harassment than men.

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  • by HerLadyship 16/10/2015 11:17:12 AM

    Yes this is not surprising, and the other thing that is rife is lots of sexual activity between professors and their junior staff.
    I know this because my husband has been having an affair with his closest female colleague for apparently years.

    Also the recent Ashley Madison hacking scandal exposed the fact that this particular University's postcode had 20% of the area's Ashley Madison's accounts.

    There are apparently no moral or ethical values in amongst the highest reaches of our academic leaders.

  • by Married 1/11/2015 5:41:25 PM

    Some of us have little clue, even at the time what is occurring; signals are covert, and predatory people approach in a discreet manner. Those in power can hold various positions. Sexual favours are solicited in a clandestine way. If protocols made folk sexuality transparent it would help.

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