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Shedding light on bullying and harassment in higher education

The Global Institute for Women’s Leadership is today publishing new research into bullying and harassment in the research and innovation sector.

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The Global Institute for Women’s Leadership is today publishing new research into bullying and harassment in the research and innovation sector.

GIWL was commissioned to carry out the research by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) as part of their approach to tackling the issue in higher education institutions (HEIs).

While estimates vary of the scale and impact, recent evidence shows there is a problem with various forms of bullying and harassment in HEIs, with one of the largest studies showing that almost half of respondents had experienced bullying at work, with 8.4% indicating that it happened “always” or “often”.

GIWL’s research shows that efforts in the sector have primarily focused on addressing student-to-student sexual misconduct and harassment, with far less evidence on prevention and response strategies to address staff sexual misconduct, other forms of harassment, or general bullying.

Other key findings include:

  • Characteristics of the higher education research environment act as enablers of bullying and harassment, such as strong hierarchies, significant workloads, competitive behaviours and job insecurity.
  • There are no agreed definitions of bullying and harassment, which can hamper evidence-gathering and understanding trends.
  • There are low levels of reporting of incidents, arising from unclear policies, dissatisfaction with institutions’ responses and worries about retaliatory action.

The report outlines recommendations for HEIs to tackle the problem, including:

  • Viewing bullying and harassment as an organisational, not an individual, issue and adopting a whole-organisation approach to culture change.
  • Securing visible senior leadership commitment to tackling the issue.
  • Adopting preventative strategies by developing codes of conduct and delivering training programmes that clarify and reset norms of inclusive, supportive and respectful behaviour.

UKRI published a statement outlining its next steps off the back of GIWL’s research. It has updated its funding terms and conditions to require all research and innovation organisations that it funds to have clear, well-publicised policies, processes and training in place consistent with good practice. It will also develop guidance and resources for organisations and work with partners across the sector to improve transparency.

UKRI will also commission further research to improve understanding of the scale of the problem, contributing factors and effective approaches to improving research culture and the research and innovation environment.

UKRI Executive Champion for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, Professor Jennifer Rubin, said: “In a world-class research and innovation sector, bullying and harassment are unacceptable. It is detrimental to careers and experience, destructive of the culture and environment and associated with loss of talent and expertise from the sector.

“Our vision is for an environment in which everyone is supported to contribute on the basis of their skills and ability, and where the wellbeing of staff and students is actively nurtured and promoted as a priority.”

Laura Jones, Research Associate at the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership, King’s College London, said: “It is clear that there is much to be done to tackle bullying and harassment in HEIs. However, fear of reputational damage can often stand in the way of attempts to address the issue.

“Effective response strategies alone are unlikely to reduce the overall incidence of bullying and harassment, while focusing on reporting places the onus on the victim and risks embedding the idea of bullying and harassment as an individual, rather than organizational, issue.

“It is essential that funding councils incentivise universities to address their workplace culture and implement changes at an institutional level, while avoiding measures which promote symbolic, rather than substantive, compliance.”

Read the report