by the Alliance of Women in Academia

Bullying and sexual harassment are gaining unprecedented visibility with Hollywood’s #timesup movement and the adoption of #metoo. We know that bullying and sexual harassment exists in every sector and in every country, and academia is no exception. As with other sectors, the current culture of limited opportunities and resources requires individuals to compete on the basis of universal ‘merit’, but in reality the rules of competition seem to be maintaining male hegemony in academia. Women are consistently and systematically discriminated against, less likely to advance into positions of influence, and are also the most frequent victims of sexual harassment leading some to talk about the prevalence of a ‘lad culture’ in our universities. Of course, women are not the only group affected, and they are not affected equally; but because we had to start somewhere, we started from our own experiences and areas of competence, and on the basis of the data that is currently available, in the hope that broader alliances can be built on these questions.

It is this context that we, some women from London-based universities, have launched the Alliance of Women in Academia (AWA) in December 2017, in order to share our experiences of bullying and sexual harassment, and discuss together how to address these pervasive forms of oppression. As we mobilize to tackle the root causes of this gender-based form of violence, inserting ourselves within already existing campaigns and movements, we think institutions have a crucial role to play in creating a safe studying and working environment for us all. In this regard, policies and procedures to proactively prevent and respond to harassment are essential to keep institutions accountable and fair. They help to ensure justice for individuals and establish cohesive communities that respect human rights and dignity. We recognize that it takes more than policies and procedures to eliminate sexual harassment and bullying, but these are nonetheless necessary to enable victims and leadership to act, to set non-discriminatory standards, and to inform students and staff about acceptable conducts thereby contributing to a more effective prevention.

As one of our group´s core initial discussions, during April and May of 2018, we reviewed policies for reporting bullying and sexual harassment in our universities in order to assess their strengths and weaknesses, and make recommendations on how to work towards eliminating these oppressive behaviours. We looked at: the London School of Economics (LSE), the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), the University College of London (UCL), the University of Manchester, and the University of Oxford. Based on the professional and personal experiences of our members, and on existing work on these issues, we have identified 3 main criteria that need to be considered for the design of effective policies:

  1. The existence and quality of the policy (comprehensive, updated definitions and clear procedures);
  2. Reporting channels with a clear chain of escalation including external notifications (e.g. health, police services);
  3. The effectiveness of the policy and consequences attached to it (support measures for potential victims/witnesses, sanctions against the perpetrator, and governance bodies).

Overall, we found that every institution provides clear definitions of what constitutes bullying and sexual harassment with illustrative examples, and that these can be easily found online. The relevant policies are available in the public domain, and all the institutions studied mention the existence of a reporting mechanism, although these policies are all very recent, showing the lack of proper consideration given to these issues before they made the headlines.

However, we found that reporting channels are of unequal quality, which hinders their effectiveness. Most websites provide only scattered information about the reporting process, often referring to other documents or re-directing the reader to broader and non-specific disciplinary processes. Only one university (UCL) provides a clear diagram displaying the whole reporting procedure, ranging from informal mediation to formal complaint outcomes, while the LSE, LSHTM and Manchester faired particularly poorly on reporting mechanisms, having no distinct procedures for bullying and sexual harassment.

Quite worryingly, all the universities reviewed suggest informal modes of resolving cases of bullying or harassment, such as engaging in a discussion with the perpetrator. This not only risks subjecting the victim to further instances of aggression, but it also reinforces the idea that such issues are not serious enough to deserve a formal procedure with real consequences for the perpetrator. Formal complaints are only suggested if the informal steps or mediation has failed. In this case, the indicated person to whom the victim can report the incident is in every institution someone higher-up in the department or school’s hierarchy.

No university has a dedicated, external, and qualified person to deal with cases of bullying and sexual harassment, which is immensely problematic. LSE and LSHTM in particular provide a very broad list of potential contacts, including student reps, who are not trained to deal with sexual harassment or in a position of power to solve such cases. The lack of adequate procedure and reporting mechanisms puts all the risk and cost of reporting onto the victims, further exposing them to retaliations in cases where the perpetrator is a member of staff or a colleague in a higher hierarchical position. Given the power relations at stake in academia, and the dependence of students and young scholars on their more established colleagues to succeed professionally, it is imperative that an external actor be in charge of listening to and supporting victims. In fact, studies show that students are still afraid to report sexual harassment at their university, which only confirms the inadequacy of existing policies.

Finally, the consequences of reporting a case of bullying or sexual harassment remain unclear in all the institutions examined here. There are no established scale of sanctions, and limited chains of action following from the formal complaint procedure. This leaves room for silencing victims and creates a culture of impunity. Fundamentally, we found that the existing procedures do not account for power relations, and even when there is a reporting mechanism, it does not provide effective protection for the victim or any concrete ways to resolve the conflict and punish the perpetrator.

Based on our review of polices and procedures among high-rated UK institutions, and drawing on the work of other groups such as the 1732 Group, or the NUS report on staff sexual misconduct, we urge our institutions to take the following steps:

  • Have a dedicated webpage centralising information for bullying and sexual harassment;
  • Establish clear procedures on how and where to report bullying and sexual harassment, with dedicated and trained staff who are not academics themselves and are not part of any other school services or departments;
  • Ensure that the reporting system is confidential and guarantees the victim’s integrity and anonymity, and that they remain protected from personal or professional retaliations;
  • Automatically activate investigation procedures when a case of bullying or harassment is reported, and ensure universities keep a record of such investigations enabling them to react appropriately, for instance, if a person has been the object of several complaints, it is expected that they will be subject to adequate sanctions;
  • Introduce mandatory and continuous training on bullying and harassment for all members of staff and students early on, including induction meetings and recruitment procedures.

This policy review is a first step for our alliance to contribute to broader debates, and to work together towards the elimination of oppressive behaviours in academia. If you are interested in joining a support group, conducting a similar evaluation at your institution, or in taking further action against bullying and sexual harassment, please get in touch with us!


AWA is the Alliance of Women in Academia, an inter-university and interdisciplinary group of self-identified women in higher education aiming at empowering women, building self-confidence and supporting each other. AWA organises monthly meetings to share experiences and discuss any issue members may face at work, or during studies in a safe and supportive environment. It also provides a platform for organising training, mentoring and sharing information related to services available for potential cases of gender-based discrimination. Initially started by members of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the London School of Economics and Political Science, it has spread to several London universities. For any information, please contact