The dynamics of power in academia can often go unexamined leading to an isolated and unsupportive environment. It is all too easy to turn a blind eye to small put-downs and departmental bullying. Athene Donald recognises that it may be difficult to intervene but actions must be taken to ensure bullying does not persist. There is no excuse for any of us to fail to challenge bad behaviour and/or support the victim.

The vile and criminal threats and harassment delivered to intelligent and outspoken women in the public eye through the medium of Twitter has been much discussed recently, from journalist Caroline Criado-Perez  to my Cambridge classicist friend and colleague Mary Beard.  Twitter has equally provided a medium to provide support for these women, with many emails of sympathy and encouragement flying across the aether. That, of course, is likely to be utterly insufficient to counter the internalisation of the abuse and restore equilibrium to the affected. Nevertheless, this support is important; in a much smaller way, I know how warming I found the sympathy expressed by strangers through Twitter messages in response to my last post about my eye problems. That kind of spontaneous support to someone suffering is immensely positive, even if it can’t alter the basic problem.


Image credit: Jason Armstrong (CC BY)

I don’t want to discuss the mentality of those who send such hate-mail here – there have been many column inches devoted to the subject already – or even what should be done, for similar reasons, but it is perhaps worth considering how support can be given within organisations such as universities to those who suffer from the much lesser offences of bullying and simple put-downs. Too often I suspect, the response to observing such behaviour is for the observers to look the other way. That is of course easier; anyhow frequently the bully may be the one with the power.  But whether that is the case or not, unless formal complaints are made – which is often a painful experience in itself – little is done, when I believe much could be done in small but effective ways.

Many years ago, when I was hardly junior but equally not particularly senior (at the about-to-be professor stage I think), I recall an episode which left me baffled and upset by the behaviour of those around me. Sitting on a committee my views were neutralised by a professor who accused me of not knowing enough relevant science to enable me to make a reasoned decision about an appointment. In reality, I was probably the one around the table who knew most and his attack came out of the blue and with no justification (it was certainly not his own field). When it happened I was completely gobsmacked but naively expected the Chair to step in. On the contrary, no one said anything (myself included, other than a swift intake of breath and mild exclamation of horror) and the debate moved on. My own contribution to the discussion was of course wiped out by the fact that I had been accused of being incompetent.

Some time later I discussed the incident at my appraisal. The reaction was equally gobsmacking: I was told I should go and eat humble pie with the individual concerned because he (who was already a professor) felt threatened by me.  Needless to say I did not! The story does at least have a happy ending in so far as some years later when I found myself needing to work closely with the ‘offender’ I found we actually made a good team and we were both able to put the past behind us with no trouble.

However, what should anyone present at the time have done? I would like to think, had I been the chair and had observed such behaviour of one committee member deliberately attempting to undermine another member and sabotage their contributions, I would have intervened. My professional abilities had been unsubtly challenged by someone without the specialist knowledge that might have qualified them to do so. Unfortunately, it is all too easy at times like that for others just to pretend not to have heard. That way the victim can be marginalised and silenced by others whose views differ.

These days I would (I hope) be able to deal with it more competently myself if it were ever to happen again; if I saw it happen to somebody else, I hope I would have the guts to say ‘excuse me, that is unacceptable’.  I am absolutely sure that at no point would I have given anyone the advice my appraiser gave me implying that I had been the aggressor in some way and the other guy was the victim. Find some common ground, I might say. Or maybe find an excuse to meet the offender and attempt to clear the air or at least have a civilised if not necessarily relevant exchange – not clearing the air can mean things can fester for a very long time and still be damaging months or years later when they surface again – but in essence to imply the victim had been at fault and so should apologise: no way!

In my view, if you observe outright bullying and do nothing, you are complicit.  Sometimes the hierarchy of power may make things very difficult for an individual to intervene at the time, but at the very least they can offer support to the victim even if it is only privately afterwards. Maybe they can even help them work out a strategy to prevent something similar happening again, or provide encouragement for them to take the matter to the appropriate powers-that-be. At the very least a third party can validate that the behaviour was unacceptable and that the victim had not been in the wrong.

Image credit: Biblioarchives (CC BY)

I wrote before of how a Chair (of a very different committee) was stopped in his tracks when he tried to address us all as ‘gentleman’ for the second or third time. On that occasion, after the Chair’s first transgression I set out to enlist the help of some men on the committee to call him out, a strategy that worked excellently. Calling a committee with female members ‘gentleman’ may not amount to bullying (it could have been accidental after all, though I doubt it), but strategies that work in less serious situations such as that may also be beneficial in the worse kind. The crucial thing is that it behoves all of us to be aware of the dynamics of meetings – and they don’t have to be formal committees, they might merely be research group discussions –  and take action where appropriate.

The more people learn right from the moment they start out on their careers, in science or anywhere else, that bullying does not pay, the more we may end up with a working environment that is able to bring out the best in everyone. At least, I’d like to think we could reach that point, but this may be mere idealistic fantasising. Calling out one of the first trolls to abuse Mary Beard this past week, was a tactic employed by her that did indeed lead to a public apology. That has to be a first, if small step forward, even if in one sense it looked like feeding the trolls. In our everyday workplace, where there is not the same opportunity for abuse to be anonymous, whoever the protagonist may be there is no excuse for any of us to fail to challenge bad behaviour and/or support the victim.

This originally appeared on Athene Donald’s personal blog and is reposted with permission. For more on preventing online abuse aimed at female academics, see here.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our Comments Policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

About the Author

Athene Donald is Professor of Experimental Physics at Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge. Athene has been at Cavendish since 1983, and became a professor in 1998.

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