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Big knowledge gaps in research on sexual harassment in academia


Research on sexual harassment in academia lacks knowledge about the perpetrators of sexual harassment and about its consequences for the work environment and organisations. This is highlighted in an international research review published by the Swedish Research Council last autumn, which has now been translated into English.

“It’s good that there is now a solid set of data concerning what research exists and what it says. I hope that the research review will be a valuable contribution to the debate and that it can be used as background material by all actors in the research system,” says Sven Stafström, Director-General of the Swedish Research Council (VR).

The #MeToo movement against sexual harassment began in the USA in autumn 2017. In Sweden, the movement led to a large number of manifestos within different industries. The #Akademiuppropet manifesto was signed by around 2,500 people within higher education. It prompted Swedish higher education institutions to boost their efforts to combat sexual harassment and the Swedish government has also urged Sweden’s higher education institutions to make these efforts more visible.

The research is contending with many challenges

The report Sexual harassment in academia – an international research review was produced by the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research at the University of Gothenburg and was commissioned by VR. The material is unique in that it is the first comprehensive international research review on sexual harassment in academia.

“Knowledge in this area is inadequate but what we do know today, based on the studies available, is that in Sweden between four and 26 per cent of women have been exposed to sexual harassment, with the same figure for men being between two and six per cent,” says Fredrik Bondestam, research coordinator at the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research at the University of Gothenburg, who wrote the report together with Maja Lundqvist, project coordinator at the Secretariat.

The numbers exposed to sexual harassment vary greatly across different studies due to the questions asked and the measurement methods used. Definitions of exposure to sexual harassment, along with the sampling, measurement methods and even under-reporting of such exposure has influenced the results. In well-crafted international studies, the incidence of sexual harassment is substantially higher, which to some extent is due to better measurement methods than in the Swedish studies, according to Fredrik Bondestam.

“The studies that have been done indicate that the problem is great, but we know that under-reporting is one of the difficulties for the research and for employers. Those exposed to sexual harassment don’t report it and don’t talk about what they have been exposed to. It is going to require the entire sector to take responsibility in order to ensure an inclusive learning and work environment,” he says.

The report analyses existing research reviews on sexual harassment in academia and working life in general, a selection of top-rated research articles, all the Swedish and other Nordic research in this area, and the current state of knowledge and the methodological challenges of mapping the prevalence of exposure to sexual harassment in academia.

Organisational and perpetrator perspectives are lacking

“International research shows that students, young women, women with precarious employment conditions, and specific minorities are more frequently exposed to sexual harassment than other groups. The research focuses on the individual, and research into the implications of sexual harassment for work teams, the work environment and organisational culture in academia is more or less non-existent,” says Maja Lundqvist.

“In addition to its negative impacts on health, individuals exposed to sexual harassment also report work-related consequences. They avoid spending time in certain places, decline participation in certain events, postpone their studies, request to be moved to another university, or end their academic careers entirely. But we currently know very little about what this means for academia in its role in research and education at the institutional level,” she says.

There is also a consistent lack of the perpetrator perspective in all of the international research.

“If people at higher education institutions in Sweden have spoken out about exposure to sexual harassment for decades, in each and every case there must also have been a perpetrator. Who are they? How many are they? Why do they do this and in what situations?” says Maja Lundqvist.

The report provides information about what research there is in Sweden and in other countries, but the issue of how to work to prevent sexual harassment in academia from this point on is primarily one for the employer, according to Sven Stafström.

“It is my hope that this report can lead to discussions about how sexual harassment can be prevented but also to stimulate more research in this area,” says Sven Stafström, Director-General of the Swedish Research Council.

New review of preventive measures in progress

The Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research is currently working on an additional international research review concerning sexual harassment on assignment from the Swedish Council for Higher Education (UHR), and this review is about prevention efforts and methods. UHR intends to publish the research review and the report on the results of this government commission in the spring of 2019.

Contact details:

Fredrik Bondestam, research coordinator, Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research

Maja Lundqvist, project coordinator, Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research

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