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National study to increase knowledge about sexual harassment in academia


In May 2020, a national prevalence study within the framework of the Research and collaboration programme to combat sexual harassment and gender-based victimisation. The study will be the first of its kind and aims to provide an evidence base for more effective efforts against sexual harassment in academia.

All employees and students at universities and other higher education institutions in Sweden will be reached by the survey, which will be sent out in May 2020. The study is the first of its kind, because despite the fact that internationally there is a great deal of research in the field, that research has major shortcomings in terms of measurement methods and definitions, for example.

Unwelcome sexual attention can mean anything from being subjected to inappropriate stares over a long period of time to sexual assault. According to previous research, minorities may be a more vulnerable group for sexual harassment, but what this harassment looks in more detail remains unclear.

Research is also lacking concerning bystanders – persons in the workplace or in the study environment who witness colleagues or other students being harassed – and the perpetrators of sexual harassment according to a report that the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research produced for the Swedish Research Council last year.

“Sexual harassment is a big research field, but previous studies have major gaps and shortcomings, and there is also a lack of good studies of the Swedish environment,” says Lisa Rudolfsson, PhD in psychology and an analyst at the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research, who has researched sexual crimes and harassment in a number of previous projects, and who will be leading the work on the prevalence study.

The study will provide more in-depth knowledge of sexual harassment

The aim of a prevalence study is to gain a more complex picture of why sexual harassment occurs, who the victims are, who the perpetrators are, what forms the harassment takes, where it takes place, for how long it goes on, and what the consequences are for the victim, for the perpetrator, for work groups and for the work and study environment per se.

The survey that will be sent out is designed to capture the diversity of sexual harassment, its links with various forms of discrimination, and to differentiate between various forms of harassment, harassment over time and its severity, as well as its structural underpinnings.

The existing research in the area is often based on self-assessments involving only Yes/No answers, which does not provide as much information about what actually happened, how often it happened, and what the consequences were for the victim. Different countries have different legal definitions of what sexual harassment is and many studies often use a too narrow or too broad definition. All in all, this can create difficulties for comparing results and the formation of new and deeper knowledge about sexual harassment.

“If we choose to ask, ‘Have you been the victim of sexual harassment?’, we know that this will be understood differently by different people, which is why we are trying to move away from getting bogged down in definitions. We won’t be sticking to one interpretation of what sexual harassment is, because then we won’t know how it has been interpreted by the respondents. Instead, we describe concrete situations that stretch all the way from intrusive situations to sexual offences,” says Lisa Rudolfsson.

Evidence base for more effective efforts to prevent sexual harassment

The Research and collaboration programme to combat sexual harassment and gender-based victimisation has been set up on the initiative of the Karolinska Institutet, the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) and Malmö University, in close collaboration with the Swedish Council for Higher Education and the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research at the University of Gothenburg, which will be responsible for the prevalence study, in collaboration with other higher education institutions in Sweden.

Sexual harassment in academia is part of the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research’s focus on contributing to sustainable conditions for research and education. The Secretariat has carried out many studies in collaboration with actors in the higher education sector in particular, and has a number of ongoing projects in the area, including projects commissioned by the Nordic Council of Ministers and the European Commission.
For Kantar Sifo, the Secretariat is also conducting a Nordic knowledge review of methods to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace.

“By gaining a broader knowledge of experiences of harassment at both the individual and organisational level, from the perpetrator as well as the victim, it is hoped that this prevalence study will form the basis for further research and development as well as more effective efforts to prevent sexual harassment – at the policy level as well as at the more practical level,” says Lisa Rudolfsson.

The ethical review of the survey will be completed at the beginning of 2020 – protecting the confidentiality of respondents is of the highest priority.

Read more about the Research and collaboration programme on Karolinska Institutet’s webpage.

Text by Inga-Bodil Ekselius