Two out of three employees and students at European higher education institutions have experiences of gender-based violence


A survey directed to staff and students in 46 universities, colleges and research institutions in 15 European countries, including Sweden, shows that two out of three have experienced gender-based violence.
“This is a high figure that reflects the fact that gender-based violence is structural and not about individuals," says Sofia Strid, Scientific Director of the EU project UniSAFE and researcher at Örebro University and the University of Gothenburg.

With over 42,000 responses the survey is the largest conducted on gender-based violence so far in the European Research Area. It is one of several parts of the EU project UniSAFE, which aims to map the extent of gender-based violence in universities and research organisations in European countries. The results will then be used, together with a survey of national and institutional policies, case studies and interviews, to develop concrete methods to counter and prevent violence.

The UniSAFE survey is unique, according to Sofia Strid, in that it includes more forms of violence than previous similar surveys and relates to well-being and career, among other things.  Respondents have reported their gender, sexual identity, age, ethnicity and whether they have experienced, perpetrated or witnessed violence. A special category is younger researchers who move between universities and countries.

Sofia Strid
Örebro University and the University of Gothenburg<br /> Photo: Maria Elisson
Photo: Maria Elisson

“Early career researchers are a particularly vulnerable group. They often have temporary contracts and end up being heavily dependent on their research supervisor or employer” says Sofia Strid.

Overall, results show that 62% of the survey respondents have experienced at least one form of gender-based violence since they started working or studying at their institution. Two out of three of the respondents say they have been subjected to gender-based violence. Psychological violence (57%) is followed by sexual harassment (31%), financial violence (10%), online violence (8%), physical violence (6%) and sexual violence (3%).

Psychological violence most common

The responses from the 42,000 respondents show that women and non-binary people are the most vulnerable and that the most common form of gender-based violence is psychological. Psychological violence can include being forced to do something against one's will, being treated disrespectfully or being subjected to anger.

Many forms of gender-based violence are elusive.

“It can be difficult to perceive sexist comments as psychological violence, both for the victims and for witnesses” says Sofia Strid.

Only 13% of those who have experienced gender-based violence have reported it further. A common explanation is uncertainty as to whether what happened was serious enough, or even a form of violence. Of those who have witnessed violence, 12% say it was sexual harassment and 9% say it was economic violence.

Reinforcing results from Swedish survey

Fredrik Bondestam
Fredrik Bondestam, Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research, University of Gothenburg
Photo: Natalie Greppi

The UniSAFE survey reinforces the findings of a Swedish national survey on gender-based violence and sexual harassment in the Swedish higher education sector, presented in May this year, which included all Swedish universities and colleges, and was conducted in collaboration between Karolinska Institutet, the Royal Institute of Technology, Malmö University and the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research at the University of Gothenburg. Fredrik Bondestam, director of the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research, and one of several researchers in UniSAFE, says:

“Although the studies show a high degree of consistency, and have used the same measures of sexual harassment, there are differences in both design and results. Exposure to sexual harassment in the Swedish higher education sector is slightly higher than the average in the UniSAFE study. At the same time, in UniSAFE we have chosen to ask for a broader range of exposure to different forms of gender-based violence, which makes the extent of the problem more visible”

Concrete tools are the main goal

The next step in the UniSAFE project is to bring together gender equality experts from universities, among others, to create tools and then pilot test them with a view to the final goal: concrete tools to prevent gender-based violence in academia.

The EU research programme  Horizon Europe now requires research organisations to have a gender equality plan in order to be funded. The Czech Republic holds the EU Presidency this autumn and has gender-based violence in higher education on their agenda. Sweden will then take over as chair after the end of the year.

In addition to Sofia Strid and Fredrik Bondestam, four other Swedish researchers have participated: Liisa Husu, gender studies, Jeff Hearn, gender studies and Nicole Ovessen, postdoc, gender studies, all of them at Örebro University, and Angelica Simonsson, postdoc, gender studies at Örebro University and analyst at the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research at the University of Gothenburg.

UniSAFE survey on gender-based violence in academia
  • Read about the survey at the UniSAFE web page: UniSAFE survey on gender-based violence in academia
  • The survey was sent to students and staff in 46 universities and research institutions in 15 European countries, including Sweden
  • Over 42,000 employees (43% of total respondents) and students (57%) responded to the online survey between January and May 2022.
  • Non-binary is a term used to describe people who identify between, beyond and with both gender categories of woman/man.
  • Conclusions from the anonymous survey are not broken down by country or individual institution, but are based on the aggregate responses.
  • German GESIS, which is responsible for the survey's implementation, states that although the response rate is low (10 percent for employees and 2 percent for students), the high number of respondents is a strength and the response rate and in line with what can be expected from online surveys according to GESIS' assessment.