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04 Sep 2018
Taken from the September 2018 issue of Physics World

Emma Chapman, who suffered sexual misconduct as a PhD student at a UK institution, urges universities to reform their complaints procedures to allow other victims to speak out

My experience of sexual misconduct in academia could be described as both average and exceptional. Average, because it is the same old story of a disastrous combination of power imbalance and lack of protection and oversight. Exceptional, because in demanding justice over my experience, I was lucky to achieve what many have been denied – the right to speak out.

Anyone who makes a harassment complaint at a university is usually bound by confidentiality rules that prevent you from saying anything in public, even about the existence of the process, whether upheld or not. You must go through witness statements, interviews and hearings while in a state of continual fear and anxiety, and at the end you are lucky if you get an e-mail even acknowledging that the process happened, let alone the outcome.

Retaliation and reputation damage are also commonplace, with the enforced silence leaving you defenceless as close colleagues wrongly assume your complaint was malicious, minor or not upheld, or the perpetrator spreads false rumours about you or their false innocence. The career of the complainant, not the perpetrator, is too often forfeit.

Waiving confidentiality

Having endured a 21-month complaints procedure, I could not stay silent knowing that the system in place is discriminatory and protects the perpetrators at the expense of those complaining. I recently won a legal settlement with my former university that waived my confidentiality, in what could be a legal first of its kind in the UK. This agreement allows me to discuss my experiences of making a complaint and the ensuing disciplinary process. It gives me the right to share documents, such as the outcome, which previously had been sent to me only “in strictest confidence”.

The legal fight was in some ways the easiest part of the larger battle for justice. I had employed a law firm that has expertise in dealing with sexual harassment in academia, McAllister Olivarius, which was willing to take my case on a no-win, no-fee basis due to its strength and potential to set precedent. The university settled fairly quickly, giving me what I asked for without requiring continued court action, though the potential for this to be another year-long struggle caused me sleepless nights. We did achieve that precedent though and, directly following on from my settlement, the university announced that it would no longer be using confidentiality clauses in settlements relating to sexual misconduct – an excellent step forward.

The freedom to speak out has been a significant help in my campaign work reforming harassment policy as, for the first time, I can make reference to evidence of real obstacles to justice and offer solutions. In my experience, the enforced silence is the largest block to reform. Silence removes accountability from universities for their role in safeguarding students, and it disarms victims from protecting themselves against retaliation while protecting the perpetrators. My eventual success came, however, after experiencing great personal and professional cost and I was just one case in one university. How do we go about changing this on a larger scale?

Sexual misconduct is rife in the university system. In a study carried out by the Association of American Universities, one in six female postgraduates and one in 20 female undergraduates were found to have experienced sexual misconduct by staff. A survey carried out by the National Union of Students and the 1752 Group – a UK research organization and lobby group tackling staff:student sexual misconduct in higher education – showed that victims of sexual misconduct are unable to continue fully with their studies or their career and experienced serious mental health repercussions.

There is no question that the topic of sexual harassment is finally being taken seriously within institutions. The hiring of dedicated harassment officers and the reform of policies show promise, and zero-tolerance policies are now commonplace. I am concerned, however, that this reform is happening piecemeal, with efforts repeated in institutions across the nation.

Reforming the system

Institutions are still unwilling to acknowledge the mistakes of the past and with that comes a loss of valuable insight into obstacles and solutions to reform. We do not need to dredge up every case publicly, but what we do need is for a sector-wide acknowledgment of the mistakes made. There must be transparency when we evaluate the past, so that any lessons learned are shared successes.

To truly break the silence, my confidentiality waiver should be standard and the fact it was achieved without legislative change shows it can be the norm. Those who come forward should be given the same rights as those accused; the same access to advocacy and legal advice, and the right to appeal. When you have university processes that result in women and minority groups being pushed out of academia for complaining, then this is not just unfair, it is a violation of the Equality Act 2010.

Breaking the silence not only empowers victims and prevents perpetrators from falsely claiming innocence, but it also brings the spotlight back on the institution’s role by allowing whistleblowing. Universities should not be free to ignore warning signs, to settle complaints informally and, without victims’ involvement, to avoid paperwork and confrontation. Universities have a duty of care to their students and their staff, and silencing people from whistleblowing in these situations is dangerous and perpetuates toxic cultures.

In the past year both the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission and the House of Commons’ Women and Equalities Committee have expressed disquiet at the use of non-disclosure agreements (so-called gagging orders) in cases of sexual misconduct for this very reason. There is a growing movement towards regulation, if not an outright ban on their use, and yet they are routinely used within universities. How can one reconcile enforcing silence on victims with the zero-tolerance policies plastering corridor walls?

How can one reconcile enforcing silence on victims with the zero-tolerance policies plastering corridor walls?

The responsibility for change is something that should be shared by all of us to ensure reforms are made. Conference organizers are responsible for having codes of conduct that help to keep events accessible to all. Those who hire staff bear responsibility for checking the background of the applicant, while the current employer has a responsibility to tell the truth, not to hide behind “we wish them well in their new endeavour” in a never-ending game of “pass-the-perpetrator”.

Funding agencies have a role here too, as they have the power to withhold funding opportunities from those who use their positions to exploit or harass their students or colleagues. The precedent already exists, with the Wellcome Collection now placing responsibility for declaring upheld cases at institutional level. Gender accreditation schemes such as Athena Swan can also go further by including this as part of their guidelines – something the JUNO award of the Institute of Physics (which publishes Physics World) is implementing in October this year.

There is a huge amount of work to be done. The 1752 Group has been drawing professional boundaries and investigation guidelines for national dissemination, alongside an online wiki to enable activists to campaign and enforce those changes within their own institutions. To make all these efforts succeed we need a sector-wide, collaborative push, where successes and failures are shared. We should never lose sight of the fact that the inconvenience of reform is nothing compared to the daily devastation inaction brings on victims.

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