Survey-based study on gender-based harassment in academia

For the first time, Swedish higher education institutions have conducted a joint national survey on the prevalence of gender-based and sexual harassment in the academic sector. The responses from a total of almost 39,000 employees and students show that young people, women, students and doctoral students are particularly at risk.

Around four per cent of staff and students at 38 at Swedish higher education institutions claim to have been specifically subjected to “unwanted sexual attention in the work/study environment” over the past 12 months. The extent differs, however, among different groups. Six per cent of female students report that they were exposed during this period, as opposed to two per cent of male staff. 

To address the nature of gender-based and sexual harassment from a situational perspective over a longer period of time, eleven questions were asked describing different forms of undesired sexual behaviours. A total of 38 per cent of respondents answered that they had experienced such behaviour at least once during their time as an employee or student. By this measure, female doctoral students reported the highest rate: 53 per cent.

“We started the collaborative research programme in 2018 in response to the #metoo movement,” says Anna Wahl, vice president of the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) and chair of the programme steering committee. “Our aim was to raise awareness of the prevalence of gender-based and sexual harassment in the academic sector, to analyse underlying causes and thereby to bolster the efforts being made to combat harassment, bullying and other unsolicited and inappropriate behaviour.” 

Gender-based harassment affects all groups in the sector 

The joint programme, which also involves Karolinska Institutet (KI), Malmö University and the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research (Gothenburg University), is due to present its first report today, 20 May. 

“The report will cover some of the national results from a large survey carried out in 2021 in collaboration with Statistics Sweden,” explains programme leader Karin Dahlman-Wright, KI. “38,918 employees, doctoral students and students from 38 higher education institutions answered the survey, giving a response rate of 31.9 per cent. We hope that the report will motivate improvements that can reduce gender-based violence and sexual harassment amongst mainly young people, women and students. We expect to follow up on this report later to see if any such improvements have been made.”

Apart from the prevalence of sexual harassment, the survey also contained questions on issues such as the organisational and social work environment, health, bullying, hate and intimidation. 

“The results indicate that gender-based and sexual harassment affects all groups in our sector,” says Fredrik Bondestam, director of the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research at University of Gothenburg and member of the programme steering committee. “Women who are doctoral students report a high rate of gender-based and sexual harassment, compared with international surveys. The same is true of the percentage of men who report this. All in all, this shows that despite decades of preventive action, we need to raise our ambitions on numerous counts.”

Continued work on action plan at Chalmers

The results from Chalmers are consistent with figures nationally, but for some of the questions about bullying, offensive comments and sexual harassment, the difference between men and women at Chalmers is slightly greater than the national average. 

“Any case of bullying or sexual harassment is unacceptable, and so the results of the survey are of course worrying,” says Stefan Bengtsson, President and CEO at Chalmers. “Gender-based harassment is a problem in our sector, and we are taking action to combat that in our educational and working environments. The figures for Chalmers show that we need to continue our work to address these issues fully.”

Alongside representatives from the Student Union and doctoral students, the University has embarked upon an in-depth analysis of the data relating to Chalmers in order to identify the actions to be taken.

“It is clear that we need to continue to develop a culture of respect at Chalmers and make it clear how we expect people to behave with and towards one another,” says Bengtsson. “We will also continue with actions to, among other things, transfer learning and experience from the Chalmers Foundation’s Genie initiative and to a greater extent involve the line organisation, in order to strengthen the culture and structures that counteract deficiencies in the working environment.”

“The Student Union works in different ways to make the issue of violations visible and to create an environment where support is easily available, where you are listened to and where you know how to act, both for yourself and in the interest of a friend,” says Student Union Chair Catrin Lindberg. “We have had, and have initiatives on-going where the connection to campus safety is central, among other things we clarify how to act in an exposed situation. The Student Union and the University will continue to work with this issue together.”

‘Safe at Chalmers’, which started in 2019 as an anti-sexism project, offers both tools for reporting cases of harassment and support to employees and students. A network for doctoral students – Dr Genie – has also been established this year as part of Genie and will act as a forum for sharing experiences and putting forward ideas and activities to improve the working environment for doctoral students in terms of gender equality.

Earlier this year, Chalmers began implementing its gender strategy for undergraduate and Master’s level education. From the 2022-23 academic year onwards, programmes at undergraduate level will have specific learning objectives and courses with integrated elements covering gender equality, equal treatment and diversity. Master’s programmes will have integrated elements in courses from the 2023-24 academic year onwards.

“We welcome this scientific study being driven by academia, which gives us a picture of the current situation,” says Bengtsson. “The survey provides us with research data that indicates the challenges we face, both as an individual higher education institution and as a sector, which gives us a clear starting point for the continuation of our work.” 

Page manager Published: Fri 20 May 2022.