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Bringing harassment on campus out of the shadows

Bringing harassment on campus out of the shadows

The chair of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Local 3902 at the University of Toronto (U of T), says she is “not surprised at all” by the findings of a recent Statistics Canada study that show harassment and discrimination are serious problems in academia.  

“That’s something that academics and support staff have known for a long time,” said Amy Conwell, whose local represents postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, and other contract workers at U of T. She says discrimination and harassment is “systemic, cultural and a well-known secret.”

She points to a recent investigative report by Al Jazeera and covered by the Toronto Star alleging a former Trinity College provost sexually harassed and had sexual relationships with some of his students. 

Conwell says these allegations and the StatsCan findings raise important questions: “Why does academia foster or enable people who are predatory to be in positions of power? And why does academia silence folks who seek to speak out about it?”  

The new data on harassment and discrimination is culled from a 2019 survey of approximately 27,000 full- and part-time university faculty, teaching staff, researchers, postdoctoral fellows, doctoral students, and college instructors. Participants were asked to report on incidents of physical violence, unwanted sexual attention/sexual harassment, threats to person, verbal abuse and humiliating behaviour.

Thirty-four per cent of women and 22 per cent of men surveyed reported experiencing some form of harassment or discrimination at work in the preceding 12 months. By comparison, a 2016 StatsCan survey showed 19 per cent of women and 13 per cent of men across all sectors of the economy reported harassment in the previous year.

CAUT President Brenda Austin-Smith says she is dismayed but also not surprised by the findings.

“My dismay is that the academic workplace is still unsafe for so many of our members,” she said.

Austin-Smith notes CAUT’s own research shows that the ranks of the “precariously employed” at post-secondary schools are growing. She says these include “term contracts with no job security, absolutely appalling wages, no benefits, no pension, no access to research grants, with racialized women, Indigenous academics, and academics with disabilities, over-represented within these ranks. These groups are way more likely to experience harassment because of racism, homophobia and ableism,” she said. The Statistics Canada survey also found over half (52 per cent) of women with disabilities and 45 per cent of Indigenous women reported they experienced harassment and discrimination in academic institutions. 

Nick Papatheodorakos, chair of CAUT’s contract academic staff committee, agrees that precarious workers are particularly vulnerable, and that puts their union in the front line of the battle against harassment and discrimination.

“They [contract staff] typically don’t have an office or, if they do, they are sharing it with numerous other people,” he says. “They may be working at multiple institutions, so the union tends to be the base. They will reach out to us and say this happened, is this ok? We become the central point to address these issues, especially for part-time staff.” 

Papatheodorakos says it is important to invest in better educating academic staff on what constitutes harassment and discrimination. 

“I am a lawyer by practice,” he said. “What always dumbfounds me is when somebody comes to me to explain something that happened, and I say to them, ‘you know that’s harassment.’ They don’t even realize it because they’ve become so desensitized to it.” 

Papatheodorakos says at Concordia, McGill and Laval universities, the unions work with the institutions to encourage as many members as possible to participate in awareness and sensitivity training programs. Not just once, but through repeated sessions. 

“We have obligatory training sessions for full-time, part- time, administrative, and support staff on what is considered acceptable or unacceptable behaviours, boundaries, the legalities and the ethical positions each member has to take,” he noted.

Zaa Joseph, a member of the British Columbia Institution of Technology Faculty & Staff Association (BCIT FSA) and Indigenous advisor, says training, educating and greater awareness are all crucial in preventing harassment and discrimination in academia. However, he would add inclusion to that list. Four in ten Indigenous people teaching or conducting research in post-secondary institutions experienced some form of harassment, compared with less than three in ten of their non-Indigenous colleagues. Forty-five per cent of Indigenous women said they experienced harassment compared with 33 per cent of Indigenous men. He finds those numbers–particularly the high number of women respondents–deeply troubling. “It’s really important to have Indigenous people–First Nations, Metis and Inuit–people of colour, women, people with disabilities, all of the equity-seeking groups included within the association and space being made available for them,” said Joseph. “Equity planning, policies and procedures, knowing about Indigenous rights such as the United Nations Declaration of Rights for Indigenous peoples, how are those being reflected in the collective agreement and at the bargaining table?”

Robin Whitaker, Representative-at-Large on the CAUT executive committee, said she has “memorably” experienced harassment during her academic life. She particularly recalls “an unpleasant encounter earlier in my career with someone who was in a supervisory role, a senior position.”

However, she decided not to file a formal complaint about the incident. “We had to continue working together,” said Whitaker. “I calculated that in the long run, it would be better to try to patch things up in other ways. Fortunately, the person involved also wanted to address the issue informally. But it shook me up at the time. It was unwarranted.”

Now an associate professor of anthropology at Memorial University of Newfoundland, she underscores that while the administration is legally responsible for providing a workplace free of harassment and discrimination, academic staff associations should also review their own practices and procedures.

“Academic staff associations should explore multiple avenues for holding management to account for the responsibility [of a harassment-free workplace],” said Whitaker.  “The formal grievance process may be appropriate in some instances, but unions should also be mindful that individual employees might be reluctant to enter formal complaints for all kinds of reasons.”

“The best approach is one of prevention, whereby robust equity provisions and an inclusive approach to collegiality create a context where problems do not arrive in the first place.” 

Amy Conwell says on a more grassroots level, survivors and their supporters need to know what recourse is immediately available to them if they experience harassment and/or discrimination. 

“There are, technically, systemic means to address the problem,” she said. “But if those means are not made available to individuals, if they’re not communicated, if they’re not clearly advertised, then they’re not real and they’re not available. So that’s something that we’ve seen at the University of Toronto. There are supposed to be mechanisms in place but when people have tried to use those mechanisms, they found they drag out over years, and there’s no real response.” 

Brenda Austin-Smith sees the opportunity to mount an assertive information campaign led by associations and unions and drawing upon the strength of its own membership–sociologists, political economists, experts in women’s and gender studies among others–to stem harassment and discrimination in academia. 

“Unions have a history of working for progressive change and achieving it through collective bargaining, grievance handling, through coalition work, campaigns, and through their power to bring the employer to the table to listen,” said Austin-Smith. “Unions with strong democratic processes can use those to examine their own practices as well as their collective agreements, calling in rather than calling out as the mode of engagement.”

Statistics Canada also found: 

• Women are 1.5 times more likely than men to experience workplace harassment and discrimination in post-secondary institutions.
• Sexual minority groups and persons with disabilities are among the most likely targets of workplace harassment and discrimination in postsecondary institutions.
• Persons in positions of authority were the most common perpetrators of workplace harassment against PhD students and postdoctoral fellows.
• In cases of workplace harassment against university and college teachers, colleagues and students were most often identified as the perpetrators.
• Women are more likely than men to take action against their harasser, except in the cases of sexual harassment/unwanted sexual attention and physical violence.


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