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22 Jan | Guest Blog | Gender Equality

Sexual harassment in the scientific research environment

Sexual harassment has been deemed a chronic workplace stressor and a public health crisis. With narrative around workplace harassment slowly changing, the support given in response to experiences of harassment can be crucial to our resilience and recovery.

I first learned of the impact our institutions can have on our mental health in 2015, in a 150-person lecture hall and a class on neurobiology. We were learning about the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and its role as the stress control centre of the body. In short, these three structures in our body – the hypothalamus, and the pituitary and adrenal glands – communicate together when we experience a stressful event to pump out a cocktail of hormones while our brain conducts risk assessments to keep us safe. When this system becomes maladaptive, these structures respond more attentively and more frequently than we need them to. This can often occur in response to posttraumatic or chronic stress. What’s more, not all stress is experienced equally. Research has found that when we are betrayed by someone we trust, we develop worse stress outcomes than we do when the experience involves strangers. This is known as betrayal trauma theory1 and applies not only to individuals, but to groups of people and institutions we trust to keep us safe.

Sexual harassment has been the subject of research focus for the last thirty years, and the field has much to show for scholarly effort. We now understand that the most significant predictor of sexual harassment is organizational culture – the shared beliefs, perceptions, attitudes and practices of people throughout the institution, and specifically how intolerant they are towards harassment. Organisations that have clear policy on handling harassment, allow employees to have a voice in how reporting is handled, and hold perpetrators accountable are actively creating a workplace that is safer and supportive for everyone. When leaders are laisse-faire on these issues, harassment and discrimination often proliferate in the groups they lead2.

The American Psychological Association has deemed sexual harassment a chronic workplace stressor and a public health crisis. It is a barrier to career success and safety for many women, and disproportionately affects women of colour, lesbian, bisexual and transwomen the most.  Women with multiple oppressed identities are more likely to experience multiple types of harassment – making this a staunch issue of inequality and injustice in the workplace. In the wake of social movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp, it begs the question: why are universities still the second most likely workplaces to struggle with harassment3? And as the narrative around workplace harassment changes, it’s critical that we understand what impact these institutional decisions are having on people in cases like these.

I began exploring these questions when I accepted a research position at the Eleanor Glanville Centre at the University of Lincoln. My research specifically focuses on relationships of trust, safety and support in scientific research environments, and how these crucial employee experiences are affected by an institution’s tolerance for harassment and discrimination. Our aim is to better understand harassment outside of the dyadic relationship between perpetrator and victim, and further explore how we are all affected by harassment at work.

1. Smith, C.P. and Freyd, J.J., 2013. Dangerous safe havens: Institutional betrayal exacerbates sexual trauma. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 26(1), pp.119-124.

2. Fitzgerald, L.F., Drasgow, F., Hulin, C.L., Gelfand, M.J. and Magley, V.J., 1997. Antecedents and consequences of sexual harassment in organizations: a test of an integrated model. Journal of Applied psychology, 82(4), p.578.

3. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2018. Sexual harassment of women: climate, culture, and consequences in academic sciences, engineering, and medicine. National Academies Press.

Rebecca Brunk, Research Student,  EGC and the School of Social & Political Sciences.

Rebecca holds a MA in Organizational Behaviour from the University of Leeds. Her thesis considered the influence that inclusive leadership has on organizational culture, analyzing the impact it has on women and LGBTQ+ employees from a cross cultural UK-US perspective.