New survey indicates urgent need for research on sexual harassment

The results of the national survey on bullying and harassment in Norway’s higher education sector are finally in. But the reasons why harassment occurs remain unclear, according to the Committee for Gender Balance and Diversity in Research.

The new survey on bullying and harassment in the university and university college sector reveals that too little is known about causal factors as well as the relationships between abusers and victims. This indicates a need for more research, the KIF Committee believes. (Photo: Kristin Aukland og Benjamin A. Ward)

“The need for research on the topic of sexual harassment is enormous,” said Heidi Holt Zachariassen of the Committee for Gender Balance and Diversity in Research (KIF).

In November 2017 academia’s murky secrets came to light – some of them, anyway. Under the #MetooAkademia hashtag, an array of mostly women academics shared stories about sexual transgressions, abuse and comments made with a sexual and threatening undertone.

Two years after the #Metoo movement arose, the results of the first national survey of bullying and harassment in Norway’s university and university college sector have been released. The figures were presented at a recent press conference at the Ministry of Education and Research.

A total of 26 out of 33 university and university college institutions took part in the survey. Responses were obtained from 17,984 out of 43,000 employees, including temporary and permanent employees holding both administrative and academic positions. The response figures have been broken down by gender, age and job category.

The figures:

  • Bullying and harassment: 13 per cent reported having been bullied or harassed in their current job in the past 12 months. Of these, older respondents outnumbered younger ones.
  • Sexual harassment: 299 respondents (1.6 per cent) reported having been subjected to sexual harassment in their current job during the past year. Of these, younger respondents outnumbered older ones. The overall proportion of women respondents reporting sexual harassment was 2.2 per cent, while the proportion of men respondents was 0.9 per cent. In relative terms, doctoral students were the group that most often reported having been subjected to sexual harassment.
  • Sexual abuse: 18 respondents – 11 women and 7 men – reported having been subjected to sexual abuse in connection with their current job in the past 12 months. 4 out of 10 instances of sexual abuse were directed at doctoral students. Another 35 respondents said they did not know or were unsure if what they experienced counts as sexual abuse. Among these were 16 women, 17 men and 2 people who define their gender in non-binary terms.
  • Perpetrators: Men were responsible for most of the reported sexual harassment, with 79 per cent of all sexual harassment cases ascribed to men. 94 per cent of the women who reported sexual harassment identified the perpetrator as a man. Among the men who reported sexual harassment, 71 per cent said a woman was the perpetrator and 23 per cent said it was another man.

Read the report

KIF Committee: Need for research was not mentioned

Several speakers at the press conference said it is necessary to follow up the survey’s findings actively.

Nothing was said, however, about the need for more research on the topic, even though the report noted that several causal factors were hard to explain and required more study.

Relatively few survey participants attributed the bullying or harassment they experienced to gender, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation or disability, which are the most common factors underlying discrimination in society at large.

This indicates that bullying and harassment in academia may have a variety of other causes that the survey did not identify, according to Heidi Holt Zachariassen of the KIF Committee.

“There could be other causes related in part to the working environment. The bullying and harassment could be related to academic activities, as in the case of disparaging comments in connection with publication or academic quality,” she said.

Asymmetrical power relations have previously been seen as a leading cause of sexual harassment in academia. The relatively high frequency of harassment reported by doctoral students can be seen as supporting this. But according to the survey, in most cases it is colleagues of equal rank, not managers, who are responsible for the bullying and harassment that doctoral students experience.

Disturbing findings

“Norwegian higher education institutions should be a safe and non-hostile place for all employees and students. The figures are disturbing and must be taken seriously by the institutions and the sector,” said Dag Rune Olsen, Chairman of the Board of Universities Norway and Rector of the University of Bergen.

Dag Rune Olsen, Chairman of the Board of Universities Norway and Rector of the University of Bergen. (Photo: Lars Skaar)

Minister of Research and Higher Education Iselin Nybø also spoke at the press conference. She described the findings as “serious”.

“These are serious figures. The actions and behaviour we learned about today are not just bad manners. They also violate Norwegian law,” Ms Nybø said.

“It has long been known that bullying and harassment occur in academia, as in the rest of the working life. But to date we have had no national numbers showing the scale. This fresh survey is therefore very important for the path ahead,” said Frank Reichert, who heads the working group on bullying and harassment at Universities Norway (UHRMOT).

Getting the survey done was a long and circuitous process, however. Since its launch in 2018, the UHRMOT working group has highlighted the need for a national survey on sexual harassment in the higher education sector.

Last autumn, however, the Board of Universities Norway voted down the working group’s plans to conduct such a survey. At the same time, Universities Norway encouraged each institution to carry out its own survey. As a result the University of Agder, the University of Oslo and the Oslo National Academy of the Arts soon initiated a survey in which all member institutions of Universities Norway were invited to participate.

A special project group led by Dag Nordbø oversaw the survey, which was carried out by the market research institute Ipsos Norway.

Harassment continues after #Metoo

Survey respondents were asked if they had been subjected to bullying or harassment, sexual harassment or sexual abuse in the past 12 months. The scale of sexual harassment indicated by the survey results applies therefore only to the preceding year. The survey did not enable respondents to report bullying, harassment or abuse that occurred before that period.

But the study does provide a valuable look at the post-#Metoo situation, as Minister of Research and Higher Education Iselin Nybø said during the press conference.

“The survey shows that bullying and harassment have continued despite the attention the issue has received since Metoo,” she said. “Too many women and men are experiencing what is not supposed to happen.” 

Nybø found it particularly disturbing to learn that doctoral students were three times more likely to encounter sexual harassment than others.

Minister of Research and Higher Education Iselin Nybø. (Photo: Marte Garmann)​

“They are extra vulnerable in part because they are so dependent on their supervisors and other superiors,” she said.

Young women are especially susceptible to sexual harassment elsewhere in working life as well, according to surveys on living conditions.

The present university and university college survey also shows that many employees still lack awareness of the notification procedures to be followed in bullying and harassment cases. Only 48 per cent of the sample group reported knowing where to find the notification system even though notification has been a focus area of the institutions since #Metoo.

Taking action

According to Dag Rune Olsen, Chairman of the Universities Norway Board, the survey’s response rate of 43 per cent exceeded what would be expected in other types of surveys. He considers it a call to action for institution leaders.

“It tells us this is a topic employees are concerned about. They are sending an important signal to managers in this sector,” he said.

Dr Olsen believes bullying and harassment are a problem all across the sector. Despite some differences in the scale of the problem between institutions, none of them stand out as significantly better or worse than others.

“The sector as a whole must tackle the problem, and that is something Universities Norway, too, seeks to do. But the main response will be up to the individual institutions,” Olsen said.

Dag Nordbø, head of the project group that oversaw the survey. (Photo: Universitetet i Agder)

Iselin Nybø also focused on the institutions and their responsibility to improve workplace culture by preventative means as well as to respond appropriately to reported cases.

While it is important that notification routines are widely understood, institutions must not wait for notification alerts before taking action, Dag Nordbø said. He stated in a previous article on the KIF website ​​that efforts to combat sexual harassment in academia must focus more on changing attitudes than obligatory responses after the fact.

“We can’t sit back and wait for notifications. Research shows a clear correlation between how managers handle conflicts and the number of people who experience bullying and harassment. Efforts to improve workplace culture and management are crucial,” Nordbø said.

Large knowledge gaps 

Ms Holt Zachariassen believes we need to know more about what leads to harassment as well as the relationships between abusers and victims.

“This survey tells us a lot, but it also identifies large gaps in our knowledge,” she said.

Last year, Swedish gender researchers determined that there is “extremely little Nordic research on sexual harassment”. Norway and Denmark have conducted even less research in the field than Sweden. According to Holt Zachariassen, research on the topic is under-prioritised:

“The KIF Committee and the UHRMOT working group sent a letter to the Ministry of Education and Research last spring pointing out the great need for research in this area, with a view to improving policy measures, problem solving and prevention. But it was rejected.”

In May, the UHRMOT working group issued a report proposing a number of measures to combat bullying and sexual harassment.

“Such measures must be followed up with periodic surveys. It is necessary to gauge the extent to which the institutions have succeeded with the proposed measures,” said Holt Zachariassen.

Translated by Walter Gibbs and Carol Eckmann.

The KIF Committee’s work combatting sexual harassment

The effort to combat sexual harassment is one of KIF Committee’s priority areas during the 2018­–2021 period. The issue of bullying and harassment extends across areas such as organizational development, gender equality, work environment and health, according to the committee.

Last spring KIF and the UHRMOT working group sent a letter to the Ministry of Education and Research pointing out the great need for research in this area, with a view to improving policy measures, problem solving and prevention. It was rejected.

Read more about harassment in the university and university college sector here.

Read the national report: Bullying and harassment in the UH sector