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Rector on new sexism report: »This is just not good enough«

Working environment — The extent of sexist incidents for PhD students is shocking, says the rector. He says new initiatives based on the VIVE report will be on the way.

»This is absolutely shocking. Terrible. A big negative surprise. It really surprises me that things are so bad.«

This is what Rector Henrik C. Wegener of the University of Copenhagen says about the numbers in a new report from VIVE and the Ministry of Higher Education and Science. The report examined sexism and career paths at Danish universities in a survey that includes responses from more than 5,000 previous PhD students.

More than one in three female PhD students had experienced at least one verbal act that objectifies, excludes, or degrades them on the basis of their gender.

When I see this, I just have to say: Wow! I guess there’s something we’re not doing right

Henrik C. Wegener, Rector at the University of Copenhagen

The report also shows that almost one third of female PhD students have experienced at least one malicious sexual comment. One quarter of them have experienced unwanted physical contact, including sexual coercion.

»We’ve already started a lot of initiatives on offensive behaviour, including sexually explicit offensive behaviour. But when I see this, I just have to say: Wow! I guess there’s something we’re not doing right,« says Henrik C. Wegener.

According to him, his sense of shock is due to the fact that in recent years, especially after the second MeToo wave in 2020, the university conducted its own studies that focussed in on offensive behaviour.

»In both workplace assessments and study environment surveys, we tried to ask about offensive behaviour. And even though we are aware that there may be unreported incidents, none of the studies have shown that there were such significant problems. We have to ask ourselves whether we have been measuring things in the wrong way,« says Henrik C. Wegener and continues:

READ ALSO: One in three female PhD students face sexism

»We already have a whole series of initiatives. They have partly been about making it clear that we do not accept and tolerate sexism and offensive behaviour. Partly about channels and places where you can turn to if you have experienced something offensive.«

Asymmetric relationship

According to the conclusions of the VIVE report, the working environment at universities contain a number of risk factors that enable sexism to flourish: Hierarchical structures, short-term appointments, small working groups, and a competitive work environment.

Are there any of these risk factors that could be adjusted to improve the environment?

It is management’s responsibility to create the safest place possible. And if this is not the case, we must do something about it

Henrik C. Wegener, Rector at the University of Copenhagen

»There is no doubt that the mentor-mentee relationship in a PhD process is necessary. And when it works, it can really be a gift. But this is of course an asymmetrical power relationship. And it is therefore also on the agenda whether we need to educate our PhD supervisors even more on how to become aware of inappropriate dynamics,« says Henrik C. Wegener.

It goes without saying that no supervisor should behave in a manner that is offensive to their PhD students. But there are grey areas in behaviour and relationships that can arise, and supervisors can get even better at navigating them, says the rector.

»There may be situations where the supervisor says or does something that they think is harmless, but which is perceived differently. We have to work on that, and at the same time we have to make it clear to the PhD student what they can expect and what they can demand,« says Henrik C. Wegener.

Are women being harassed out of the institution?

Apart from looking into the numbers of sexist and transgressive experiences among PhD students, the report also links the numbers to women’s career pathways in academia.

Women outnumber women at the master’s and PhD levels. But the numbers go down the higher you move up the academic hierarchy.

The VIVE report concludes that the prevalence of sexist incidents is higher in working environments where there is an overrepresentation of men. And that women in environments with a high prevalence of sexism are less likely to continue in a research position.

»There can be many reasons why women disappear from academia. It can be parenthood, and an unreasonable division of labour in the home. There are many hypotheses. But sexism and abusive behaviour should not and must not be a factor. Then we have failed,« says Henrik C. Wegener.

If we assume that women in some cases are simply bullied or harassed out of academia, how would you as management respond?

»Throughout the institution, at all levels and in all relationships. Now we’re talking specifically about PhDs. For a variety of reasons this is a more vulnerable group, but this probably occurs at all levels of the university. It is the management’s responsibility to create the safest place possible. And if this is not the case, we must do something about it.«

What will you as management do specifically?

»We are in the process of setting up a new action plan for diversity and inclusion at UCPH. This will be finished at the end of the year. This report will go directly to a steering committee, that will come up with specific proposals on how we can address it,« says the rector and continues:

»The report has shown that there is one particular group that we need to focus on, namely the PhD students. They are our future. So it is absolutely crucial that they feel completely safe when they go to work. This is just not good enough.«