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Addressing Sexual Misconduct & Power Abuse in Academia

Updated: Oct 29, 2023

In October 2022, there was a #Metoo outcry within the field of economics following publicly revealed allegations of sexual harassment involving several professors at different universities. In light of the death of Nora Szech, who spoke up during the #EconMeToo movement, this text aims to reflect on what has kept some women economics Ph.D. students busy since last October. Personally, I do not view reports of power abuse and sexual misconduct as isolated incidents.1 I hence see the need for new institutional structures at German universities and academia more broadly to protect women and marginalized groups in the profession.


The structures to prevent abuse of power are often weak. Many cases are not reported due to fear of personal consequences resulting from inadequate institutional safeguards and various dependencies of the people involved. If an incident is reported, internal university structures are often not transparent for both the affected individuals and those institutionally responsible, relying on the commitment of individuals/allies supporting a victim in their search for help. Often, the costs of reporting for victims exceed those of being reported for perpetrators (see, e.g., Adams-Prassl, Abi, et al., “Violence against women at work,” 2022, Accepted Quarterly Journal of Economics).


When Jennifer Doleac, a former Associate Professor at Texas A&M University, collected stories on Twitter, connecting victims of sexual harassment with journalists last year, over two dozen economics professors’ names were reported to her in just one week after she posted the call. A few months after her public efforts, she left her position at Texas A&M University, reasoning that “(…) your department/university may not be able to fire you, but your colleagues can make you want to quit. You will always need their approval, on some levelhttps://twitter.com/jenniferdoleac/status/1636725184378859520).


I want to present my perspective as a young economics Ph.D. student who has been a Ph.D. student representative for the last year. Over the course of last year, I, together with my colleagues, put in a lot of (group) effort trying to bring this topic to the top of the agenda of our internal institutions. We also contributed to the broader debate through the co-organization of a panel on the subject that took place in Berlin in April. During this time we spoke to politicians in charge of higher education policy, researchers from other universities, and other fields, as this is not just an issue we face in economics.2


Throughout this year, we were shocked with each new story that junior and senior women shared with us. These ranged from subtle inappropriate workplace behavior to reviewing a case in which a professor was “internally sanctioned” because of sexual harassment of a Master’s student and us learning that this man is the dean of an economics faculty today. We heard from senior women scientists that speaking up before having tenure is not advisable. And we heard of women leaving academia or changing their field as a result – even those who, like Jennifer Doleac, raised their voice in representation of other women.


#EconMeToo may not be as prominent for all researchers, but there is a new generation of (women) economists on the horizon. I want to emphasize that #EconMeToo was not just a short online phenomenon but it sparked a lot of researchers from marginalized groups to come together. They speak up in safe spaces they created among themselves and also discuss the issues publicly and together with allies (see for example panel discussion of the AEA, or the above mentioned panel in Berlin) and to support each other, no matter the nature of their individual struggles.3 I hold our universities and the whole economics research community accountable to join this collective feeling of supporting each other in striving to improve the working conditions in economics for everyone.


When discussing what has to change, me and my colleagues had many conversations with senior and mostly male researchers. These revealed a lack of knowledge about the manyfold experiences of women and marginalized groups. But in many cases they led to a commitment to change by the respective person in position of power.4 Those reflections led to some main areas of action that should be on everyone’s mind whenever aiming to create a secure working environment for young students.


Professors are not just researchers but also managers, employers, assessors of performance, and mentors for students, doctoral candidates, and junior scholars. Being subordinate to them puts one in a complex web of dependencies. This is not new, and ombudspersons.5 gender equality representatives, and internal disciplinary procedures have existed at most universities for several years. Yet, the existing structures in many places seem to fall short of their intended purpose. Often, victims do not feel addressed from the outset when the role of the ombudsperson is described as limited to handling conflicts purely of a scientific nature. Personally, I believe inappropriate workplace behavior in academia is always directly linked to affected persons’ scientific careers and output.


Seemingly independent contact points are also frequently entangled in indirect dependency relationships with the perpetrators. What happens when the “women’s representative” of a faculty is a Bachelor’s student; the offender is the dean of the faculty who also has a say in the mediator/ombudsperson’s career, or is the professor who has brought in substantial funding for the whole faculty? Another crucial aspect is that despite the #EconMetoo debate and existing structures, victims often have to search for help and, on their search independently, are confronted with the downplaying of their experience or the presumed inability of people in power to take appropriate steps to help. The psychological and monetary costs for victims are thus exacerbated, while perpetrators often remain in leadership positions with no consequences apart from internal reprimands. Independent and trained mediators, legal departments, financial support, and psychological services for victims would minimize these costs.


Some universities and research institutes have internally announced the “renovation” of their structures and support systems – which sometimes included just the creation of the role of an ombudsperson for the first time. Is this enough? Points of contact should be designed to be approachable and accessible within universities and on federal and state levels. Funding should also be allocated to train and develop professors and academic staff as competent educators and leaders. This includes training on implementing equality laws and fostering a general atmosphere of “being heard” and active engagement of all institutional staff. Finally, in light of the multilayered institutional frameworks researchers are affiliated with, we need clear guidelines on what is considered “enough” in terms of an independent investigation and who should be responsible for it.


Following the above reflections, I suggest points of action in three areas regarding the issue of sexual misconduct as well as abuse of power in a broader sense. The following points are not a complete list, but rather an attempt at starting the conversation for the (economics) research community. Naturally, any institution or company should consider seeking external professional consultation to develop effective strategies considering the specific characteristics of its work environment and institutional setting (for the US, see, for example, https://www.beyond-compliance-consulting.com/). Please note that these have been written in consultation with a group of women. Some of them went through the whole internal process in a German university. It is therefore written with the German system in mind, where university professors are civil servants and politics therefore play an important role in shaping their positioning within the institutions:


1. Assistance for victims after an incident:

  • Immediate financial support for victims through emergency funds if necessary (e.g., if a victim has to leave their work position or has to prolong their studies in a different specialization as a consequence of the experience)

  • Providing career guidance to aid victims in transitioning

    • Career counseling (i.e. identifying which chairs are now suitable for bachelor, master, or doctoral supervision in related research areas), including assistance for future career paths

    • Bachelor/Master students: alternative supervision for seminars and final projects, switching to other courses even during the semester and within structural programs

    • Doctoral candidates: rapid and uncomplicated funding and (transitional) supervision

  • Ensuring access to psychological counseling beyond university services

  • Facilitating resolution within the university through independent mediation services

  • Formal/legal pursuit of the case (victims should not have to do this themselves; it should be taken up on their behalf)

2. Prevention and institutionalization through clear communication and education:

  • Ensure accountability through a code of conduct (that is regularly signed), and thereby, have clearly communicated behavioral rules (in job interviews, hiring processes, and admission to a faculty)

  • Reduce dependencies to single persons

  • Establishing connections between equal opportunity officers/ombudspersons within universities and the broader academic community

    • Equal opportunity officer / ombudspersons

      • Should have a minimum level of qualification (e.g. 2 internal + 1 external, neutral and trained person, mandatory training/education as mediators, etc.)

      • Should be equipped with direct connection to the university and faculty dean’s office, and to agents from higher education policy

      • Should be remunerated for their work

      • Should have sufficient authority to issue warnings

  • Institutionalized learning for university employees (e.g., mandatory workshops for professors and all individuals involved in teaching) and students

    • For instance, under the title “What constitutes a ‘toxic’ work environment?”, “How to be an active bystander/ally”, “How should bystanders or victims respond in problematic situations!?”

    • Information sessions for students, e.g., in the first week of the semester during the university’s welcome events/the orientation phase. These might include presentations on “How to recognize inappropriate workplace behavior?”

  • Demonstrating credibility as an ally. For example through a badge/indicator on university and personal websites, that one is approachable as an active bystander or through simply stating it at the beginning of the semester in each course where you face students that don’t know you yet.

  • Ensuring people at all positions and especially professors know where to turn to within the university and the academic community, when being approached about a case of power abuse and/ or sexual misconduct

3. Sanctions

  • Establishing clear and transparent sanction possibilities for violations of national laws, and for violations of the code of conduct

  • Clear agency, i.e. guidelines on who is responsible for the establishment of an independent investigation, e.g. when a case might not be an offense by national law but against the code of conduct of a national or an international association, the institution one or more involved individuals are affiliated with, or where the incident took place in the past

  • Enlisting unbiased third parties and legal expertise to make decisions. (Naturally, these legal external investigators should have experience in sexual misconduct cases and should form a credible and safe address also for the victim to feel comfortable talking to.)

  • Costs (Legal and substantive expertise from external sources should also be sought to structure these costs in a preventive manner.)

    • “Hard costs” – cutting funds, etc. for employees, up to termination; for civil servants, disciplinary procedures

    • “Reputation costs,” such as exclusion from associations if there have been known consequential proceedings, i.e. a professor went through an internal investigation and has been found guilty of the accusations.



In conclusion, the paramount concern should be the protection and respect for all individuals, a principle currently not sufficiently being upheld. Amidst these circumstances, beyond the extensive and costly list of measures mentioned here, everyone should begin reflecting on the small changes they can make in their interactions and behavior, starting tomorrow.


 

For more input see for example:







 

References:

  1. (e.g., aptly described in this German article: https://www.faz.net/aktuell/karriere-hochschule/machtmissbrauch-an-unis-wenn-professoren-alle-gewalt-in-ihrer-hand-haben-18739491.html) ↩︎

  2. (see e.g. https://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/scandal-at-germany-s-leading-jewish-college-a-toxic-environme; nt-and-allegations-of-sexual-misconduct-a-e91a1801-cc7a-4352-bafc-914ade21e24c; https://www.spiegel.de/panorama/bildung/uni-koeln-belaestigungsvorwuerfe-professor-in-unterhosen-a-2bdb1cd7-f9b1-4e97-994f-40f076ee3974; https://www1.wdr.de/nachrichten/rheinland/uni-koeln-belaestigung-professor-demo-102.htmlhttps://www.tagesspiegel.de/wissen/vorwurfe-gegen-dozenten-an-der-hu-berlin-er-fragte-ob-ich-mich-fur-ihn-ausziehen-wurde-10221028.html; https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-12410263/law-professor-sexual-misconduct-abusing-power.html; https://taz.de/Uebergriffe-von-Professor-in-Erfurt/!5921746/; https://portal.metoo.science/ ↩︎

  3. Some issues not touched upon directly in this piece are summarized for instance in a study on the systemic issues facing PhD students from marginalized communities: https://researchforevidence.fhi360.org/new-evidence-issues-facing-phd-students; or in this study on the the state of mental health in European economics departments: https://elisamacchi.github.io/files/emhs_executivesummary.pdf; or by this German initiative providing assistance for researchers that experience hate speech online: https://scicomm-support.de/ ↩︎

  4. Check out this article if you need further input on how to become an active ally as a white men https://hbr.org/2019/10/how-to-show-white-men-that-diversity-and-inclusion-efforts-need-them ↩︎

  5. Note that an ombudsperson usually is a confidential advisor who plays a crucial role in ensuring scientific integrity and good practice by offering scientists a discreet resource for guidance and conflict resolution related to matters of scientific conduct. See e.g. HU: https://www.wiwi.hu-berlin.de/en/academic-career/doctoral-studies/duringthe-doctoral-studies/conflict-consultation-ombudspersons (however here the role is reduced to conflicts with supervisors, I believe an Ombudsperson should have more responsibilities than this, see e.g. https://www.aeaweb.org/about-aea/aea-ombudsperson). In any case the responsibilities have to be well defined and made transparent to every member of the institution. ↩︎


 

The views expressed in External Contributions are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the organisation, its partners, other members, or any other affiliated people and organisations. As ever-learning, critical-thinking people, these opinions are subject to revision and adjustment at any time. WiE welcome constructive feedback in the comments section below and reserve the right to delete any comment deemed inappropriate, rude, irrelevant, or abusive. All posts are for informative purposes only and, while they are accurate and authentic to the best of our knowledge, WiE accepts no liability for any errors or missing information.



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