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In my opinion

Breaking the code of silence on sexual harassment within the faculty

Let’s work together to change the higher education workplace so that no one has to keep a secret they don’t want to keep.


Recent media attention has brought to light the levels of sexual harassment faced by undergraduate students, and it appears that such incidents are on the rise for graduate students, too. Most of the cases reported involve faculty members as the perpetrators, yet little attention has been given to harassment among faculty members themselves, and this is a phenomenon that also affects student learning.

Given the many power differentials and levels of privacy and confidentiality at play, available data surrounding faculty members facing harassment is minimal. There is a strong “secrets code” at play concerning this population. The influence of power dynamics among faculty is a major component of sexual harassment and a major barrier to letting go of the secrets.

For over 20 years, I have been a faculty member working in higher education at several Canadian institutions, holding various ranks and roles, including within administration, and I’ve always been subordinate to someone, usually a man. I have a hunch – based on recent media attention, my personal experiences and the related literature – that most situations of sexual harassment in higher education among faculty are not reported, and many people who have been the targets of sexual harassment hold secrets that are toxic.

The policy on sexualized violence (PDF) at my own institute of higher education, the University of Victoria, includes the following acts of sexual misconduct as forms of sexualized violence: sexual assault, sexual exploitation, sexual harassment, stalking, indecent exposure, voyeurism, and the distribution of sexually explicit images of someone without their permission. I focus on sexual harassment here, because it is a form of violence that can be subtle, secretive and prolonged. Targets of sexual harassment often find it difficult to name. Many people who disclose sexual harassment often comment that they weren’t really sure if it was sexual harassment.

A 2018 Angus Reid Institute poll revealed that half of women face sexual harassment in the workplace, and one in five men face sexual harassment. For faculty members, the university is a workplace. Faculty members aren’t immune to power abuses and coercive situations. And given the entrenched stratification and gendered hierarchies among faculty, levels of harassment and associated levels of secrecy may be even higher than in the general workplace population.

Workplace data often focuses on women being those harassed and men being the perpetrators. However, the perpetrators of sexual harassment in higher education or in any workplace can be those who identify along various points of a gender spectrum, and likewise for the targets of sexual harassment. Power over the other is the common factor at play.

With the intention of expanding awareness regarding sexual harassment among faculty members in higher education, and to encourage a culture of not keeping secrets about sexual harassment, I highlight several additional factors at play: the secrets code, power over, coercion, consent, and structural aspects of higher education that enable a secrets code.

The secrets code
This code operates to keep things (actions, situations, arrangements) secret. Regarding sexual harassment, the secrets code operates to keep those who are the target of the harassment silent, and those who harass understand that secrecy is a powerful enabler for continued harassment. The secrets code operates to maintain a status quo. Unlike a “bro code” or a code of ethics, the secrets code acts to isolate individuals rather than bring them together, and the isolation in turn strengthens the power of the secrets code.

A recent example of the secrets code in action surfaced when the news broke about a very prominent, successful, and powerful Canadian radio host being accused by several women of sexual assault. These women were involved in more than one incident with the perpetrator – in some cases, it seemed there was a relationship developing. By keeping the secret, the women were subjected to more of the same behaviour. And the women were seemingly strong, determined, articulate and intelligent. One of the more vocal women had served in the military and was herself an entertainer with some celebrity status. The thing is “when you keep harassment to yourself like a secret shame, then you don’t know who else is suffering as you are,” as Katie Rose Guest Pryal points out in “Sexual Harassment in Higher Ed,” Women in Higher Education, January 2018. Eventually, one woman came forward, the secret was out and more women spoke up.

Within a hierarchical and gender-stratified institution such as higher education, those
in subordinate roles – most often the targets of coercion and harassment – see themselves as the ones who need to keep the secret. Shame, embarrassment, guilt, along with many other factors, work to keep people who have been sexually harassed silent. They go along with things rather than report them.

Power over
When someone holds the direct or indirect ability to affect your career outcomes (salary, merit, tenure and promotion, reference letters, granting awards, etc.), that is “power over.” Typical examples of power-over arrangements among faculty in higher education: tenured faculty member/sessional instructor, department chair/department member, department chair/assistant to the chair, dean/faculty member, provost/dean, president/provost, etc.

Intersectionality is an important factor at play within power-over situations. Even two faculty members of the same rank can be influenced by power over. Conditions such as gender, “socio-economic status, age, race, ethnicity, ability, sexual orientation and employment status can leave some people more vulnerable to experiencing sexual violence” (Cecilia Benoit et al., 2015, PDF).

Charismatic power is a form of power over wherein someone uses charm and personality to persuade others. A charismatic faculty member or leader in higher education will often appeal to the emotions of those they want to influence and encourage them to overlook institutional procedures and approaches to situations.

This is an element often present in cases of workplace sexual harassment. Coercion involves convincing or pressing a person for desired results. Synonyms of coercion are to arm-twist, pressure, convince, pester, impose one’s will on another, often through the use or abuse of power. If you have been approached to become sexually involved with a colleague or boss, and you have said no to that colleague or boss more than once, coercive power is at play.

Whether sexual harassment occurs between a faculty member and a student, or between a tenured faculty member and an untenured faculty member, or between a dean and associate dean, or between two faculty members of the same rank, if there is a power differential included and continued pressing or “friendly” arm-twisting takes place, consent would be absent.

Consent is described in my university’s policy on sexualized violence, and I include two important qualifiers from that definition:

  • there is no consent where one person abuses a position of trust, power, or authority over another person;
  • there is no consent when there is coercion, force, threats, or intimidation towards any person, or where there is fraud or withholding of critical information that could affect a person’s decision to consent.

Consensual relationships can develop between those of different or similar ranks; however, those relationships are typically not secretive, and disclosure is an ethical response to avoid conflict of interest and ensure equity and fairness for all concerned.

Structural aspects of higher-ed that enable a secrets code

  1. Universities taking a reactive rather than proactive approach to sexual harassment among faculty – for example, focusing on individual instances rather than considering the systemic conditions and overall climate that enables sexual harassment. Individualizing the problem could look like making accommodations for those who have been targets of sexual harassment (medical leaves, counselling services, transferring faculty appointments to other departments) rather than setting tangible career consequences for perpetrators.
  2. Covertly assigning “trouble-maker” status to people who come forward with sexual harassment complaints.
  3. Sexualized violence policies that focus on students as the assumed constituents affected by sexualized violence. Shame, taboo and stigma are amplified when faculty members don’t see themselves explicitly included as possible targets in sexualized violence policies, or when education initiatives focus on students only.
  4. Faculty members have highly specialized knowledge and skills that don’t easily transfer to employment outside of higher education. Reporting or disclosing sexual harassment often means staying in the same job, working with the perpetrator until retirement. Thus, keeping the secret can seem to be the least disruptive option.

Award-winning author, actor, broadcaster and playwright Ann-Marie MacDonald, writing in the Globe and Mail, issued a challenge regarding changing the way silences around sexual harassment and coercion are maintained. She urges people who have been targeted with sexual harassment in the workplace to “tell everyone.” Ms. McDonald maintains that it’s the secrets that allow the toxicity of sexual harassment to remain.

Earlier research by Louise Kidder et al. (1995) revealed that having the language and words to name an incident as sexual harassment more immediately enables people to “‘talk back’ and take action.” The “named construction of harassment” is key to empowering people who face sexual harassment. This essay has the intention of making it easier to call sexual harassment by its name, and by doing so, to both reduce incidents and increase reporting of sexual harassment among faculty in higher education. Let’s all work together to change the workplace in higher education so that no one has to keep a secret they don’t want to keep.

Author’s note: Many thanks to Helga Hallgrímsdóttir, an associate professor in the school of public administration at the University of Victoria and president of the university’s faculty association, and Leah Shumka, sexualized violence prevention and education co-ordinator at UVic, for their time, expertise and guidance as I wrote this essay.

Wanda Hurren is a professor in the faculty of education at the University of Victoria.

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  1. Stuart Chambers / July 10, 2018 at 16:52

    Does anyone know of a study that shows sexual harrassment in the Canadian university workplace only? What are the stats for that environment alone?

  2. kelly / July 12, 2018 at 07:52

    The problems are, I suspect, even worse for adjunct/sessional faculty. When I was a sessional I was sexually harassed and told my superior, the department head. He laughed and said everyone wanted to sleep with him, then didn’t renew my contract.

    Since then, as a tenure-track and now tenured faculty member, I have also experienced it and not reported it because of that bad experience.

    We must protect everyone, but particularly those who are most vulnerable, who fear job loss as a repercussion of coming forward.

  3. Wanda / July 13, 2018 at 21:13

    Stuart, I wasn’t able to locate any stats on sexual harassment among the professoriate at Canadian universities. There are some stats available for US universities regarding sexual harassment among students, but I wasn’t able to locate any stats for faculty/administrators in US universities either.

    Gathering statistical data would help to stop the institutional silences around this issue. And would also highlight any gender disproportionality regarding perpetrators and targets of sexual harassment among faculty and administrators.

  4. Stuart Chambers / July 16, 2018 at 09:53

    Wanda, here is what I do not get. If, as you say in your comment, you were unable “to locate any stats on sexual harassment among the professoriate at Canadian universities,” in both Canada and the U.S., then how do you know if there is a”strong ‘secrets code’ at play concerning this population” (faculty members)? Would it not be more appropriate to locate the research first, and then draw your conclusions from the research rather than draw them them from a “hunch”? It could be that so few cases are reported among faculty because sexual harassment (or assault) is so rare among this population. I just do not see the point of speculating about data that, as you admit, does not exist.

  5. kelly / July 16, 2018 at 21:10

    Stuart you only have to talk to a few female faculty members to understand that it is not a rare occurrence in the academy. Quite the opposite. I don’t think I’ve ever met a woman who hasn’t been sexually harassed in academia, either by students or other faculty or both. The “secrets code” is evident in the fact that universities are not gathering and sharing this information.
    I know my own university sent out a survey a couple years ago and that data has never surfaced. Nobody wants to admit that academia is just like any other job–full of sexism and harassment.

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