You don’t get me, I’m part of the union

The University and College Union has recommendations on sexual violence in higher education. Sunday Blake addresses the power dynamics

When someone is treated badly, if we frame universities as powerful institutional goliaths and individual staff and students as powerless Davids, the important role of unions is to redress the balance and act as a source of power.

As such, whether we’re talking about the treatment of individuals by organisations in general or gender-based violence in particular, what if the alternative source of power is in and of itself a problem?

What if the union is a barrier to giving confidence to victims to report abuse? What if the union ends up stepping in to support the David perpetrators against their Goliath employers? And what if the union is part of the reason that abuses of power are sustained within policy frameworks in the culture of the institution?

These are tough questions – that arguably the trade union movement generally and the University and College Union (UCU) specifically have been dodging for years – so it’s to her considerable credit that general secretary Jo Grady has made tackling these issues an early priority.

And we shouldn’t underestimate quite how important a moment it is that Grady is launching a report that calls on the union she leads on make a statement to “own its complicity” in past sexual violence cases, and to recognise that “blocking practices and abuses of power” are widespread in UCU.

Task and start group

When Grady ran for general secretary in 2019, a key plank of her manifesto was the creation of a dedicated task group to address sexual violence. Convened in September 2020, Eradicating sexual violence in tertiary education is its major report – the centrepiece of which is findings from a members’ survey that reinforces previous research about sexual violence in the sector, and reminds us of the disproportionate proportion of sexual violence faced by groups marginalised by employment status or protected characteristics.

Its findings are then fleshed out with a lit review and stakeholder interviews including of UCU staff, representatives and caseworkers involved in sexual violence and misconduct cases – as well as supplementary surveys of branches and professionals working in the field.

As ever with these surveys, we have to be careful about drawing prevalence conclusions from a self-selecting survey of trade union members. Nevertheless there’s a strong sample size here (3851) and some pretty stark findings.

The headline is that 12 percent of women and 5 percent of men that responded had directly experienced workplace sexual violence over the past five years. Sexual violence is defined more broadly than in some reports here – 45 percent of those that experienced sexual violence had unwelcome sexual advances, propositions or demands, just over half reported unwanted derogatory comments about their appearance of clothing or leering and suggestive gestures or remarks, and over half of them experienced unwanted physical contact such as the invasion of personal space or unnecessary touching.

14 percent of those that experienced workplace sexual violence reported being sexually assaulted, almost 1 in 10 of them reported they were raped, and 13 percent had been subjected to the sharing or displaying of sexualised material against their wishes.

For those familiar with these types of surveys (either in relation to higher education, workplaces or society in general), characteristics and responses findings are grimly familiar too. Staff on non-permanent contracts were 1.3 times as likely to experience direct sexual violence than those in permanent roles, staff with a sexual orientation other than heterosexual were almost twice as likely to directly experience sexual violence than their heterosexual peers, and both trans and non-binary and disabled staff were more likely to experience direct sexual violence.

Meanwhile 52 percent of those who directly experienced sexual violence did not disclose or report it to their employer, and 70 percent of those who directly experienced sexual violence experienced it as an ongoing pattern of behaviour rather than a one-off incident.

Taking action

As well as four “key findings” (sexual violence is commonplace, a sustained pattern of a wide range of sexual harms, an abuse of power and something that has long-term human and material impacts), there’s then twenty recommendations across five categories, some of which the report recognises would need further discussion within UCU.

Employers are asked to consider adopting the terminology of “gender-based violence” and to consider it as a form of gender discrimination, and also to champion institutional investment in survivor-led and co-produced research. They’re also asked to provide counselling for employees who complain about sexual violence (and those who act as representatives in sexual violence cases in the workplace). These ought to be uncontroversial insofar as they pretty much align with the Office for Students’ statement of expectations on student harassment and sexual misconduct.

Similarly when it comes to UCU itself, it calls for representatives and caseworkers to receive training delivered by experts, to train more reps who can act as specialists in the area, and for members to be provided with clear information about where they can go to seek support (including outside of their own branch).

As a link to its “four fights” campaign, UCU also calls on employers to recognise that casualisation exacerbates workplace harms and oppressions including gender-related violence and to work with UCU to increase employment security. And as a link to its work on PGRs reiterates its call a change in status (and rights) to that of employee.

But not all of the recommendations are quite so straightforward – and in some cases, it looks like recommendations are missing where there should be some.

Degrees of abuse

Abuse of power is both a key finding and an obvious thread throughout the report – power dynamics and working conditions, including increased precarity and competition, are found to be exacerbating the problem – with one survivor in the qual observing that:

People choose not to call out behaviour because of the power dynamics, precarity and competitiveness of academia.

Of course that abuse isn’t just about relationships between or incidents involving powerful staff and precarious or junior staff. In a couple of places the report also highlights where that power differential might manifest in staff-student relationships, and not just in relation to the PGR status issue. At one stage it notes that some UCU members pushed back against mechanisms to regulate staff conduct in this area:

The UCU branch were against changes to staff policy on staff-student relationships. This [stance] supported UCU members who had been found to have been bullying students into a relationship. In cases like this, UCU needs a harder line on staff-student relationships as that often includes sexual violence and it is always a power differential.

Yet despite suggestions raised with the taskforce including guidelines on student-on-staff harassment and the prohibition of staff-student relationships, the recommendations are silent on the issue. This is a problem – partly because many universities’ tentative steps in this area around disclosure to someone senior, and only prohibiting where there is a direct supervisory relationship, fly in the face of the “culture of closing ranks” issue that the report otherwise illustrates well.

For whatever reason – and notwithstanding sensible exemptions for existing relationships – it looks like UCU is not quite ready to abandon the seemingly inalienable right of staff to “come on” to and subsequently have sex with students.

Roving Mike

Another issue that underpins many of the stories surrounding this agenda is that of the perpetrator with multiple victims – both where we’re talking about a single institution, and where someone is “moved on” or “paid off” but then reappears somewhere else in the sector.

UCU has some recommendations here, and is aligned with other campaigning voices in this space when it calls on employers to reject the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), and to acknowledge that GDPR does not automatically provide a basis for failing to share outcomes of complaints with survivors. There’s also interesting stuff on the threat of defamation proceedings faced by survivors who report sexual violence or have informal conversations about it, where UCU is asked to issue guidance on how staff in this situation might protect themselves.

Perhaps less realistically, it calls on employers to develop policies that allow investigations into alleged perpetrators to continue after they leave the institution, and to deal with the “roving” perp issue it suggests the adoption of a “consistent referencing protocol” for including information about outcomes of sexual violence complaints in references which they provide for perpetrators.

There’s nothing wrong with these recommendations per se – but the question is what the levers are would cause an employer to be tipped towards protecting staff in this way rather than protecting its corporate self. And as we’ve debated on the site before, stitching together intel in this way may not be the smartest way to regulate conduct where the environment is so conducive to abuses of power.

Healthy and safe?

When you’re looking at gender-based violence in an employment context, multiple legal frames are available. There has been a tendency in the student context to consider equality law – and while UCU doesn’t reject that, it’s the protections and specific role for trade unions in negotiations over workplace health and safety that features as the prominent frame here:

Employers should treat the prevention and resolution of sexual violence as a health and safety matter, to be integrated into their health and safety policies and consultations or negotiations with campus unions.

As all of those employee induction videos or online module videos make clear, health and safety is everyone’s responsibility – so including the prevention of sexual violence into workplace health and safety training would doubtless reinforce Grady’s stance that everyone in higher education “[has] a role to play.” It may also give weight to staff grievances against an insitution where policy has not been followed correctly to prevent sexual violence from occuring.

This is a step removed from dealing with specific perpetrators and victims, although there’s always the danger that a “tick box” compliance approach aimed at demonstrating “no liability” wins out over genuine attempts to shift the specific characteristics of a culture.

It also reminds us of the issue of jurisdiction. Given the dispersed nature of many employees’ working conditions through fieldwork, conferences, secondments, and placements – particularly where an incident occurs between employees from different institutions – which policy would be consulted, and which institution would be at “fault”? The danger is that we fall back on the current, unofficial whisper networks that UCU acknowledges staff – particularly PhD students and early career academics – use to keep themselves safe.

The sight of my card makes me some kind of superman

There’s various other recommendations of note – including what looks like could be a rewarding investigation of connections between gender-based violence, structural gender inequalities in the paid and unpaid spheres of work, and precarious employment situations – all using the data and research assembled by the task group as a starting point.

But the question that dominates the document in the background is really about the nature of academia itself – and its relationship to both managers and “management”.

In different sections, UCU veers between arguing that sexual violence within the sector is a scaled reflection of an at large social issue, and arguing that it is specficically caused by marketisation and the casualised employment structure utiliised by universities.

Of course, anti-casualisation and anti-marketisation are part of the union’s wider policies, and it makes some sense to argue both that precarious staff may be more likely to be subject to abuse, and that institutions in a market are more likely to worry about their reputation.

But if we decide that sexual violence in education can be curbed by eliminating marketisation and neoliberal approaches, then where does that leave our FE colleagues in sixth forms and colleges, or in other less marketised parts of the public sector? What do we do about friends, colleagues and comrades working in the private sector? And why then do the structures of the union itself also enable perpetrators to hide from justice within its ranks?

Above all, when the National Union of Students (NUS) got going on this agenda in 2009, its leaders had to face down activism in its own ranks that had spent years campaigning against “authoritarian” disciplinary approaches and procedures – and move its members towards a more subtle acceptance that that management power, wielded appropriately, was necessary to protect students in its own ranks. You very much get the impression that Grady is about to commence a version of that difficult journey for staff.

3 responses to “You don’t get me, I’m part of the union

  1. Why “gender-based violence”? As someone who is both non-binary and bi-sexual (I won’t complicate by using more specific labels here), I feel doubly unseen by this. As a potential victim, it seems to put my attacker’s perception of my gender above my own. As a potential perpetrator (which I hope and try never to be, but we all have the potential), it ignores that any motivating attraction I feel towards my victim is not gender specific.
    We live in a very binary world and I don’t want to ignore the fact that a high proportion of incidents will be misogynistic in nature. I don’t think we should completely ignore minorities though.

  2. “Gender-based violence” and “misogynist violence” are such poor descriptors. The problem is that men are overwhelmingly the ones committing physical violence & crimes, and men are overwhelmingly heterosexual. Women therefore end up being the main class of victims – and this should not be surprising, given that women are overwhelmingly the objects of attraction for these violent, dangerous men. To suggest that this is somehow misogyny or targeted violence is a step too far. The relationship is incidental – Marty hurt Eliza because she was his girlfriend and the person he wanted, not because Eliza is a woman.

    It’s like suggesting that crime in a majority-minority area is racist or xenophobic when the only reason it is that way is because the majority of the population comes from a minority background. If you’re not able to specifically prove misogyny etc., lay off the heavy words.

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