Employment news, Research perspectives

Union says sexual violence “endemic” at UK universities and colleges

A report by the University and College Union (UCU) has said that sexual violence is “endemic” in university and college workplaces. In a survey of 4000 staff, one in ten university and college staff reported directly experience of workplace sexual violence in the past five years, whilst around a quarter of staff say they know of a colleague  who has experienced sexual violence.

The report found that over the past five years:

  • 12% of women and 5% of men had directly experienced workplace sexual violence
  • 52% of those who directly experienced sexual violence did not disclose or report it to their employer
  • 70% of those who directly experienced sexual violence experienced it as an ongoing pattern of behaviour rather than a one-off incident

UCU says the report also shows that early career staff, those on probation, those with disabilities, those who are trans & non binary, those in racialised minorities, those with a sexual orientation other than heterosexual, and those on insecure, casualised contracts are all at significantly greater risk of sexual violence and more vulnerable to abuses of power.

Responses to the survey revealed how complainants  were often discredited, victimised, targeted through spreading rumours, blamed, and not believed. In other responses institutions were accused of ‘running out the clock’, during which action to address the complaint would be delayed, leaving the complainant feeling impelled to seek work elsewhere. Many also reported the impact of power differentials between them and the perpetrator, leading to a fear of inaction or retribution.

The report also reveals that those experiencing sexual violence were pressured throughout institutions to resolve complaints informally, avoiding the potential for reputational damage. The low rates of formal complaints identified in the survey are a consequence of “hostile organisational culture, unsupportive reactions to disclosure and efforts to reduce future harm to themselves in pursuing formal redress”.

UCU representatives who responded to the survey also pointed to problems with the formal investigations process when it was used, which included the length of time it took to carry out and conclude investigations, the lack of training for university and college staff dealing with complaints; the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDA’s), lack of transparency in the reporting process:, and the lack of a survivor-centred approach.

UCU says that senior management in universities and colleges aren’t taking the issue of sexual violence at work seriously and called on them to work together with the union to properly tackle the issue of sexual violence in the sector.

The report makes a number of recommendations for employers to implement including:

  • Treating the prevention and resolution of sexual violence as a health and safety matter
  • Abandoning the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) with perpetrators, disclosing outcomes of complaints to survivors, and including information about disciplinary proceedings in references provided for perpetrators
  • Recognising that casualisation exacerbates sexual violence
  • Developing policies to allow proceedings against alleged perpetrators to continue after they have left the institution
  • Providing counselling for employees who complain about sexual violence and those who act as representatives in sexual violence cases in the workplace
  • Revise the approach to information-sharing by acknowledging that GDPR does not provide a basis for failing to share outcomes of complaints with complainants

The report also describes how UCU’s own practices have fallen short and need to be improved by providing better and more consistent support when a complaint is made. Whilst some of those surveyed valued the support of their UCU rep, others reported that despite the best efforts of UCU reps, they were not properly trained or lacked the capacity to provide appropriate support. The union says it has now created a new role for a designated case worker with a specific remit to represent members who have experienced sexual violence. This will be followed by a nationwide campaign in 2022 to raise awareness of the issue and highlight the support available from UCU as well as ensuring sector employers take action following the report’s findings and recommendations.