Guest blog post by Laura Shand
Harvey Weinstein’s exposed behaviour has brought the dynamics of sexual harassment hurtling into the mainstream. Whilst his actions have mostly been condemned, there are still those who would seek to analyse the behaviour and actions of the victims: “Why did no one say anything when this is so obviously against the law?”
It has been down to feminist writers and academics to highlight that sexual harassment in the workplace is not down to a lack of policy – having been criminalised in the UK since 1997 and since 1980 in the US. The issue is that it has become culturally embedded within the fabric of these institutions – exacerbated by hierarchies and impenetrable power structures.
In almost every industry, men still dominate the upper echelons – and women become more visible the further you look down. As a result, this means we have a powerful stratum of men able to wield their authority against women located in junior positions. This is a patriarchal dynamic which often takes the form of harassment. It does not matter whether we are discussing the casting couch of Hollywood, or the professor’s office in a UK university: these are simply different spaces where this same narrative plays out.
This balance of power becomes even more skewed when we consider that both the novice actresses and the female Early Career Academics (ECAs) exist on a knife-edge. They are what Standing (2011) calls ‘the precariat’: individuals who live a life characterised by uncertainty. As much research demonstrates, they are usually employed on fixed-term or zero hour contracts, or exist in a continual state of underemployment; rarely able to work or earn as much as they’d prefer. The Hollywood cliché of the young actress waiting tables between auditions has now been transferred to academia as ECAs take on other employment outside their teaching or research roles, simply to survive.
Precarity is a state that is becoming increasingly prevalent in UK society, as outlined by the recent Taylor Report (2017), with sectors such as retail, agriculture, fashion and art industries also experiencing its effects. Work is being directly affected by neoliberal policies which have allowed the labour market to be ruled by unbridled, autonomous institutions that operate under a model of financial efficiency, as opposed to compassion for their employees.
Returning to harassment: the combination of cultural sexism, patriarchal power structures and the material conditions created by precarity have acted as a crucible intensifying the conditions under which this behaviour can thrive. Again, like the novice actress, the female ECA is desperate for a foot in the door. And both are more likely to have experienced a significant amount of rejections – making them incredibly grateful for any opportunity that presents itself.
This creates a culture where women in competitive fields such as academia become distinctly cautious of rocking the boat. Small instances of harassment, inappropriate touching, comments or messages etc are therefore often brushed aside in the interest of career preservation. Whilst these incidences are framed as ‘small’ – as insignificant even – feminist scholars such as Kelly (1987) have noted that these exist on a continuum of sexual violence, with rape as the ultimate consequence.
The pedagogical relationship is one that mirrors that of Hollywood: the individual at the bottom being relatively powerless, at the mercy of their superiors. The ECA and the actress both need references and opportunities to network, all of which come from those higher up. The starring role, or the elusive full-time academic position can be used therefore as a carrot that keeps individuals tied to relationships they know are toxic. When we combine eager women in a competitive environment – alongside very real risks of precarity – an indelibly dangerous situation presents itself, one where harassment can readily occur. Perpetrators of this abuse are aware that the system works in their favour and operate with relative impunity. They know the risk that the victim takes in challenging this behaviour.
Along with the creation of a dangerous professional dynamic, the geographical lottery of precarity does nothing to alleviate the situation. The continual movement between institutions on fixed-term contracts means that these women – as with all early career academics – are also less likely to be unionised. This is an important factor in challenging harassment as unions provide great support in pursuing these claims (TUC, 2016). This has been further exacerbated by cuts to legal aid (Bowcott, 2017) which had provided essential safety nets in assisting the financially-challenged precariat through the court system. ECAs are also less likely to be part of unofficial, collegial academic communities which can provide emotional support in navigating hierarchies within the university. To cite another Hollywood cliché, the small-town girl stepping off the Greyhound bus in LA, the ECA woman can also find herself in a similar situation, located far away from traditional support networks and feeling extremely vulnerable.
Physical movement between institutions – coupled with precarity, underemployment etc – can conspire to make the ECA comparatively invisible when compared to the massive institutional visibility of more senior academics who are usually older, usually men and likely to be adept at bringing in much-valued (and needed) research funding to their institution. When someone is close to invisible, it becomes far easier to make them disappear.
In bringing the Weinstein scandal to light, it has taken critical mass, several actresses’ accounts and other high-profile individuals to bring it into the light. Can we therefore apply the same techniques in challenging this behaviour in our universities?
Whilst describing how the ECA woman deals with not only the institutional burden of cultural sexism, but also the material conditions of precarity (and this doesn’t consider other intersectional factors such as race, which present even further challenges), I do not mean to describe the ECA woman as lacking an agency or feminist drive. It is that they are up against a towering wall of structural violence and protectionism. Despite being more focused on the student/supervisor relationship, the 1752 Group – and actions such as Sara Ahmed’s resignation – have been key in shining a light on a poisonous culture that exists within UK universities today. If we are to learn anything from how the Weinstein allegations have unfolded, it is that it takes both action from the bottom and the top to challenge this behaviour – and that ECAs need to know they have the support of their institutions in doing so.
Laura Shand is a PHD researcher at The University of Hull looking at gender and precarity in UK, Early Career Academics