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Sexual Harassment in 3rd Level Institutions

  • 5 September 2020

The real cost of sexual harassment

“She was frightened of being alone on campus and unnerved almost to the point of abandoning her successful academic career. This was the reality of workplace harassment for one of Ireland’s best-known academic figures.” It’s very easy to become desensitised to surveys reporting high incidences of sexual assault and harassment in third level, or to think that mandatory consent classes are just window-dressing to appease “woke” campaigners. The opening to Una Mullally’s article on Aoibhinn ní Shúilleabháin’s experience of years of harassment at work brings home the stark reality – through no fault of your own, you may be so unnerved and stressed by what happens to you in what should be a safe place that you are forced to consider giving up your career. How many other women have changed jobs or dropped out of the workforce to avoid harassment or unwelcome attention? I doubt that there was a woman in Ireland who didn’t recognise some aspect of Aoibhinn’s experience from her own life.

You may have heard the metaphor of the “leaky pipeline” to describe the way women drop out of the workforce over time. Every year men and women join the workforce in roughly equal numbers but as time goes by, women are more likely to leave it than men. Like most complex problems, there are multiple causes, but sexual harassment at work is one of them. At least in industry there may be more places to go if you need to change jobs, but there are fewer options in academia.

If you have experienced harassment at work or in a third level institution, and you’re not sure what to do, make a record of what happened then report it. A record of times and dates will help substantiate your complaint. If you are uncomfortable talking about a personal experience to a friend or manager, there are other options like anonymous “report and support” websites or Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. As Aoibhinn found, lodging a formal complaint against her harasser wasn’t the arduous process she had been led to believe.

Minister Simon Harris has tasked 3rd level institutions with implementing a “zero tolerance policy” in relation to sexual violence and harassment. He has committed to annual national surveys and research to investigate the prevalence of the problem. Once we know how bad the problem is, we can work out how to fix it. We may not be able to eradicate gender harassment completely, but we have to be able to do better.

In response to today’s Irish Times report, “My Two Years of Harassment at UCD”, 5th September 2020, Women in Technology and Science (WITS) would like to express its support for former executive committee member, Dr Aoibhinn ní Shúilleabháin, Assistant Professor in the School of Mathematics and Statistics in UCD. Please see the WITS Statement on Sexual Harrassment.