‘I was so traumatised’: accounts of sexual harassment in UK universities

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A professor gesturing in a classroom. Photograph: Tom Merton/Getty Images/Caiaimage

More than 100 women have contacted the Guardian with accounts of sexual harassment and gender violence by university staff, including verbal bullying, serial harassment, assault, sexual assault and rape. Their stories, which span a period of decades, describe how victims of sexual harassment by senior male academics have been failed by UK universities. Here are some of their stories.

‘Everyone in the field knows he is a serial sexual predator’ – anonymous, university professor

My institution banned a lecturer from meeting students outside his office or at night for groping graduate students. I know this because he also harassed me for a decade and I have had to choose whether to add my own complaint to that of one student. I have not, I’m just not that brave. You are accused of being a hysterical liar, the man gets “censured” and then they are free to take it out on you in myriad professional and personal ways … What amazes me is that a UK university hired this academic, because everyone in the field knows he is a serial sexual offender. Apparently that was less important than his list of publications.

‘I have put up with a lot of very nasty behaviour which has left me feeling extremely depressed’ – anonymous, former student

When I was a master’s student a few years ago, two lecturers flirted with me. Stares, sidelong looks, peeping out from behind columns, that kind of thing. One of them also made physical contact, on one occasion pushing his body past me so forcefully that he nearly knocked me off my feet. At the master’s graduation, instead of a chaste peck on the cheek, he dragged his cheek across mine. Throughout my final year he made me feel like a favourite and I did not want to risk losing his apparently high regard as I thought it would help in my career. For this reason, after the course I kept in contact via email.

I am middle-aged and married with children, so thought I could handle it but keeping this all quiet for a year made me feel guilty and complicit and lose sleep and much of my appetite. To cut a long story short, another master’s student more or less guessed and shouted about it. Since then it seems that this lecturer has been spreading rumours presenting himself as the victim. He has a huge amount of influence, so a lot of other lecturers in this city, who I was previously friendly with, now treat me with suspicion and disdain and have even been known to completely blank me. I don’t know exactly what has been said, but I have put up with a lot of very nasty behaviour which has left me feeling extremely depressed and demoralised. It has taken me three years to get over it.

‘My problem was that the harassment was always when others were not around or aware’ – anonymous, postdoctoral researcher

I was a postgraduate student and then a postdoctoral researcher and had an ongoing problem with my supervisor, who would grab my arm but touch the side of my breast surreptitiously. He also refused me my full contract for three years as a postdoc as he said no woman was going to get maternity pay out of him again. I challenged and resolved the contract issue by going through the funders, but the sexual harassment case was thrown out by the university and then they made me sign not to disclose that or to sue for stress to get a settlement. I couldn’t refuse as it was a very vulnerable time in my life.

This professor was a serial abuser and everyone was scared to speak up as they would be pushed out of their jobs. I was told by my union rep that they [the university] wouldn’t get rid of him as he pulled in research grants. The technical and administrative staff who were victims of his harassment as well were not willing to speak out in the climate of the department. The grievance was dismissed as he got several of his peers whom he had not harassed and two of his research team to say they had not been abused by him or witnessed me being abused.

My problem was that the harassment was always when others were not around or aware, and I knew he would lie and deny it whether challenged directly or reported.

‘Women warn each other about him, but younger students may fall prey’ – anonymous, postdoctoral researcher

There was a notorious young lecturer in our department while I was doing my MA and PhD. He openly talked about sexually transmitted deceases, sex, etc. In his lectures he always found a way to make it about sex.

He was an oddball, sexually aggressive and flirty, yet because he was married with a young family, no one really thought anything would happen. He did kiss a student, which everyone knows about at this institution, but it had no effect. He was off on (paid) research leave the next year, but I think that was scheduled. Now he’s moved on to another top institution and my colleagues tell me nothing’s changed. Women warn each other about him, but younger students may fall prey. I still feel odd about it. He didn’t try anything with me, and I didn’t report what I observed.

The university just shushed it down. I know for a fact that the head of department called a meeting between the lecturer and the girl he tried to touch. Then he [the lecturer] got research leave and is today in a good job. The girl dropped out.

‘I was young and naive and a soft target’ – Siobhain, former student

I was harassed by an obsessive and delusional lecturer at university. I felt like I should protect the clearly unhappy, vulnerable lecturer, because I was young and naive and a soft target. The insistent but slightly subtle way I raised the issue with the head of studies fell on deaf ears. I had to sacrifice the one-to-one teaching I was entitled to for that course as there was no way I could be alone with the man again. I suffered academically as a result, for that paper. I felt violated and threatened and didn’t tell anyone for years.

I wish I’d been more aware of procedures so I knew what to do when it happened to me, and didn’t feel guilty about landing the man in it.

‘My own teacher, when I was an undergraduate, waited until I was 18 and “legal” before making a pass at me’ – anonymous, lecturer

Sexual harassment and transactional sexual liaisons involving significant power differentials between staff (always male, in my experience) and students (both sexes, but more often female) seem to be especially prolific and damaging in performing arts disciplines. Here one-to-one training creates the ideal breeding ground for sexual exploitation of students.

Performing arts students are particularly vulnerable because teachers of music, drama, etc are revered as “gurus” whom their starry-eyed charges believe to be godlike and all-powerful. My own teacher, when I was an undergraduate, at least waited until I was 18 and “legal” before making a pass at me – he was notorious for his affairs with other performers, both colleagues and students – and thankfully took “no” for an answer.

I now teach in a university where such “opportunities” are much reduced. But I’m not sure anything has changed for the better. Not that universities have anything to be proud of on this front – all my colleagues were delighted when the serial bedder of female undergraduates in our department retired. He was universally reviled by his colleagues, and students were warned to avoid close proximity, but the attitude was that the “relationships”, however sordid and asymmetrical, were technically legal, so nothing could be done about them institutionally.

‘As I was on a visa, I knew I could not complain’ – Sue, lecturer

My line manager groped me daily for almost two years, and there was nothing I could do. He would come into my office, shut the door and put his hands on me. The worst was when he grabbed my crotch area one day. As I was on a visa, I knew I could not complain. Even if I did, it would have been my word against his and I would have been the one to be retaliated against. The whole experience was just so humiliating and there was no one to turn to.

The university will do absolutely nothing to help the victim. If anything, they will go out of their way to protect the perpetrator, especially if it’s a male. Our HR department has no backbone to take care of problems like this, they would rather stick their heads in the sand. We had a situation recently and the female ended up stepping down from her position due to the lack of HR support.

‘Senior academics routinely get away with appalling behaviour’ – Jane, lecturer

I work in an academic department where one of the senior members of staff behaves appallingly towards female students and staff. He called two female students “slappers” in public, expressed disbelief towards a disclosure of sexual assault (“girls these days, with their short skirts”) and routinely undermines his female colleagues with sexist and dismissive language in formal settings.

I have no confidence that heads of academic departments can be relied upon to act properly when complaints or reports are made to them; and I have plenty of experience of seeing senior academics routinely get away with appalling behaviour (not limited to sexual harassment) because they are effectively beyond the reach of institutions which need their research income or prestige.

‘I felt terribly awkward but powerless’ – Anna, former student

When I was at university, one lecturer would focus on me intently during our classes in first year. He would ask me to stay behind, and wanted to know all about me. As a naive, working class student, I was flattered. I was vulnerable, felt out of my depth and would do anything to please. It went further. He would start to touch and grope me in private. In front of other students, he would comment on the perfume I wore. Afterwards he would say: ‘Please, always wear that perfume to seminars. I want to breath you in.’ He would also make comments about my body.

I felt terribly awkward, but powerless. When it came to choosing second-year options, he persuaded me to choose his course, telling me he would provide all the books, and that I would be sure of doing well. I felt like I had nowhere to turn. He kept asking me to dinner, was keeping me behind, and would stroke my face, bottom, etc. Thankfully, I was contacted by the department soon after starting second year, and told that I had selected too many options, so without any confrontation I dropped his course. He ignored me afterwards.

‘This male lecturer was allowed to prey on vulnerable male students all the while knowing that he was protected by senior staff’ – Maeve, former student

I and many other students were made aware that a former professor repeatedly preyed on male students, often bringing groups out for drinks and then back to his house before picking off the women and attempting to force himself on the male victims.

This male lecturer was allowed to prey on vulnerable male students all the while knowing that he was completely protected by senior staff within the university. Yes, several of the students were made to sign [non- disclosure agreements] as a result of the man’s behaviour, but he kept his job while the students were left vulnerable and scared and disgusted. It was only when one refused to sign a NDA and declared he would go to the newspapers that anything was done.

‘I was so traumatised and ashamed, not only by the assault but by having to give the details of the assault to two men’ – anonymous, lecturer

I am a lecturer who has had her career ruined by a sexual assault carried out by a colleague who was also my former PhD supervisor. After I made a complaint to HR, I was then interviewed by two academic male members of staff. I was so traumatised and ashamed, not only by the assault but by having to give the details of the assault to two men (one of whom seemed to regard me as being a waste of space) that I did not take my complaint to the next formal level.

The professor who attacked me continued his employment as though nothing happened. He continues to supervise PhD students. I soon learned that it was more important to protect the reputation of my attacker than it was to protect me and fellow female members of staff and students. I discovered later that this man had attacked one of his PhD students before he assaulted me. As a result of the attack, I got quite depressed and retired early. I still worry that I might see him.

‘As far as I know he has never been exposed’ – Andrea, former student

As a graduate student I was sexually harassed by my thesis supervisor. When I showed that I was not interested, he wrote me very poor references for a college research fellowship for which I was well in the running. This completely changed the course of my career as an academic in my early days. I enlisted the support of male members of my college, but the damage had been done since I had lost the fellowship.

I had no recourse because if I had tried to complain the charges would have been denied and my failure to obtain the fellowship attributed to my own academic inadequacy. I sought to change supervisor officially but nobody would entertain this notion because sexual harassment was too embarrassing to be spoken of in public. Having had a successful career subsequently, it is clear that the quality of my work was not the problem. The man in question subsequently developed a record as a sexual predator, since he tried to sleep with most female members of the faculty. His own behaviour did in the end make him very unpopular, and he subsequently left his post to go to another country. As far as I know he has never been exposed.

‘He would tell me that harassment was a joke’ – anonymous, student

I was sexually harassed by a member of faculty multiple times. He would tell me that said harassment was a “joke” when I would reject his advances, and frame each instance as me blowing things out of proportion.

Even if reporting procedures were robust, there is the question of reports being followed up on. I do not believe that the leaders in many academic institutions have the political will to do what they need to do to protect their students – namely, risk losing a member of staff with a good publication record or reputation.

‘I knew it would probably only affect me and not him’ – anonymous, lecturer

The professor in charge of the post-graduate research programme in the university where I did my PhD pursued me for several years, including propositioning me both in his office and at social events. It had a detrimental effect on my personal, academic and professional life, including effectively preventing me from pursuing a post in the department.

I did not report him. I did seek counselling and I was offered advice on how to report the facts, but I did not. First, I felt guilty. Second, I knew it would probably only affect me and not him. In the event, the negative repercussions still took place. I would feel awful if other students were to be victims of his behaviour and I had done nothing to prevent it.

‘There’s nothing to stop harassment occurring outside university structures’ – V, lecturer

Harassment is something my colleagues and I talk about quite a lot, at least in terms of what we believe to be appropriate/inappropriate behaviour, so I suppose we have a support network of sorts at least. The issue from my personal experience is that even if internal institutional procedures are strong and well administered, there’s nothing to stop harassment occurring outside university structures, especially since so much contact for academics happens at conferences and beyond the parameters of institutional affiliations generally. This leaves the victims with a genuine sense of helplessness: not only are they being harassed, but there aren’t any obvious institutional channels to raise the issue.

I can’t imagine that a student or academic from another institution would be given much credence if they were to complain to a second place about one of its academics: the institution is very likely to say that it’s not its problem, given that contact was extramural, as it were.

‘They were scared of repercussions for their careers’ – Chris, lecturer

I twice reported male colleagues for sexual harassment of female colleagues at work. Both times this was at the request of the female colleagues who had been harassed (I am male). They were scared of repercussions for their careers and asked me to report their experiences to human resources. Both times I was told that nothing could be done unless the victims came forward. I explained that they were scared, but this made no difference.

I suggested that HR interview all women working in my department so that specific whistleblowers could not be identified, but this was rejected. The perpetrators were not dealt with by HR. I personally dealt with one of them by threatening to make his harassment public knowledge if I heard of any more instances. I have now retired from that university.

‘The person who had carried out the acts had been known to have done similar things several years ago’ – Susan, lecturer

Individual staff with the department in which I worked and the university’s HR department were immensely supportive and helpful. However, in the UK, standard procedure is that if a formal complaint is made to HR, the person accused is allowed to see the complaint, know the identity of the person who made it, and respond. On one level this is quite just, as everyone has the right to defend themselves, but in cases of sexual harassment it does nothing to protect vulnerable people or to encourage them to come forward.

What was infuriating is in my particular case the person who had carried out the acts had been known to have done similar things several years ago, but no official record of this was kept. People who carry out these acts appear to be allowed to retain their anonymity, whereas those who decide to stand up and say something lose theirs. This cannot be the right balance. It seems pointless and hypocritical to me that the same universities that have policies that make complaining about harassment so difficult can also strive to obtain Athena Swan awards for inclusivity.

‘She had to go through a very challenging and upsetting complaints procedure’ – David, lecturer

A young female academic whom I was line managing had been subject to harassment in another institution. The harassment then extended beyond that institution and was potentially going to continue. I feel guilt that I accepted that old male pests were known in the past, but when faced with a situation where it was clear she was potentially going to be subject to further harassment I said she should not accept it, and should complain.

I tried to support her (working alongside others, male and female, including HR). The upshot was that she had to go through a very challenging and upsetting complaints procedure over many many months, even though the outcome was sanction of the old male academic in question. I feel considerable guilt that she took my advice and subjected herself to such a long and difficult time, but the alternative was worse.

I understand how pervasive and potentially career-destroying the effects are. My colleague is still very reticent at attending the very international conferences she should be going to in order to become a successful academic.

‘Universities are shown time and time again to be incapable of policing themselves’ – Sophie, lecturer

I’ve not been trained in awareness of what the procedures would be. I do strongly feel that universities are shown time and time again to be incapable of policing themselves, be it sexual harassment or bullying. I think one thing would be for teaching staff to have to go through DBS clearances, because although we do not specifically work with vulnerable adults, it remains the case that the psychological impact of university, the distance from home, the radical changes are immense for students and on many occasions this makes them vulnerable.

All names, where given, have been changed to protect individuals’ identities.