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#TimesUp on sexual harassment in higher education: #PressforProgress on #IWD2018

  • 8 March 2018
  • By Diana Beech

Today, on International Women’s Day 2018, the UK higher education sector should be standing out as a beacon of light for progress made in opening up opportunities to women.

According to End of Cycle data released by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) for the academic year 2017/18, 18-year-old women are now over a third (36%) more likely to apply to and enter university than their male counterparts. By age 19, 48% of young women from the UK enter higher education, compared to just 37% of young men.

Latest data on total student enrolments at UK universities collected by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) also show that 57 per cent of all higher education students (including postgraduates and part-time learners) are now female. Today, women make up the majority of those studying full-time for degrees (56%) as well as those studying for part-time for qualifications (60%). Almost two-thirds (63%) of undergraduate students are female and women also comprise 60% of students enrolled on taught postgraduate courses. It is only when it comes to research-focused postgraduate courses that male students begin to outnumber females, by 52% to 48%.

Yet, if the past year has shown us anything – with the rapid rise of the #MeToo campaign and #TimesUp movement exposing sexual harassment in the workplace – it is that many industries (including the creative, corporate and charity sectors) have all been hiding their dark secrets. Unfortunately, academia – despite its heavily female student population – can now be counted among them.

A new survey published this month by the The Student Room website and the campaign group Revolt Sexual Assault finds that well over two-thirds (70%) of female students and recent graduates said they have experienced sexual violence while at university. More specifically, 57% of female respondents said they have experienced sexual harassment and 48% said they have experienced sexual assault.

The survey, which claims to be the largest national study of sexual violence at university (having consulted just under 4,500 students and recent graduates across 154 higher education institutions), finds groping and unwelcome or unnecessary touching in a sexual manner to be the most commonly experienced form of sexual assault.

The most common locations on campus where students have experienced sexual assault are in halls of residence (28%), at social events (24%) or on university social spaces (23%). Over a third (35%) of female students who have been sexually assaulted or harassed say they felt pressured into the sexual activity.

Most alarmingly, 8% of female students who responded to the consultation report having been raped while at university. Compare this to the Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) estimate that 4% of the female population of England and Wales has been raped, then there is clear indication that the incidence of rape may be twice as likely in the UK’s student population than in the general population (give and take points for differing methodologies and sample sizes used by the two studies).

To make for even more bleak reading, victims of sexual violence while at university also find themselves unable to deal with the incidents effectively. Only 6% of all victims felt able to report their abuse to their university and/or the police. When asked why they chose not to report the sexual crime made against them to their university, 56% said they thought it ‘wasn’t serious enough’, 35% said they felt too ashamed and 29% revealed they did not know how to make a report.

The tendency to remain silent about experiences of sexual harassment in academia is not just unique to students. Young academics and post-docs, too, are starting to come out of the woodwork – albeit anonymously – to tell their own stories of advances made against them in their careers. One account from December 2017 exposes the conference circuit inherent to academia and the pressure on young female academics to travel alone and stay in unusual locations. Another from a few years earlier shows that sexist attitudes have long been lying latent in science – with one professor reportedly apologising for the number of women in his lab, but excusing them for being ‘good to look at’.

What is certain now, at least, is that, on International Women’s Day 2018, these attitudes cannot lay dormant and unchecked anymore. The Harvey Weinstein scandal in the USA last year has opened the floodgates and given women around the world the confidence and momentum to speak out about their experiences of sexual harassment in a variety of sectors and industries. The #PressforProgress campaign being promoted today strives for gender parity and reminds us of the need to ensure present and future generations of young women are educated, healthy, safe from violence and empowered.

As momentum builds around the #PressforProgress movement, universities and colleges need to be prepared for hearing stories of sexual violence and discrimination that may have previously been swept under the carpet by both students and staff unsure where to turn to and, more importantly, uncertain whether anyone would listen or take them seriously.

As the survey from The Student Room and Revolt Sexual Assault shows, students who have experienced sexual violence report significant impact on their self-confidence, mental health, social life and, of course, their studies. A quarter considered or actively engaged in skipping lectures or dropping certain modules to avoid their perpetrators and 16% considered or chose to suspend their studies or drop out of their degree.

Anecdotal evidence also suggests that many young women walk away from academic careers because of bullying and sexual harassment. The severity of this problem is perhaps reflected in the low numbers of women in senior academic or leadership positions. My blog for International Women’s Day last year highlighted the ‘tales of survival’ experienced by those women who make it to the 24% of female professors and one-fifth of female Vice-Chancellors.

To ensure higher education really is a sector that opens up opportunities to women, not closes them down, universities and colleges should hear the cry today to better signpost their student support services, make clear their policies toward sexual violence and work with staff and accommodation providers to ensure no part of campus can be seen to harbour sexual violence.

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