Bullying in academia

Anuja, smiling.Dr Anuja Cabraal (@AnujaCabraal) has been working in academia for over ten years.

Over this time, she has worked on a lot of different topics, including learning and teaching, microfinance, social and financial inclusion, banking and migration. However, her real passion lies in qualitative research methods and methodology.

Her previous article for the Research Whisperer was about how to make casual employment work for you.


A close colleague of mine has been subjected to workplace bullying. It happened soon after she completed her PhD, when we both started working as early career researchers. She was bullied by two male professors. She later confessed that she didn’t realise it was bullying until much later.

Sculpture of a small girl, curled up, with her face to the wall

Untitled (stool for guard) by Taiyo Kimura at MONA.

This is what happened. I have masked some of the information because she didn’t want to be identified.

Let’s call my friend Jade. Jade worked in an open plan area, just outside the offices of two professors. At times, they would meet in their offices. At least twice a day, they would stand outside their office to talk and brainstorm ideas.

One day, Jade politely asked them if they would mind talking softly, move into their office, or go to one of the many meeting rooms, as she was trying to concentrate. In total, she asked them twice to do this. They then complained to the head of department about her behaviour. The head of department took their side, without even talking to Jade. He told Jade’s boss that he would not tolerate a researcher being rude to professors. (Let’s just leave aside the point that she had brought in a lot more research funding than either of them.)

Neither of the professors or the head of department ever mentioned the complaint to Jade, or even told her about the incident. Jade’s boss was the one to tell her about it.

Jade was left feeling so uncomfortable around them that she actually started to work from home unless she had a meeting to attend. In the end, Jade decided to approach the head of department to try and present her side of the situation. She even presented him with the university guidelines on behaviour in the open plan workspace, to no avail.

The two professors have now left the department, which is great, but she is still disheartened by the way the head of department handled the situation. She has been a diligent researcher, and continued to bring in research money over the years.

Jade confided that she didn’t realise this was a case of bullying until her boss actually called them bullies. She said the head of department had allowed a young female researcher to be bullied by two male professors, and she was right.

I wonder how many times this happens in academia without people knowing that it’s going on. Academics can have big egos and, as early career researchers, we can be bullied in a lot of ways. In fact, and sadly, there is a whole blog dedicated to it.

An article by the Guardian in 2014 stated that the national average of bullying in the workplace was 10-20%, whereas it was estimated that the percentage of people experiencing bullying in academic setting was anywhere between 18-42%.

In spite of this, and in spite of all the complaints I hear from other early career researchers about how their research has been blocked or stalled by those in higher positions, rarely does the term “bullying” arise. I am starting to wonder why. Even if it does come up, people often say that there is nothing you can do about it. Early career researchers feel that they need the support of professors in order to get promotions, permanent positions, or even to help promote their research so they are unwilling to take a stand against their behaviour.

Perhaps it is not called out because as early career researchers, we can still sometimes feel like the “apprentice” in a research environment, and it is challenging to know and decipher when we are being stalled or smothered legitimately, or, being bullied by those in positions of power.

The practical guidelines of workplace bullying usually advise people to keep a written record of incidents, and to report to higher management or refer to workplace policies. Often, people are scared to do this in case it makes the situation worse, or because (as in Jade’s case) it makes no difference at all.

We need more discussion around how to identify bullying in the academic workspace, and discussion around creative ways to overcome it.

As early career researchers, we need to support each other in these situations. I wonder if anyone has any success stories on how they actually overcame bullying in the workplace? It would be great to start these conversations, and think of actions to overcome bullying, instead of accepting it as part of the norm.

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16 Responses to Bullying in academia

  1. sadie says:

    This post really struck a chord with me. I remember being bullied as a junior researcher and informing my head of school. I was told that there was nothing that could be done about the situation and that if I didn’t like it I should leave. In the end I left. Nearly 8 years on and I am a lecturer in another institution and bullying is rife. It’s difficult to pin point, but having read this article I recognise aspects of it: stalling or blocking research applications, putting processes in place which mean that you would miss the grant deadlines, receiving inappropriate emails, etc. Being on a temporary contract puts me between a rock and a hard place – do you speak up and risk being sacked or keep your head down and keep your job? What I find worse is that in my institution they talk so much about promoting gender equality in the workplace and supporting women to stay in academia, yet the perpetrators in my own school are women. Is it a case of jealousy? Do they find a young, female lecturer threatening? I am fortunate in that a group of us experiencing bullying have developed a support network of our own, but how we came to create our support group should not be happening in 2015 – it was based on each of us being found crying in the ladies (toilet). We off-load to each other through telephone conversations, text messages and the occasional coffee (always off campus, just in case…).
    I worry about those who are isolated and don’t have anyone to turn to. I do think this a conversation that needs to be had.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Anonymous says:

      There is no excuse for such behavior. Once I tried to take a legal process against my former boss, I got bullied even by the investigators. This is a pathetic situation similar to cronyism, where people with ”power” can do anything and get away. What we should do is make it a better place at least for our subordinates.

      Like

    • anujacabraal says:

      It is challenging and difficult to know how to proceed when these things happen. I must say, it is great that you have peers that you can discuss and talk to about these issues.

      Like

    • Snoopy says:

      To anyone reading this: fight back anonymously by 1. Go to a public computer (e.g., one at the University’s library). Do not log in! 2. Create an anonymous email address (gmail/yahoo/whatever). Be sure to remember your login name and password. 3. Go to glassdoor.com, and create an anonymous account using your new anonymous email address. 4. Create a new review of your beloved department. In the headline put something like, “XYZ University, English Dept. – Bullying Encouraged” or ““PDQ University, Biology Dept – Bullying Rewarded.” Proceed to explain the bullying encouraged/rewarded scenario. Do not name names – Glassdoor will not publish reviews that contain identifying information (read their community rules for more info). Wash, rinse, repeat! Encourage your buddies to do the same. Eventually, your department and the university will have a very difficult time recruiting top talent due to the nature of the publicness of these reviews (since, everyone now uses sites like Glassdoor to scrutinize future employers). Once the bottom line is affected, the university/department will have to make some changes. Happy reviewing!

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  2. There is a possibility that people do not refer to it as bullying because the archetype of the ‘Bully’ that most people have in their heads is that of someone who is physically stronger and uses that strength to intimidate, harass and belittle others into getting their way. It is difficult for many people to see the more subtle, and more pervasive, form of bullying that is the power player. :/

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  3. I sympathise, having suffered workplace bullying (which wasn’t identified as that then) in my early career. I left. If it was happening today there would be a mechanism for taking legal action. It ended the career I had then, but in the end I was grateful: I went into other roles and ended up much happier, and having a more interesting life!

    It also concerns me that government institutions may bully researchers when they don’t like their findings, or practitioners when they don’t like the professional stance they take. In the UK the Ministry of Justice has a poor record on this, and has abused the professional misconduct system to pursue its vindictive programme of neutralising criticism. Its approach has always been to shoot the messenger rather than take the message on board.

    Not sure there’s an answer to this, although support groups may help. Unions may also help, so if you’re not in one try joining one. Finally, keep a log (carefully evidenced) of any untoward incidents. When you have to prove something you will then have something to back it up. I didn’t, and should have.

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  4. aerikm says:

    I think I would need some more background information to assess the situation properly. From the information given, I see an incident that was handled inappropriately by two professors and poorly by the department head. Both the professors and the department head should have talked directly with Jade. I don’t see the bullying here. Wouldn’t that involve more than one incidence? That the professors decided to talk to the head of the department shows that for them it was an issue important enough that it needed discussion. So they also clearly were affected by the situation. But was there something else for them after the discussion. It sounds like for them the situation was solved afterwards. Even though it clearly wasn’t the case for Jade.
    Another thing, I’m thinking about is that the text indirectly implies a gender issue. As the author has “masked some of the information” so that the researcher cannot be identified it would be good to know if there might have been a gender issue, i.e. is Jade a female researcher and do we talk about two male professors. Also, was the gender of the persons involved important, was it the different levels of seniority, or neither of the two. In the end similar incidents (and also bullying) can occur in a variety of settings. As scientists we should stick to the facts, i.e. we should avoid prejudging and implying underlying intentions that we don’t know about and rather actively search for possibilities to solve these issues and prevent them in the future.

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    • anujacabraal says:

      You are right, there is a lot more background to this. The researcher in me wanted to protect ‘Jade’ from being identified, though I had her consent to post the story.

      I don’t know if there was a gender issue. How can we know for sure? In my opinion though, I do wonder if the response to Jade would have been different had she been a man, but I honestly don’t know if we can answer that.

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  5. Karinne says:

    It is the responsibility of administrators to ensure that bullying is addressed. Why are they so reluctant to do this? When I first experienced bullying, I reported it and was encouraged to file a grievance. I was hesitant but went through with it. Things only got worse afterward. A younger, male faculty member with little teaching experience took up where the division director left off, misrepresenting my experience and qualifications (degree) to students and other faculty and harassing my students. Reporting these issues higher up the administrative chain was fruitless. Then an undergraduate woman was assaulted by the same male faculty member and reported it to the police. When the woman followed up on her report, she was told that the university was going to take action. Of course, nothing was done.

    Like

    • anujacabraal says:

      Oh my gosh, that is terrible. I’m sorry to hear about those experiences. I think there are probably many reasons why it isn’t reported. Looking at these comments, I’m wondering how many people have read this post and have thought about their own experiences, but have not shared.

      I also think as Tris said, it can be difficult to recognise bullying as such.

      Like

    • anujacabraal says:

      I wanted to add that I wonder if it isn’t reported because we tend not to hear the stories of success when it comes to bullying being addressed in the workplace. It would be nice to hear about some of the successful stories where appropriate action was taken by those in power.

      Like

  6. JM says:

    Hi Anuja, I am glad you addressed the issue of bullying in academia in this article. I can relate to this as I am a junior researcher who was and continues to be bullied by my supervisors. Even I did not realise it was bullying until it was pointed out by my postgraduate director. From what I can tell about my supervisor (which was pointed out by several of my colleagues as well) is that he felt intimidated in the presence of an enthusiastic junior female researcher and he saw this as competition. So he did everything possible (through subtle gestures) to belittle, humiliate and undermine my capabilities. Most of these incidents of bullying took place in his office (so that there were no witnesses). It is sad however that other people do not perceive this behaviour as bullying. I have been told several times that there’s nothing that can be done about the situation and that I just have to accept these individuals for who they are. What hurts the most is that they are aware of the truth and can see it for themselves but they choose not to handle the situation as it is an unimportant and time-consuming matter to deal with. It is hard and exhausting, single-handedly fighting a battle against these bullies. There are times when I thought of leaving my research program as I was becoming a bitter and negative person. But then I think of the times of why I held on to my research for so long. I finally summed up the courage and confronted one of my supervisors. The outcome was both good and bad. The bad part being that he continues to stall the progress of my research work, but I manage to find support to overcome these obstacles. The good part is that I am managing my own research projects independently; I feel much more relieved after confronting him about his behaviour which has helped me in some way to gain my confidence back.

    It is really sad that women continue to be bullied in their workplace even in this modern era. Gender inequality continues to exist no matter how many times some people try to deny it. Behaviours like bullying should not be tolerated but needs to be handled instantly. People do not realise how bullying can have a huge negative impact on the victim’s self-esteem, to such an extent that the victim has to quit their job (for no fault of their own). Why should they be bullied into giving up their dreams, it’s just not fair.

    Like you said, we need to create more awareness on this subject as some of us do not realise that we are subjected to bullying and unknowingly accept this behaviour as part of the norm.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Alison says:

    Thanks for raising this important issue of bullying in academia. As a number of comments have pointed out, academia is an intensely competitive workplace and I wonder if this can contribute to the high incidence of bullying. I also think it is important to recognise that this competition is not only between ‘professors’ and junior research staff, but also between peers, particularly in the early career stage. This means that bullying is not only from above, but can also be between staff of the same ‘level’.

    Like

  8. Biblioteca Carlos Albizu Miranda says:

    Reblogged this on Library Competencies.

    Like

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  10. Anon says:

    Its very prevalent. I suffered it during my PhD, and I am dealing with another bully now (unfortunately my boss). It has got to the point I have got the union involved, because I dont trust him. Its annoying as almost everyone else in the department is supportive of me, and what I am doing, but the person I report to is not. I can honestly say my mental health has suffered, as has my self confidence. its particularly prevalent in medical schools from my experience.

    Like

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