Bullying in academia
6 October 2015 16 Comments
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.
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.