Is Time Really Up, Academia?

I bloody hope so. Things have edged agonisingly slowly, closer and closer towards actual consequences for perpetrators of (sexual) harassment and bullying in the academy. With a brilliant journalist pushing the story beyond the hand-wringing nonpologies we have previously seen, there has been a renewed surge of voices sharing experiences and standing together to say that this behaviour is totally unacceptable- and we will not accept it. Some colleagues and I have been working on various small projects chipping away at this enormous iceberg of a problem: writing consequences for harassment (i.e. removal and barring- can you tell I was a bouncer for 4 years?) into rules for conference attendees, and trying to develop ways to gather more data on the scale of harassment in archaeology as a discipline.

However, there’s something I want to add here: harassment has been with us a long time, as our colleagues tell us, as I demonstrated in that blog post a few months ago. But harassment and bullying in the academy now are wrapped up in the current academic precariat- a poisonous concoction of short term employment (recent survey estimated 1/3 of academic staff in the UK are on a short term contract), high mobility and turnover of staff, oversupply of qualified candidates and intense competition for few positions.

Harassment and precarity are bound together, feeding off one another.

In the current situation of academic precarity and exploitative labour practices, the stakes are even higher, the risks are more extreme: for exactly the wrong people. When targets are harassed and bullied, their self-confidence is damaged, trauma inflicted, bodies are violated and mental health suffers. If they snap back and fight back, they know they are risking everything they have worked for. In a job market where the tiniest of margins may separate candidates, a single comment from a senior scholar (furious and frightened at being called out, derisive and sneering if they got away with it) remembered by an interviewer or panel reading an application can be career ending. A single blog post, perceived as threatening, can mark you as “difficult” and to be avoided at all costs. Tears in the toilets after a grotesque leer can mark you out as not “tough enough” to make it. Vulnerability and toughness alike will be punished, while the perpetrator strolls up to the lectern and oozes their opening slides.

I keep hearing about the danger of possible damage to perpetrators’ careers, but in this shitshow of a job market why on earth shouldn’t that be a consideration? If you harass and bully, you will damage your career. It should not be the exact opposite, as it is now: if you stand up to perpetrators, if you get a name for being a “difficult woman,” you should not be at risk.

There is also no good time to stand up and shout out for early career scholars- any 9 month, 2 year, 3 year contract is going to end, and you will be back on the job market not knowing if you have a black mark against your name in the whisper network.

If you are in a new position, miles away from your support systems, you are isolated and alone- where will you go when the inappropriate behaviour begins, and the institution charged with a duty to care for you closes its eyes and covers its ears, preferring to protect their own? Can you go back to your supervisor and ask for help, take your chances with HR, or will you just try desperately to pretend it never happened, to undermine and gaslight yourself into getting through this contract and getting the hell out of there? If it’s a permanent position, will you risk alienating yourself from your new colleagues (who probably already know all about the behaviour you are experiencing- you will almost never be the first target)?

I really hope that harassment and multiple serial perpetrators find that #TimesUpAcademia. But until we tear down the precarious academy with all its enabling structures, I worry that this is going to keep on happening.

**As I think I have written before somewhere, I am (currently? permanently? who knows?) out of the game as regards academic jobs, so I feel I can write this, thanks to the enormous privilege that lets me write and work after the kids are asleep. When you have nothing to lose, you are free to say what you think. **