Why do measures to combat discrimination and harassment fall short and what can be done about it?
Increased accountability, transparency, and due process are needed for measures to combat discrimination and harassment to be effective and fair. The burden to correct these problems should not fall on the affected individuals.
This article expresses the personal opinion of the authors and does not necessarily reflect the position of any institution or group with which they are affiliated.
Academic institutions with a mandate to generate and transmit knowledge recognize that they have a responsibility to provide a supportive working environment for early career researchers (ECRs), in part to ensure their productivity. Including both doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers, ECRs are highly dependent on their supervisors for access to facilities, financial support, and intellectual guidance as well as for contacts and recommendations that can make or break an academic career. (1) Like almost all academic institutions, ETH Zurich has policies and measures in place that are intended to combat discrimination and harassment. Despite well-formulated policies, supporting measures often fall short of their intended goals. Why is this and what can be done about it?
How do we know that measures are not working?
A three-year project on gender-based violence in academia, UniSAFE, surveyed over 40,000 individuals (67% female, 30% male, and 3% non-binary or undisclosed) from 46 research organizations and universities in 15 countries. (2) Both staff and students (including doctoral students) were surveyed. As shown in the graphic, 62% of respondents reported experiencing some form of gender-based violence, mainly psychological violence or sexual harassment. Both women (66% of respondents) and men (56% of respondents) reported experiencing gender-based violence with women more often reporting sexual violence and sexual harassment and men more often reporting physical violence. Although the consequences of these experiences for students and doctoral students included changing (or trying to change) supervisors and being discouraged from pursuing further studies, formal reports to the institution were made only in a small minority of cases. These survey results are echoed in statements made at a meeting of 60 female doctoral students with members of the ETH Zurich Executive Board in January 2023 (3) as well as in reports from organizations representing doctoral students. (4)
What policies and measures are in place?
The ETH Zurich Code of Conduct clearly prohibits any form of bullying, harassment, discrimination, or threats and violence. (5) Furthermore, “displaying any form of harassment or discrimination” is defined as scientific misconduct by the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences. (6) Measures to support these policies include various services such as those offered by the Respect and Ombuds offices and the Trusted Intermediaries (7) as well as resources offered by individual Departments. Although a solid basis to combat discrimination and harassment is in place, it is clearly not sufficient to prevent these problems.
What is missing?
There are visible measures in place to raise awareness and provide support. These are a necessary first step but do not, in themselves, impose meaningful consequences on offenders. Deterrence would require that discrimination and harassment are demonstrably shown no tolerance at a world-class institution. Furthermore, there needs to be real emphasis on improving the lived experience of members of the ETH Zurich community. Such improvement can only be demonstrated if reliable data on the prevalence of discrimination and harassment are collected and made available. Transparency, accountability, and due process are essential to establishing a working environment that supports the mandate of ETH Zurich in research and education and provides for the management of conflicts so that all parties are treated fairly, their justifiable concerns are addressed, and their personal and professional well-being is not jeopardized.
Why is this difficult?
Trust and integrity are vital, core elements of the scientific enterprise in which ECRs are highly dependent on their supervisors. Resolving violations of trust and integrity can lead to real and difficult trade-offs among the involved parties and with their institution. Finding a pragmatic solution that avoids professional harm may preclude taking measures that would prevent future instances of
inappropriate behavior. Concern for confidentiality can be incompatible with fairness and due process for accused individuals. Formal (or informal) processes within an institution may be compromised by information spread through informal communications networks such as social media.
How do institutional interests come into play?
Academic institutions have an obvious interest in protecting their reputations and the capacity of their faculty to conduct research. In the short-term, exposing misconduct might be perceived as harming the institution. It is, however, impossible to solve a problem unless it is identified. Protecting the peace at an institution in the short term may expose it to much greater damage in the long term. Although cultural change is a long and difficult process for any institution, it is essential if the systemic underpinnings of discrimination and harassment are to be eliminated.
What is needed most urgently?
There is an urgent and fundamental need for reliable information on the prevalence of discrimination and harassment at ETH Zurich. The most direct way to gather this information is through a recurring, well-designed campus climate survey that includes clearly stated and understandable questions about discrimination and harassment. (8) In addition, statistics on the educational outcomes of graduate programs should be compiled and made easily accessible to current and prospective doctoral students. (9) Lastly, relevant information could be collected through a platform for anonymous reporting of incidents of discrimination and harassment such as that developed by Cambridge University. (10) Although such anonymous reports cannot be used as the basis of formal action, they can raise awareness about the types of problems that arise and, in some instances, provide a basis for further investigation.
With such reliable information in hand, ETH Zurich would have an evidence base for an outcome-oriented assessment of its current measures to combat discrimination and harassment. This information is essential to demonstrate improvements in the lived experiences of doctoral students and maintain ETH Zurich’s reputation and attractiveness.
Janet Hering is Director Emerita of the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science & Technology (Eawag), Professor Emerita of Environmental Biogeochemistry at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zürich (ETHZ) and Professor Emerita of Environmental Chemistry at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Lausanne (EPFL). She is a former Chairwoman of the ETH Women Professors Forum.
Darcy Molnar is a scientist working in the Institute of Environmental Engineering in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering (D-BAUG) at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zürich. She is the coordinator of the D-BAUG Gender and Diversity Commission and established the Zurich chapter of 500 Women Scientists.
- National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: https://doi.org/10.17226/24994.
- UniSAFE consortium (2022) UniSAFE D8.3 Policy Brief 1. https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.7333222. Note that the term “gender-based violence” roughly corresponds to “sexual harassment” as defined by NASEM (see ref. 1).
- Merhill, N. M., K. A. Bonner, and A. L. Baker (Eds.). 2021. Guidance for Measuring Sexual Harassment Prevalence Using Campus Climate Surveys. Washington, DC: National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. https://doi.org/10.17226/26346.
- National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Graduate STEM Education for the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: https://doi.org/10.17226/25038.