‘University staff feels unsafe’

Four out of ten university staff members suffer from bullying, gossip, exclusion or abuse of power, according to research by the FNV and VAWO trade unions. The Dutch Network of Women Professors (LNVH) also published an alarming report on ‘harassment in Dutch academia’ today.

Trade unions FNV Education and Research and VAWO asked 1,110 university employees, both support and scientific staff, about their experiences in the workplace. Almost half indicated that they experience (or have experienced) a socially unsafe situation in their department when gossip has been spread and information deliberately withheld.


Four out of ten employees have suffered from social insecurity at some point. Women more often than men: 44 percent compared to 35 percent. This mainly concerns the withholding of information (44 percent), abuse of power (35 percent) and intimidation (34 percent) by a professor or supervisor. One respondent says: ‘My work was plagiarized by a prominent professor. I was told to remain silent or to fear for my job.’

Almost half of the respondents still do not feel safe in their department. ‘A male colleague makes comments about my body. I ignore him as much as possible,’ says one respondent. Employees whose situation has improved say that this is mainly due to intervention from a higher level, the arrival of a new supervisor or another contract. For example, one respondent writes: ‘I am now in permanent employment and with that a large part of the power inequality has disappeared.’

Bad leadership

Poor leadership (73 percent) is the most frequently cited reason for a socially unsafe work situation. Older employees in particular find that a problem. The hierarchical culture (49 percent) and the high work pressure (43 percent) also play a major role according to the respondents.

Trade unions FNV and VAWO find the results ‘shocking’. They call on universities to set up an external, independent complaints committee and to hire an ombudsperson. FNV director Jan Boersma says: ‘At the moment there are only internal complaints committees within universities and the existing national complaints committee for education does not apply to universities. The results of our research show that an external, independent committee is desperately needed.’

The uncomfortable truth

The Dutch Network of Women Professors (Landelijk Netwerk Vrouwelijke Hoogleraren – LNVH) also published the results of their study of misconduct and intimidation today. The LNVH calls it an ‘uncomfortable truth’ that harassment also occurs in Dutch science. According to their study, the situation is caused by cultural and structural factors and can have disastrous consequences.

The research is based on twenty in-depth interviews with female academics and 33 written testimonials about experiences with harassment. The researchers distinguish six different manifestations of harassment: scientific sabotage, sexual harassment, physical and verbal threats, denigration, exclusion and not facilitating ‘special needs’.

The strong hierarchical nature of the academia, the highly competitive and individualistic culture, the inadequate response to cases of harassment and the - whether forced or not - silence of the victims ensure that misconduct and intimidation can easily occur and can hardly be tackled.

Starting point

The report is expressly intended as a starting point for a broader investigation. The LNHV calls on universities and other research institutions to pursue an explicit zero tolerance policy and to make procedures for raising harassment accessible, transparent and effective. All in all, that should lead to a cultural change within science.

The Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) takes the signals and recommendations ‘very seriously’, says chairman Pieter Duisenberg. ‘The university must be a safe environment for employees, where any form of undesirable behavior is unacceptable.’

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