Published: 30-11-2017 14:44 | Updated: 11-12-2017 14:42

“#akademiuppropet is a unique opportunity for change”

2,400 women have signed the academic community’s #metoo – #akademiuppropet, the University Call to Action, as having been subjected to sexual harassment or other forms of violations of personal integrity based on their gender. Stories also come from the staff and students at Karolinska Institutet. The Call to Action is now seen as an opportunity to transform the academic community at its foundation.

“Karolinska Institutet takes these testimonies presented in the Call to Action extremely seriously. KI must be an organisation where neither the staff nor its students are subjected to or subject another to violations of personal integrity of the kind that those in the academic community are now talking about,” says Karin Dahlman-Wright, Pro-Vice-Chancellor and responsible for gender mainstreaming issues and work environment at Karolinska Institutet, and continues:

“KI must be prepared to investigate suspected cases and to provide the victim with adequate support and assistance. A part of this, is that leaders at all levels are alert, responsive and act forcefully when suspicions of sexual harassment arise.”

KI actively works to combat discrimination, including via regular educational efforts and workshops for both employees and students. Equal treatment and equal opportunities is also an element of various leadership courses and courses related to academic supervision, as well as the courses and educational programs for students. Plus, in addition to support for students and staff, KI funds a student ombudsman and a graduate student ombudsman where undergraduate and graduate students can turn to.

Surveys do not provide the whole picture

In order to measure the extent of the problem of sexual harassment and other discrimination at KI, questionnaire surveys have been conducted regularly among staff and students.
However Caroline Olsson, who has been the coordinator for equal opportunity and broadening recruitment at KI for many years, is of the view that these are blunt instruments, and that staff surveys and actual complaints filed do not provide an accurate picture of how substantial and complex the problem really is.

“#akademiuppropet shows that violations of personal integrity in the academic world have been normalised. Some women haven’t even verbalised either to themselves or someone else that they have been subjected to such an incident. Only now do they begin to think about what happened and recall the events, which is now described as violations of personal integrity. On the other hand, in some cases it is very clear to both those who have been the victim and to those who have been the perpetrator – and many in the immediate environment know very well what is going on,” says Caroline Olsson.

Sexual harassment has many nuances

Elisa FloriddiaElisa Floriddia, Chair of the KI Postdoctoral Association at KI thinks #akademiuppropet strikingly illustrates both the extent and the many nuances of sexual harassment that exists.

“I would really hope that the most extreme cases of sexual harassment get reported; but I’m really not so sure. Many are too afraid to put their job at risk, especially as many postdocs only have temporary contracts. In addition, it is sometimes difficult to promptly recognize signs of harassment, as we all grew up in in a gender biased/discriminatory society,” she says.

The Junior Faculty’s Chair Emma Andersson thinks that #akademiuppropet reveals the inequalities, how unequal the power relationships between men and women are in the professional world, something that is a particularly hard burden for young female academics.

“I truly hope that now more attention will be devoted to microaggression, inappropriate behaviour and unconscious prejudices at all levels of academia. At the same time, I hope that the campaign does not eat away at the trust and the great progress we are making in terms of good cooperation and mentoring between men and women or non-binary* individuals,” she says.

Many simply do not know where to turn to

In a survey that Junior Faculty made of its members in 2017, nine percent (approximately 400 of those responding) stated that they had been a victim of discrimination in one way or another. Of these, 72 percent had not sought assistance or support at all; and 80 percent of those who sought help had not received adequate support. 52 percent did not know to whom, or where, they could turn to if they were subjected to such an incident.

Therefore, despite KI’s systematic efforts to combat discrimination, the problem is difficult to solve as it is rooted in power imbalances, situations of dependency and structural problems in the competitiveness of the academic world.

“The problem persists in the entire academic research community, not only at KI. This often involves a power relationship, and many choose not to take the matter further, perhaps for fear that they will suffer negative consequences,” Caroline Olsson says.

So how can we address the problem?

Caroline Olsson describes a kind of “culture of silence” that exists within academic institutions throughout the world, a normalisation of discrimination. It may be that many in a group keep quiet, even though they know that someone is being subjected to abuse.

“#akademiuppropet is a way to break this silence. This is a unique opportunity for the academic community in general and KI in particular to change the culture that has for so long maintained power imbalances between the genders. The evidence testifies to that this is a structural problem, not simply individual individuals who ‘were treated poorly’ or ‘got into trouble’,” she comments.

Elisa Floriddia thinks it’s primarily about education, that everyone at KI should know how to best deal with sexual harassment and whom to contact for assistance and information, anonymously. Secondly, it is about continuing the efforts to implement a culture of mutual respect and gender equality.

“Sexual harassment stems from discrimination and, in turn, from prejudice. The KI Postdoc Association thinks that in addition to explicit prejudices, we should become be even more aware of our unconscious prejudices, and find tools to neutralise them,” she says.

Emma Andersson has hopes that KI will implement a course on unconscious prejudices for everyone who reviews and makes decisions regarding the approving of applications for funding or the hiring for employment.

“The Junior Faculty also thinks that increased transparency and policies concerning prejudices should be incorporated into in all decision-making and evaluation processes, as subjectivity has proven to be a common cause for discrimination. Increased gender equality and diversity among members of the boards, departments, workgroups and dissertation defence committees is also needed. This will ultimately lead to a meritocracy* where the best academic researchers, irrespective of gender, get promoted,” she remarks.

KI must raise the level of ambition

Both Elisa Floriddia and Emma Andersson emphasize that KI must have an organisation which takes a very strong stand against discrimination and sexual harassment. Department heads and the senior management need to show that this is wrong. It must also be clear, where one can and should turn to.

“It is important that complaints of sexual harassment are handled properly and taken seriously. Perpetrators must suffer the consequences of their actions,” stresses Elisa Floriddia.
Since the 1 January 2017 when the provisions of the Swedish Anti-Discrimination Act were made more stringent, KI has imposed upon itself the requirement to analyse the risks that are present for discrimination and sexual harassment to arise in the institution.

“After that, we must then analyse what the risks are due to and then work on both prevention and promotion. KI must raise its level of ambition in this work and with this, the leadership in the academic community has a vital role. Ultimately, it is us at the management level who have the responsibility for combating the kind of abuses and violations of personal integrity that women testify to in #akademiuppropet,” stresses Karin Dahlman-Wright.

* Meritocracy is a social order in which individuals are ranked in a hierarchy and the distribution of social rewards is according to ability and merits, usually measured by educational attainment and qualifications. Source: NE
* “Non-binary” is what the person who identifies as between or beyond the female-male division of gender might call themselves. Source: RFSL

Text: Helena Mayer


The legislation is clear: sexual harassment is illegal and suspected cases must be investigated. Anyone who has been found guilty risks, as an employee, being dismissed from their job, or suffering a reduction in salary; or as a student, being expelled from the educational programme.