COLUMN: We are all responsible for stopping offensive behaviour

There should be no doubt that we at AU take the issues of sexism and offensive behaviour seriously. That’s why we have launched many initiatives in recent years to promote a healthy study and workplace culture. But we need to do more - and we need to do it together, writes Anne-Mette Hvas, dean of Health.

Photo: Lars Kruse, AU Foto

The media coverage over the past few weeks has not painted a positive picture of life as a PhD student after a report published by the Danish Center for Social Science Research (VIVE) concluded that there are widespread problems with sexism at Danish Universities. 

A harrowing read

The report makes for harrowing reading, but before we accept it as an exact depiction of current reality, it's worth noting that the report is based on data from a historical cohort. We know from our own studies at AU that there are problems with offensive behaviour. That's why we've worked intensively on well-being and constructive communication in recent years.

I would like to mention some initiatives at Health and AU; not because they should serve as an excuse, but because I want to demonstrate that we take the well-being of both students and employees seriously. And we're confident that discussing the issue and launching concrete initiatives pays off.

  • We have expanded our workplace assessment (APV) and our student surveys to include questions about unwanted sexual attention, offensive behaviour, bullying and harassment.
  • The Department of Clinical Medicine developed a KVINFO survey because interviews with PhD students revealed problems with unwanted sexual attention.
  • We have developed a dilemma game with dialogue cards on offensive behaviour that is mandatory for all research groups at all departments.
  • Sexism is included as part of Health's mandatory courses for supervisors.
  • AU has established a well-being committee that covers all faculties. One of the initiatives implemented by the committee was reaching out to PhD students with information about where they can get help.
  • In collaboration with the student social associations, Health has developed a party code aimed at reinforcing an inclusive party culture and preventing offensive behaviour.

It is obvious that we as managers bear the greatest responsibility when it comes to continuously addressing sexism and offensive behaviour. But we also need help. We need employees and students to speak up about problems and to suggest what actions should be taken to resolve them.

Use your voice

As managers, we can use surveys to monitor developments and we can put the issue on the agenda, but we can't always think of solutions ourselves. We can only do that if we talk about it. Together.

That's why it is so important that you as employees and students use liaison committees, academic councils, departmental forums and other relevant councils and committees to talk about well-being and social behaviour and to help us create a healthy work culture.

It is also extremely important that you use your voice by answering questionnaires such as the WPA and the Danish Student Survey. This will help us follow developments and see if we are heading in the right direction.

Speak up

We all have a responsibility to speak up if we see other people being subjected to patronising, sarcastic or sexist speech.

Fortunately, if we look at our own studies here at AU, they paint a different and less discouraging picture of the sexism issue than the VIVE report. VIVE's study is based on data collected between 2010-2018 - before the #MeToo movement and before the universities implemented their initiatives to combat sexism.

In AU's latest WPA from 2022, three per cent of PhD students have been subjected to unwanted sexual attention, while 11 per cent of the 768 respondents have experienced abusive, offensive or derogatory language.

There is most likely also a dark figure and that’s not acceptable. However, to me, the figures are a sign that we at AU have made massive efforts to create a healthy study and workplace culture. And we will continue to do so because it helps and because a healthy culture strengthens us personally, socially and professionally.

Originally published in Omnibus on 9 April 2024.