“Sexual harassment victims often blame themselves”

Emmanuel Noyer & Sophie Meuwly © 2024 EPFL - CC-BY-SA 4.0

Emmanuel Noyer & Sophie Meuwly © 2024 EPFL - CC-BY-SA 4.0

On 25 April, Swiss universities will hold their second annual Sexual Harassment Awareness Day – the perfect opportunity for us at EPFL to assess how we’re doing in this area, one year after we introduced a new directive on psychosocial risks.

Universities across Switzerland will mark the second annual Sexual Harassment Awareness Day on 25 April through a variety of talks and events. At EPFL, we have put up posters on all five campuses and will hold two forum theater-style shows (on 25 April and 2 May) to encourage faculty members, managers and other EPFL employees to think about the sexist attitudes they encounter on a daily basis.

How is EPFL doing in the area of harassment prevention? We’ve seen a number of initiatives take shape over the past four years, such as the Paye ton EPFL movement launched in the fall of 2020, the Harassment Task Force set up in 2021, the Trust and Support Network formed in 2022 and the directive on psychosocial risks that took effect in June 2023.

From sexist behavior to harassment

Last year, Emmanuel Noyer was hired as EPFL’s Respect Compliance Officer (RCO) – a new position created by the directive. He’s seen first-hand how pervasive harassment can be at our School. “I’ve noticed a lot of sexist behavior which, if allowed to continue, can lead to harassment,” he says. “For instance, you might hear someone say that it’s typical for women to never have enough time, or to have more difficulty with something, or to be offended by critical remarks, claiming that ‘men know how to take criticism.’ The thing is, men aren’t subject to the same kind of biased treatment.”

Sophie Meuwly, who co-heads the victim resource unit at Polyquity, the EPFL student association behind Paye ton EPFL, agrees: “I’ve heard people question why the feminist movement still exists now that women ‘have gotten all the rights.’ But that’s looking at it the wrong way – we still need to change people’s mindsets. To some extent, we’ve all inherited sexist attitudes and have experienced inappropriate behavior. The best way to combat that is to listen to those who have been affected.”

Underlying sexist attitudes, which can be either implicit or explicit, are the hidden part of the iceberg and have an insidious effect on social interaction. The visible part is outright sexual harassment. Complaints of such harassment – and other forms of conflict, abuse and discrimination – are what the RCO handles on a daily basis.

Growth in the number of complaints

The number of formal complaints at EPFL, for all types of unacceptable behavior, has more than tripled in the past four years. They jumped from 10 in 2019, the year before Paye ton EPFL was launched, to 32 in 2023, the year when the new directive took effect and the RCO position was created.

Broken down by type of complaint, a higher number are for psychological harassment than sexual harassment. The number of sexual harassment cases grew from one to five between 2019 and 2023, peaking at nine in 2021. At the same time, the number of mobbing cases increased from four to 17. The other complaints related to inappropriate comments, management conflicts and problems, and physical and verbal abuse.

According to Meuwly, fewer students are aware of the @payetonepfl Instagram account today than a few years ago, and the movement is having less impact and getting less visibility. “Yet everyone I know has heard about an incident of harassment. And all my female friends can say they’ve experienced it personally at some point.”

Most of the complaints received by the RCO (or, before that, the Respect Cell) in the last three years came from EPFL employees (19 reported cases) and students (18 reported cases). The alleged aggressors are primarily faculty members (34 reported cases), followed by students (16 reported cases), EPFL employees in a management role (10 reported cases) and other EPFL employees (7 reported cases). Regarding complaints of sexual harassment, most of them are reported to have occurred between peers – that is, between students, postdocs or colleagues – and only rarely between people at different levels.

Complicated cases

Noyer encourages anyone who sends an email to [email protected] to also schedule an appointment to speak with him informally and confidentially about the incident. This is a new procedure he introduced as EPFL’s first RCO, and twenty people took advantage of it in 2023. Half of the time, it led to a formal complaint being filed. This opportunity for alleged victims to have an initial, off-the-record conversation about what happened “demystifies the complaint process and lets us provide more personal support,” says Noyer.

“We’ve also been able to speed up the process, since – unlike with the Respect Cell – handling these cases is all I do,” he adds. “We’re able to resolve some of them in just a couple of weeks, although the more complicated ones can still take a while.”

Noyer has found that the sexual harassment victims he speaks with often struggle with self-blame. “Many of them wonder if they weren’t clear enough, or if they didn’t say ‘No’ firmly enough,” he says. “They’re also afraid that their name will get out.” Does that prevent them from filing a complaint? “Not necessarily,” says Noyer. “I explain that what happened to them isn’t OK and that the most important thing is how they feel about it.”

He describes the process to those wishing to file a complaint step by step, explaining what confidentiality entails and telling them that “if they don’t give their name, we won’t be able to handle their case as they wish. For instance, we won’t be able to potentially sanction the other party, as that person also has a right to defend themselves.”

“Some people just need to get the incident off their chest,” Noyer adds. “It’s a way for them to achieve closure. They don’t want to file a complaint, but they do want EPFL to know what happened, along the lines of: ‘This is the situation in my research group. I managed to cope with it but I don’t want the same thing to happen to someone else.’”

Finding solutions

Even in cases where the victim doesn’t want to be identified, Noyer tries to find a solution – if nothing else for the harassment to stop. That could involve moving someone to another lab or unit in order to eliminate a complicated working environment. Noyer might also suggest that the team together take EPFL’s online training session called You’re Not Alone. Promoting Respect. That can help foster dialogue, get the message across to those who may be behaving inappropriately and remind everyone of the support available at EPFL.

“In a perfect world, EPFL would introduce mandatory training on consent,” says Meuwly. She believes the respect training currently offered to students on Moodle can’t substitute for face-to-face interaction where participants can speak directly and delve into the issue. “I know there are a lot of students at EPFL and this kind of training would require a huge amount of resources, but I can always dream.”

Noyer is still getting a firm grasp of all that his role entails and identifying how to improve EPFL’s procedures. For instance, he’d like to expand the committee that’s in charge of reviewing complaints, adding new members to make it more representative. While he stresses that the current members are highly engaged, he believes it’d be helpful to include some without a management role.

“I don’t make any decisions on my own – everything goes through the committee,” he says. “Sometimes our goal is just to ease tensions. Sometimes, when incidents are cut and dry, we apply sanctions immediately. We turn to outside investigations only when we can’t determine what really happened – that is, when it’s one person’s word against another and there are no witnesses. We try to avoid outside investigations since they escalate the matter, which isn’t good for anyone. But we’ll do it if it’s the only way to resolve an issue.”

Author: Emmanuelle Marendaz Colle

Source: People

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