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Professor Matt Jarvis, MPLS Associate Head for People, discusses the importance of recognising bullying and harassment and what steps we can all take to stop it.

November 2022Photo of Matt Jarvis with his dog, Freddie

This week is anti-bullying week. Having weeks highlighting various issues that come under the ED&I umbrella act as a reminder that we still have a multitude of problems that need to be addressed, whilst bringing into focus things that sometimes just get missed or are always in the back of someone’s mind, but rarely make it to the front. Unfortunately bullying and harassment is often at the forefront of many people’s minds because they experience it directly. This has certainly come to light in my own field of astrophysics in recent years, with several very high-profile harassment cases being brought into the public domain. It is obviously distressing for many of us that hear about such cases, as the community is relatively tight-knit and it is likely that we or someone we know have been affected directly, whether as a target of abuse, the perpetrator, or a colleague in the same department. I believe that the vast majority of us would want to ensure that people facing bullying and harassment are given all of the support they need in such difficult circumstances, particularly given the nature of academia where they know that any complaint may adversely affect, not only their career, but their mental wellbeing. However, as a professional community, by which I mean our research field, our departments and the University, we also have to acknowledge that a huge number of us have probably witnessed inappropriate behaviour and failed to act on it when we should have done. Going back to my own field, I have had conversations with several colleagues where we have acknowledged that we weren’t very surprised when person X was found guilty of bullying and harassment.

So what does this mean and what can we do?

Personally, I think it means that many of us have probably witnessed inappropriate behaviour, even if at the time it possibly didn’t register as such, or we just ignored it with the excuse that it wasn’t serious, so we didn’t have to do anything about it. Writing this down, my immediate thought is that this kind of reaction is not good enough, particularly if the witness has the seniority to know that it will not adversely affect their own career. So if we witness behaviour that is not acceptable, we need to be equipped to approach the victim and/or challenge the perpetrator in the right way. As I have become more aware of ED&I issues in general, I’d like to believe that my ability to really see, and have the confidence to act on, poor behaviour has grown significantly. This is in no small part due to recently helping to deliver bystander training workshops with my brilliant colleague in the MPLS EDI Team, Hannah Ravenswood, where we highlight the actions that you can take, whether you are a senior academic, a member of our professional services teams, a researcher or student. Knowing that there are several approaches open to those of us who witness bullying and harassment is critical, as we also have to protect ourselves. We therefore have to acknowledge that the burden of responsibility in challenging such behaviour lies with those who have the broadest shoulders with the least to lose, namely senior academics.

I think we also need more from our institutions, we cannot just leave this to individuals to try and do the right thing, in many cases where they feel ill equipped to do so or could face real consequences for addressing issues directly. Many of you will have seen the recent case of bullying and harassment that has come out of Leiden University, where a senior astronomy professor was found guilty of bullying and harassment, but the University did not publish the name, only that a senior academic had been suspended. Although much can be said about this, I just want to focus on the fact that the failure to name the guilty party meant that every professor in that research area at Leiden becomes the subject of speculation as to whether it is them. This is therefore hugely damaging for individuals who just happen to be in the same department of someone who has been found to have bullied people, in addition to the direct impact on those who have been the target of the bullying.

This is therefore a problem that all of us need to help solve. We need to stop all forms of bullying and harassment, and this means we need to be equipped to challenge poor behaviour when we witness it, we need an HR process that works for everyone involved, and we need to support those harmed by bullying and harassment. I hope that we continue to learn as a community and take the opportunities to educate ourselves on how to deal with instances of bullying and harassment, whether we are subject to it or witness it, but to also improve as supervisors, line managers and colleagues, and work towards eradicating such behaviour in our University.


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