Ending bullying and harassment in the UK classical workplace

by Susan Deacy and Fiona McHardy (University of Roehampton, UK)

We offer this paper at a moment in which various groups are coming together in the UK and internationally to discuss this important topic and to seek solutions for it. In the UK there has been much recent media attention on the extent of ‘lad culture’ and sexual harassment among students in British universities. UK academics have begun reflecting upon the extent to which this ‘lad culture’ (or ‘frat boy’ culture) and its inherent misogyny extends into the academic workplace shaping the working experience for academics at all levels of the profession (Academics Anonymous 2016; see Phipps and Young 2013 on ‘lad culture’). In particular, the recently formed Women’s Classical Committee (WCC-UK) has placed this issue high on its agenda and has conducted a survey asking for feedback on gendered bullying and sexual harassment in UK universities (Leonard and Salvo 2016). The survey generated over 400 responses, mainly from postgraduate research students, early career academics and more established academics, but some replies were received from teachers and from undergraduate students. Many contributors explained their answers with detailed commentaries allowing a qualitative as well as a quantitative analysis of the current situation in the UK. We explore the responses to this survey in the first part of this paper, looking at the extent of the problem and any patterns which can be discerned. We supplement this material with detailed responses from colleagues who have written to us about their experiences on this topic both through our online discussion on Academia.edu, and privately via email. At the same time, in the wake of the UK equality legislation according to which it is the responsibility of all practitioners to ensure that the experience of staff and students is both non-discriminatory and inclusive,¹ there is a move across UK Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) to review policies on harassment and bullying. In the second part of the paper we reflect on ways forward for university managers, building on the suggestions of Judith Fletcher’s 2013 Cloelia paper ‘Conflict and Bullying in the Academic Workplace’, with the ultimate goal of achieving embedded respect. We examine national proposals for ending bullying and harassment in the academic workplace and seek solutions through discussions with colleagues worldwide.

Perceptions of the current situation in the UK
We begin with a brief overview of the results of the survey of UK-based classicists conducted by WCC-UK following its creation in 2016. The findings of the ‘Gender in Professional Interactions’ section show that workplace harassment is a significant issue in UK classics.

When asked whether they had experienced discrimination based on sex, gender or sexual orientation, almost one third of respondents (32%) said they had experienced discrimination at some level. A further quarter were uncertain. Just over 80% of those taking the survey identified as ‘woman/female’ and the responses of the 118 participants who gave details of the discrimination were largely associated with gender-stereotyping. Their responses map well onto those given by colleagues elsewhere, including being ignored or left out of significant decision-making (cf. Fletcher 2013) and being allocated a disproportionate amount of admin, pastoral work and teaching (cf. Koster 2011 on the ‘invisibility’ of some of this work to institutional managers who do not allocate workload time for these tasks).

The second question asked about how sex, gender or sexual orientation had affected career progression. 22% of respondents felt it had, while a further 28% were uncertain. Here respondents focused on issues related to being parents or carers, commenting on the difficulties of returning to work after maternity leave and how male colleagues were perceived to have experienced smoother progress through promotion routes. Many of the answers in this section demonstrate the plight of established academics.

A substantial proportion of those surveyed (one quarter) said that they had experienced unwelcome or inappropriate sexual behaviour in a professional environment, while a further 8% were not sure. Some of the 39% who said they had not experienced such behaviour themselves reported having seen it, illustrating how pervasive this type of behaviour is. In commenting on this question, graduate students in particular reported issues with their supervisors or with other more senior academics especially at conferences. Just over 30% of those who completed the survey were postgraduate research students with a further 17.6% early career academics.
These statistics demonstrate that a significant proportion of colleagues feel that discrimination has played a role in their careers, affecting the day-to-day workplace environment through perpetuation of discriminatory and inappropriate behaviours. But interweaved with worrying trends about gender-based issues identifiable in the survey (such as issues with maternity leave, assumptions about women’s ‘caring’ role in pastoral support, etc) are cases in which gender is not the key factor, or is only one of several factors.
One classicist, who gave us detailed information as part of our research, recalled her experiences from a classics department where she used to work: ‘a senior member of staff used physical violence and threats of physical violence. Of the three people affected, two would not raise a formal complaint… Management was made aware by me that this had happened; did not doubt it; but said there was nothing they could do. The message I got was that the member of staff was highly research active and they would not want to lose that.’

In this example a senior colleague bullied other men using highly inappropriate violent behaviour and threats. His aggression in this particular example was not aimed at women (although there were several women working in the department), but targeted men. Noticeable in this example is the reluctance of those affected to raise formal complaints. This reluctance to complain formally is perhaps explained by the comment which follows — that staff felt that management at the university would not act on their complaints. The perception that many inappropriate, violent and threatening behaviours are tolerated where a member of staff is highly prized for research excellence allows a sense of entitlement to flourish in some individuals who have achieved this kind of status (see Fletcher 2013 on the idea that universities care more about profit than staff well-being). The example also demonstrates the importance of embedding a general culture of respect in working relationships to facilitate a good working environment for all colleagues including men and women of all levels of seniority.

It was reported at the WCC-UK launch that it is typical for women who experience inappropriate behaviour in the workplace to stay silent too, and for the same depressingly understandable reasons. In most cases it is because they feel they will not be heard and in some cases because senior managers and heads of department are reluctant to act for fear of rocking the boat. In other cases, fear of the bully, or fear of being stigmatised in potential career progression, impeded action. This is a particularly significant problem for staff who are on temporary contracts.

At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that bullying behaviour is not the preserve of men. As Fletcher notes (2013) some women have taken on the role of ‘queen bee’ blocking the advancement of other women having risen to a position of prominence themselves. Two colleagues have reported to us that the worst experiences of bullying they have endured have been from women in senior roles, intolerant of people who disagree with them, who go about their jobs differently or who have different priorities concerning their work / life balance.

The survey results from WCC-UK also indicate that issues do not arise solely out of gender or sexuality, but can include other matrices such as race, religion, and disability. The analysis on the WCC-UK survey results (Leonard and Salvo 2016: 9–10) notes: ‘Several respondents highlighted that gender intersects with age, ethnicity and sexuality — young women, women of colour and gay women felt that they had a particularly difficult time being taken seriously.’ Those who participated in our research noted that only too frequently workplace instances of intolerant or bullying behaviour most closely affect those who suffer from mental health issues. Lack of awareness or understanding of problems experienced by certain individuals has led to accusatory comments and criticism of colleagues and disrespect for them in team meetings and other public forums, including in front of students. Nationally, colleagues have expressed concern over the lack of support from universities and senior managers where they have experienced mental health issues. A worrying 50% of those who answered the WCC-UK survey said that they had experienced mental health problems making this a pronounced issue in the workplace, especially given the tendency to intolerance of mental health problems we have already discussed. Of the 171 respondents answering ‘what kind of support have you received for your [mental health] condition?’, almost one third (32%) said that they had received no help from their employer. Several commented that they felt unable to disclose their problems for fear of appearing weak in an academic environment where it is perceived necessary to appear strong.

Addressing the situation in the UK
We now turn to possible ways forward in addressing some of the issues highlighted by our research. In this section, we follow the suggestions of Fletcher (2013) and supplement with some ideas developed from discussion with academics from across the UK. Fletcher (2013) offered four levels of suggestions:

1. Macro level — Lobbying for better legislation
2. Universities should look at their health and safety policies.
3. Micro level — encouraging a different environment. Speaking out rather than ignoring problems. Documenting issues and reporting. 
4. Discussing strategies annually in the profession.

The UK together with others in the world is on a journey to establish a better working environment for all not just in universities, but elsewhere too. Some academics have commented on the improvements which have occurred within their careers, including those driven by legislation. One of the speakers who took part in the launch event of the WCC-UK spoke out against the need for further action at the current time as things had already improved radically over the course of her long career. Certainly it is the case that the UK has implemented good legislation and that universities have started to look closely at their own policies and procedures with the aim of improving working conditions for academic staff. Nevertheless, the results of the survey demonstrate that there is still a long way to go in the UK to change the culture within Classics departments, in particular since the responses of the early-career academics and graduate students indicate that these problems do not all belong to the past. Even where good university policies exist, the fear of colleagues to act or speak out officially against a bully (as detailed above) must be addressed. In making the necessary progress in this area, addressing the issues at micro level is very important (see Surtees and Hallett in Cloelia).

Key to such progress is encouraging a culture of cooperation within our Classics departments. This is not an easy move to make as colleagues have long been schooled in competitive and combative behaviours as part of being a ‘good scholar’. In the prevailing competitive climate, attacking one’s scholarly opponents in print can readily lead to attacking their graduate students when they present papers. At the same time, making promotions or access to research leave competitive, can generate a lack of team spirit in a department as colleagues vie with one another for a valued post. This underlying culture can then lead to a situation where a colleague can attack someone with ill health, blaming them because others have had to cover for their absence, depriving those others of extra time to work on coveted promotions and funding opportunities. Embedding a culture of cooperation and team-spirited behaviours which still encouraged aspiration and excellence would depend on a new attitude to status within academic departments which values the efforts of team members collectively as much or more than the efforts of any one ‘prized’ individual. The suggested change in the way that research will be evaluated as a departmental contribution in the next Research Excellence Framework in the UK,² opens up an opportunity for departments to consider how a more collaborative approach to constructing their entries could lead to positive outcomes for both universities and individual employees. The Stern Review notes: ‘Reducing the focus on individual members of staff and instead painting a picture of the submitting unit as a whole will reduce the current consequences for morale of non-submission. It could encourage cohesiveness and productivity within the submitting unit’ (Stern 2016: 20). This point highlights the need for change to improve the situation for those who have struggled to complete a full submission in the past. If this change is implemented, it could lead to a reduction of pressure placed on colleagues by their peers and improve team-spirited productivity within departments.

Solutions suggested at the WCC-UK launch to help change the environment include: creating support opportunities such as peer-groups, mentoring, social media interactions, workshops and training. The WCC-UK is also planning further research into conditions in different UK workplaces to see if there are examples of good practice which can be adopted more widely. At the same time the Athena SWAN charter has branched out into Humanities. Fiona Macintosh reported that this had had a really positive impact at the University of Oxford and we seek to emulate their success across the country. We also hope to learn through further research and ongoing discussions with colleagues which techniques they have found most effective in supporting those who have suffered bullying or harassment and which techniques have worked in improving the culture within Classics departments. An event to discuss these issues within the discipline and beyond is planned to take place at Roehampton in September 2017 and we look forward to welcoming colleagues from across the profession to join us in formatting strategies to make the Classics workplace a productive environment free from bullying and harassment in future.


  1. UK Equality Act 2010. Chapter 1 outlines the responsibilities of employers towards their staff and includes details on how employers should not discriminate against candidates for jobs, or persons who have been employed. Details are also given about the need to avoid victimising employees. Chapter 2 — Further and Higher Education states that universities and other providers must not discriminate against students during the admissions process or during their education.
  2. See www.ref.ac.uk for information about the Research Excellence Framework.


Academics Anonymous (2016) ‘Sexual harassment is rife in universities, but complaining means risking your career’, The Guardian 26th August 2016.

Fletcher, J. (2013) ‘Conflict and Bullying in the Academic Workplace’, Cloelia 3: 20–4.

Koster, S. (2011) ‘The Self-Managed Heart: Teaching Gender and Doing Emotional Labour in a Higher Education Institution’, Pedagogy, Culture & Society 19: 61–77.

Leonard, V., Salvo, I. et al. (2016) ‘Analysis of Findings — The WCC Survey: Women in Classics in the UK: Numbers and Issues’, CUCD Bulletin.

Phipps, A and Young, I. (2013) That’s What She Said: Women Students’ Experiences of ‘Lad Culture’ in Higher Education, University of Sussex.

Stern, N. (2016) Building on Success and Learning from Experience: An Independent Review of the Research Excellence Framework, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.