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What’s the ideal environment for the abuse of power?

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September 21, 2018   2 mins

In which sector are women most likely to experience workplace sexual harassment?

According to a report published by the US National Academy for Sciences, the answer is the military. Of course, one might expect that of an environment in which men greatly outnumber women – if nothing else because of the ratio of potential perpetrators to potential victims.

However, writing for Brookings, Dick Startz notes that the second worst sector is a seemingly very different environment – academia:

“According to the National Academy: ‘[Among employees], the academic workplace … has the second highest rate of sexual harassment at 58 percent (the military has the highest rate at 69 percent) when comparing it with military, private sector, and the government, where a broad definition of sexual harassment is used.’

“Worse than the private sector? 58 percent? (Reports of harassment of students by faculty or staff are also high, in the 20-50 percent range.) Despite surface appearances, sexual harassment in academia turns out to be a major concern.”

But perhaps the military and academia have more in common than meets the eye:

“Something true in both the military and in the academy is that there are many relationships in which the power between two people is extremely unequal. In the private sector, usually the worst someone can do to you is fire you, and even then there are always other jobs. In academia, one person may be in a position to effectively end the other person’s academic career—not just interfere with their current position.”

Similar factors appear to be involved in other workplaces afflicted with the same problem. Hollywood, the British House of Commons, Roman Catholic seminaries: all have featured in recent reports of workplace sexual exploitation.

And despite the very different character of these environments, what they have in common are new recruits inspired to do a job out of some sense of vocation – but via career pathways that are limited in number and tightly controlled by people further up the pecking order.

Sexual exploitation is an especially damaging way in which such power can be exploited, but it’s not the only one. For instance, there’s the financial exploitation of unpaid interns and poorly paid junior staff, which is notorious in careers pursued more for love than money – yet where people still have to eat.

For academia, there’s the special danger of ‘intellectual corruption’. The social sciences and even the natural sciences, have severe problems with replicability of supposedly significant research – which can be the fault of poor methodology and, occasionally, outright falsification of data. Younger researchers need to be in a position to whistleblow or at least ask difficult questions. However, they are less likely to do so when their careers can be so easily blighted by vengeful superiors. As for the humanities, we’ve seen entire disciplines taken over by bogus, post-modern ideologies – a process surely facilitated if ‘activist-academics’ gain control of the means of preferment.

It’s quite an irony that some of the most idealistic institutions in our society, those that typically have a great to say about equality, simultaneously operate on the basis of some of the most unequal power relationships to be found outside of a sweatshop.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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