Equally Safe in Higher Education

06 September 2018      Martin Higgs, Communications Officer

Equally Safe in Higher Education / Employers Initiative on Gender-based Violence - the safe and healthy workplace.

Anni Donaldson in conversation with Alison Locke, HR Manager at University of Strathclyde, Glasgow.

Gender-based violence (GBV) has gained increasing national and international attention in recent years - GBV is a continuum of violence and abuse which includes rape and sexual violence, domestic abuse, sexual harassment including online harassment and sharing indecent image. The #MeToo movement demonstrated the widespread prevalence of sexual violence following the exposure of film director Harvey Weinstein and other notable male celebrities and public figures. GBV in universities has also gained attention among researchers, governments, the media and universities. The NUS report found that one in seven female students reported unwanted sexual behaviour during their studies. A recent report by NUS and the 1752 Group ‘Power in the Academy – Staff Sexual misconduct in UK Higher Education’  was clear that the sector is “not currently a safe environment”, with many students facing “sexualised touching, comments or even threats from staff members”.

GBV also affects women in the workplace.  Research by Zero Tolerance Scotland found that while GBV was common in many Scottish workplaces, GBV prevention was not a common feature of organisational policies and that everyday sexism was closely associated with women’s inequality more broadly.  Research by the University and College Union (UCU) found that over half of the women who took part had experienced some form of sexual harassment in the workplace, two thirds had been sexually harassed by a colleague and just over a quarter by a student.  Universities therefore have a responsibility as employers to prevent GBV across their campuses but also to be clear about how they will support staff who are affected and what action they will take gainst those found to be responsible.

The University of Strathclyde in Glasgow was a pilot site for a new initiative funded by the Scottish Government in 2016-2018 which created the free national ESHE Toolkit for Scottish universities to help them prevent GBV on their campuses. Strathclyde takes pride in being a socially progressive employer which likes to be at the forefront of new developments in the way in which it engages with staff.  For the University, the heightened awareness of GBV in the sector and more broadly in the media, meant that the ESHE project came at the right time to be part of a drive to tackle GBV on Strathclyde’s campus and to raise awareness amongst staff and students.

A cornerstone of the Equally Safe in Higher Education Toolkit was the development of the University’s GBV Employee Policy. Alison Locke, HR Manager at Strathclyde led on the project to create the new policy which began by establishing a unique partnership group which included the ESHE Team, Glasgow & Clyde Rape Crisis, Zero Tolerance Scotland and the Scottish Women’s Rights Centre as well as colleagues, trades unions, the student union and key staff from across the university.  The GBV Policy emerged from development sessions and consultations with all involved.  This included a one day interactive workshop using real life case studies provided by the specialist organisations.  This session both connected people directly with the issue of GBV and ensured the policy emerged from people’s engagement with the powerful real life stories of rape and domestic abuse kindly shared with survivors.  It wasn’t always easy as Alison recalled, “A key challenge was dealing with the varying and sometimes conflicting opinions of the contributors to the policy!  This was also the best thing about this work – it really felt that, at the end, we got a policy that met everyone’s concerns and most importantly, showed staff that this was an important issue and they could be supported where needed.” 

The policy applies to all staff and includes third parties such as contractors who are not ‘employees’ but who are working on campus.  The aims of the policy are clear.  It emphasises the University’s zero tolerance approach to GBV, explains what should happen if a member of staff makes a disclosure, outlines the internal and external support available to the person disclosing and also what is available to support the person they tell.  Crucially the policy outlines how the university will deal with alleged perpetrators of GBV who are also employees.

The project team were very aware from the outset that it was vital not only to support staff experiencing GBV but also those colleagues who likely to receive disclosures.  Alison was clear, “We cannot and should not expect our managers to be experts in what is a complex and sensitive area.”  The policy therefore includes a clear response pathway with a list of sources of support. The ESHE Project also created a three-tier Staff GBV Training Programme, and associated Guidance,  in partnership with Glasgow & Clyde Rape Crisis, ASSIST, Police Scotland and Safe Lives which was made available through the University’s Organisational and Staff Development Unit.  The courses, which are all available in the ESHE Toolkit will soon become an established part of the University’s staff training programme and will ensure that Strathclyde’s staff are equipped to respond to reports and disclosures of GBV from both staff and students.  The ESHE Team also created a new free MOOC – Understanding Violence Against Women – Myths and Realities  available through FutureLearn -  to stimulate wider learning about the topic of Gender-based violence.

Alison, came relatively new to GBV as an HR issue and was honest about her initial reactions and what she has gained from the experience.  “I found the case studies fairly challenging from an emotional perspective.   I’ve learned so much not only about an issue that previously I knew little about and but also about the rich history of campaigns to tackle GBV and the amazing work carried out by our external partners in the Rape Crisis Centres to support GBV survivors every day.  I have the confidence and knowledge to deal with disclosures or advise colleagues if they occur.” 

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