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We don’t talk about B – ullying in academia. Except we do, here at TU Dresden

Posted by , on 27 July 2023

Working in academia can be a wonderful experience, being surrounded by highly inspirational people, full of excitement for science and working together to unlock secrets of the natural world. However, as a work environment, it is not free from challenges and difficulties that many workplaces face. The high prevalence of bullying, harassment and abuses of power has recently been a topic of several articles1-3 which highlight the importance of addressing this issue, discussing it on a public forum and implementing real changes to the structure of our academic system with the goal of minimizing the tolerance for such behavior and the permissiveness of toxic environments. To address this important topic, we hosted a virtual seminar at the Center for Molecular and Cellular Bioengineering (CMCB) of the Technische Universität Dresden (TU Dresden) on the topic of “Bullying and harassment in academia – definitions, prevalence and consequences for our scientific community” on the 28.03.2023.

The first speaker was Dr. Petra Boynton (Twitter – @drpetra), a social psychologist who supports universities, charities, research organisations and government departments to undertake and use research in inclusive, accessible, ethical and safe ways, with a key focus on mental health and wellbeing. Her background is in International Health Services Research, and she has applied her work through working as an Agony Aunt (advice columnist) for print, broadcast and online publications. She discussed the reasons for the high incidence of bullying in academia and what bullying involves, as well as why it is wrongly assumed that it is difficult to record or measure the effects of such behaviours both on affected individuals as well as on research integrity and quality. An important point was made that anyone on any level of the University or Institute structure, be it students, administration, junior or even senior group leaders, can both be the victim or the perpetrator of bullying. Research shows that approximately 1/5 postgraduates and 1/3 academic staff record being bullied themselves and around 40% have witnessed bullying, and approximately 75% of staff are aware bullying is a problem in their university4. Interestingly, the internal poll of the participants in the virtual seminar showed similar numbers with 46% of respondents having witnessed bullying or harassment at the TU Dresden and 89% of respondents saying there is a general problem of bullying in academia (Figure 1).

As the poll indicated, many people could not exactly identify which behaviors fall into the categories of bullying (Figure 1). Dr. Boynton then proceeded to outline these in detail, for example verbal abuse, punishing trivial mistakes, humiliating, setting people up to fail, or intruding into people’s personal lives. Dr. Boynton then expanded on how victims can be affected by experiencing this, many of the aspects aligning with what many wrongly assume to be a “normal” part of doing a PhD – changes to mood and sleep patterns, loss of concentration, feeling muddled, reduced self-esteem, self-doubt, overworking, feeling hopeless. Additionally, bullying can lead to a reduced output caused by inability to focus, being more prone to making mistakes, being scared to take action or progress. Dr. Boynton then outlined the importance of self-care, but also the importance of taking action, including as a bystander.

We also discussed slides created by Anja Wiede who is the contact person of the Complaints Office in cases of harassment, discrimination and violence at the TU Dresden. This part of the session outlined the internal policies of the University, the regulations and guidelines that are in place as well as numerous counselling and support systems that the University offers in cases of bullying. Importantly, the TU Dresden Compliance Management System was introduced, which also includes the possibility to report incidents of scientific or personal misconduct anonymously. Although the system is relatively new and not fully integrated University-wide, it will in the future be a platform for building a trust-worthy tool for elucidating the legal foundations and TU Dresden regulations, prevention measures, reporting concerns and evaluation. Over 50% of respondents in the poll felt that bullying is taken seriously here at TU Dresden (Figure 1), which hopefully can be further improved by the implementation of these measures.

This meeting has been the first in hopefully a series of educational seminars and workshops that we will try to organise here at CMCB to lead the way in creating a professional environment where people feel respected, valued, and supported. Ultimately, an academic environment where mutual respect, good mentorship, professional conduct and healthy communication are prioritised will result not only in happier students and staff, but also more motivated scientists, higher research integrity and quality. I would recommend every university and scientific institute to organise this type of seminar and encourage all scientific staff (especially those in power – group leaders) to attend. Engage your local Equal Opportunity officers, Ombudspersons and Directors to discuss the availability of support measures as well as structures for compliance and official complaints. Here at TU Dresden, it was refreshing to see an academic institution actively implementing ways of tackling inappropriate behaviours and scientific misconduct and I look forward to seeing those in practice.

Figure 1: Zoom seminar poll with questions related to bullying and harassment experience in academia based on responses from 54 participants from the CMCB.

For more information on the topic please have a look at the following resources:

Boynton, P (2020) “Being Well in Academia: ways to feel stronger, safer and more connected” Routledge https://www.routledge.com/Being-Well-in-Academia-Ways-to-Feel-Stronger-Safer-and-More-Connected/Boynton/p/book/9780367186708

Network against Abuse of Power in Science – https://www.netzwerk-mawi.de/

TUD-specific links:

TUD anti-discrimination, complaints process and counseling options – https://tu-dresden.de/tu-dresden/universitaetskultur/antidiskriminierung/beschwerdestelle

TUD compliance management system – https://tu-dresden.de/tu-dresden/compliance-management#intro

TUD support and councelling – https://tu-dresden.de/studium/rund-ums-studium/hilfe-und-beratung?set_language=en

Psychosocial councelling – https://www.studentenwerk-dresden.de/soziales/psychosoziale-beratung.html

TUD CMCB Equal Opportunities – https://tu-dresden.de/cmcb/die-einrichtung/chancengleichheit?set_language=en

References:

1          End bullying and harassment in academia. Nat Hum Behav 6, 471-472, doi:10.1038/s41562-022-01349-z (2022).

2          Gewin, V. How to blow the whistle on an academic bully. Nature 593, 299-301, doi:10.1038/d41586-021-01252-z (2021).

3          Tauber, S. & Mahmoudi, M. How bullying becomes a career tool. Nat Hum Behav 6, 475, doi:10.1038/s41562-022-01311-z (2022).

4          Else, H. Does science have a bullying problem? Nature 563, 616-618, doi:doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-018-07532-5 (2018).

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