As we have seen these past weeks with Harvey Weinstein, unfettered power leaves the way open for the unscrupulous, arrogant and narcissistic. Whether in film, sports or music, the differences in reward for being successful or not are so huge that it is not surprising that the power to make or break careers looms so large and is exploited. But it’s important to remember that abuse of power can exist in all sectors, including in Universities — the PhD student whose research career can depend on the reference of their supervisor, the post-doctoral researcher whose principal investigator, their boss, will determine whether their name goes on the research paper or not — and everyone, no matter their wealth, recognition, influence (or lack thereof), should feel comfortable and supported to speak out against such abuses.
I have been heartened and humbled this week to see so many people speaking out about the abuse they have suffered, whether in the media or on social media through the Me Too campaign. I believe we are now starting to break the silence around abuses of power. But the key, as ever, is to stop these abuses happening in the first place. So how do we do that?
In any organisation the starting point must be to have a good complaints system — one where people are listened to, that is fair (to both sides), where investigations take place. Most importantly, though, if day to day working practices are out in the open for all to see, that must reduce unwanted behaviours.
All this depends though on the development of the underlying organisational culture — there must be a clear understanding of what is and isn’t acceptable in ‘how we do things around here’. That is why the Breaking the Silence campaign being launched in Cambridge this week is so important. Jointly developed by the University and Student Union, Breaking the Silence gives contact points for help, advice and support as well as setting out expectations around mutual respect and consideration and the zero tolerance approach to sexual misconduct. This makes it known to all individuals (students, Fellows, staff) that it’s okay to make a complaint, it’s okay to speak out if you see someone behaving in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable, it’s okay to ask someone to stop their behaviour.
As well as policies, there are individual actions that we can all take, men and women, which over time will add up to a culture change. There are many ways to do this but not being a bystander seems to me to be the most likely way to make change. If in a laboratory you see someone harassing a young researcher, make clear that this behaviour isn’t acceptable and mustn’t continue. It takes courage and it takes confidence, but if we all do it we will see a difference.
This approach also works for student to student harassment too, whether it is through the Oxford ‘Good Lads Groups’ (which encourages young men to call out behaviour that isn’t in line with the “good lad” behavioural ideals) or young women standing by each other in nightclubs or at private dinners when the behaviour of others makes them uncomfortable. Best of all is when young men and women stand together.
Let us all work towards resetting norms and making it possible to challenge behaviour without someone sneering or sniggering about it behind your back. Let’s all break the silence.
For more information, visit www.breakingthesilence.cam.ac.uk.
By Dame Barbara Stocking
President of Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge