“He is a professor and you are just an associate.”

Part one of a series on sexual harassment in the academic world

Nieuws | door Ingeborg van der Ven
21 december 2017 | "Women are supposedly not able to reach the academic top because they lack ambition or want to have children. However, we are afraid to openly discuss the existing culture of intimidation in the academic world." A professor points out a missing conversation in academia. This is a reason for female academics to share their story of sexual harassment with ScienceGuide.
Afbeelding Mihai Surdu

Early this October American actresses started using the hashtag #MeToo to inform the world on sexual harassment experiences at work, and urging others to speak out to adress the size of the problem. The movement quickly gained momentum and the initial tweets were quicly followed by a wave of women and men from many different sectors sharing their experiences with sexual harassment.

Also in the academic world women have spoken out. Katherine Amienne shared an analysis in the Chronicle based on interviews done during her time with Scholars & Writers Consulting. The Dutch professor in computer science at UTwente Vannessa Evers publicly shared her personal sexual harassment experiences in the Volkskrant, a well-known Dutch newspaper. She experienced sexual harassment during her time in Boston. Over the past few weeks several female academics shared their stories with ScienceGuide showing that sexual harassment is also part of the academic environment in The Netherlands.

This series of three provides an insight into the forms of sexual harassment taking place in Dutch universities. In this first article three female academics share their personal story. During their academic career they all had to deal with harassment and power abuse at a certain moment by a colleague or supervisor.

"We are afraid to openly discuss the existing culture of intimidation in the academic world.”

The second article analyses the impact of the internal procedures of academic institutions related to harassing behaviour. Procedures and regulations that failed to protect women who reported the behaviour. As one university professor states: “We have to conclude that the university might be a larger part of the problem than the behaviour of the perpetrator.”

In the last article of this series, we show various responses from the academic world, attempting to answer the question: “ Can we speak of a safe work environment for academics?” As a small preview to this article, the following typical statement of a female professor: “We can’t declare on the one hand the wish to have more women in the academic world and at the same time react inadequately to resolve these issues presented.”

It happens everywhere 

Considering sexual harassment speaking about sexual harassment, the definition is important. The regulations on the handling of complaints concerning inappropriate behaviour define sexual harassment as “any form of verbal, non-verbal or physical behaviour with a sexual connotation aiming to affront the dignity of a person, especially cases were a threatening, hostile, insulting, humiliating or offensive situation is being created.

This series is based on interviews with dozens of female academics that have shared their story with us. Women that hold positions as a professor or work as university lecturer, associate professor or teacher. They cover 8 of the 14 Dutch (research) universities and work in a wide range of fields, from law, chemistry, social science to the medical world.

Some of these women are in high position but nevertheless want to tell their story. They have chaired the board of executives of their university, are public figures and popular guests for talk shows. Some even are honourable members of a United Nations committee. These women consider it important to tell their story, but at the same time find it difficult to speak up. “I have just managed to get over it and would have preferred to close this chapter quietly. But despite of this, I find it important to tell my story” one of them tells us.

‘I was the PhD student and he was the professor’

Informality is a defining characteristic of the academic world. Going to conferences and having drinks together, the long days at the office or in the lab. A great plenty of informal settings and ample room to make a move. “He was a member of an organisation which was important for his research area. Joining it was not very useful for me but he insisted. It would be important for me to attend the meetings and we could go there together, he said. I was the PhD student and he was the professor. He would know best, so I applied” one female lecturer recounts.

“The car rides made it possible for him to get more personal. ‘What do you like to do in your spare time? Do you like to go out for dinner, or go to the movies?’ Until one day he started asking me: ‘Do you ever touch yourself in the shower?’ These were questions I obviously avoided or ignored to answer. Subsequently, he told me: ‘When I masturbate in the shower it’s you I think of!’.

“I didn’t protest because he threatened me: ‘if you make me angry then I won’t give you an assessment’."

The lecturer starts crying when she recalls this moment. This intimidating behaviour lasted for years. He was her only supervisor during her PhD. He would send drawings to her home address on which he had depicted them both naked. “I didn’t protest because he threatened me: ‘if you make me angry then I won’t give you an assessment’. I wanted to finish my PhD so badly. At that moment I would have done anything to finish.”

Until one night, when her supervisor crossed the line. “After drinks I was walking to my bike. He had parked his car in the same street and was walking with me. Just in front of his car he pushed me against a wall and kissed me. With one hand he pinned my arm and with the other he pushed my hand towards his groin. I pushed him away and went home. After years of harassment this was the final straw. I called in sick.” The young scientist did not finish her PhD.

“A friend told me to take this matter to Human Resources. The HR manager was on my side but she also warned me: ‘He is a professor and you are just a lecturer. He will probably only get a warning. You have to realise he holds the power and you do not.” She did not report it. After being transferred to another building and another function things settled down. After a few months she was asked to teach within a different institute. In the end, she did not obtain her doctorate but she did build up a successful and prize-winning career as a lecturer.

‘Is it just me?’

The university is a place where colleagues spend a great many hours, often more than at home. Scientists do not only make their moves in the informal settings of a car, a hotel or bar. Sexual harassment also takes place during office hours. “At meetings he would come and sit next to me. Just before the start of the meeting he would whisper in my ear: ‘did you put on this blouse especially for me so I can see your breasts better?”

This is the story of a university lecturer who has spent more than twelve years trying to address the behaviour of a colleague. “It happened often at meetings and in the cafeteria and it was always so refined. Whisperings in my ear. Sometimes I wish he would have really… you know… do it… then at least I could have reported it.” She is currently a university lecturer. At the time that the harassment started she had an administrative position. “He could ask for my support at any given moment”.

Her colleague, who was a university lecturer at the time, saw ways to abuse his power and influence. He would only hand over project documents if she promised to have drinks with him. In the cafeteria he would put his hand on her buttocks or would touch her hair. She had just started at the University and did not have a permanent contract yet so his behaviour made her doubtful. “Was this the culture here? How did people interact with each other? Was this normal behaviour? Was it just me?”

“The thing is that you start normalizing it at a certain point. I would think: ‘well, I do bruise easily so it might not have been that hard.’"

She describes a disturbing incident at the office. “Because I had a supporting role and he was the project leader I had to go to his office at one point and pick up the project documents. He had his own room and I did not want to go there. The harassment had been going on for years and he had often approached me to ask if I wanted to come home with him. So I was avoiding situations where I would be alone with him. On this day he refused my requests to bring me the documents himself. I shared my room with several colleagues so this was safe. ‘No that is not an option, you have to come pick them up yourself’, he told me. So eventually I went over to his office.”

“I entered his room and he immediately locked the door behind me. Instead of giving me the papers he started asking personal questions again. Whether I had a boyfriend, what I doing that evening and whether I wanted to go home with him? I told him I did not want any of this. He stood up and blocked the door with his body. I knew that this could end badly and I wanted to get out. He grabbed me by my upper arms to stop me. ‘You stay here. I want us to go a step further. I want to have sex with you’. He gripped me so tightly that his hands left bruises on my upper arms. I kept repeating that I did not want this but he refused to let me go. Eventually, a colleague walked past the door and he had to let me go.”

She reported the harassment two years later. “The thing is that you start normalizing it at a certain point. I would think: ‘well, I do bruise easily so it might not have been that hard.’ Now I’m thinking I should have made pictures and I should have gone to the police.” The incident at his office was reported to HR, her manager, the confidential mediator and the rector magnificus. The colleague has always denied the accusations and as far as she knows there have not been any consequences so far.

‘He would peek through the window of our family home’

Sexual intimidation does not stop once you leave the campus. For this professor the intimidation continued all the way to her front door. “Several times a day he would come to my office for some chitchat or to give me ‘advice’. He was concerned for me because of the responsibilities and heavy workload that came with the job. Was it not too much for ‘a young woman’. He said it would not be a problem if I would relax a bit more and that I should take more breaks. It would be good for me if I would finish working a bit earlier now and then. And then I could perhaps get a coffee with him. Or maybe go out for lunch or dinner? While saying this he would place his hand on my hand, or on my arm, or on my back.”

This professor notes that after a few weeks she makes it clear to her colleague that she is not interested in anything else but a professional relationship. “I tried to tell him this as friendly as possible during one of his visits to my office, so it was not a public rejection. For me this would have been the end of it – every relationship starts with someone showing interest in another person. But one should always keep in mind the possibility of getting a ‘no, thank you’ and should be able to accept this.” The following years the man obstructs her professional career in such a way that she ultimately forced to move abroad and takes up the position of professor somewhere else.

“Even though this man has not tried to make any more advances at me after this conversation, he has tried to make my work a living hell.” The colleague refuses any further collaboration, which was necessary for the progression of the project. “During meetings and in front of students he would make remarks about me. He would tell them to not take me too seriously. My conduct and behaviour was inappropriate ‘for a young woman’.”


"He warned me not to enter into a confrontation because he would rather let any other employee go than him.”

The intimidation became even more personal when the colleague started following her in private life. “He would also let me know he was doing this. For example by telling me that he was keeping track of what I was doing. And he told me he was making a list of when and where I was going.” To make things worse  he also tracks down her home address. “He lived nearby and would sometimes in the evening peek through our window.”

Conversations with her supervisor did not lead to actions or any other form of intervention. “At first he would laugh and dismiss my stories. He advised me to grow a thicker skin if I wanted to achieve anything, that this was a normal way of interaction in such institutes.” Her supervisor also lets her know that she has the odds against her compared to her colleague. “He told me that this man was his right-hand, that he only accepted his current position at this institute was on the condition that his man could come with him. He warned me not to enter into a confrontation because he would rather let any other employee go than him.”

The influence of this experience on the life of the professor was considerable. “My supervisor warned me that if I would speak with whomever on this case – let alone make it a formal matter or complaint – he would make sure that I would never receive another good evaluation ever again. And that everyone, either in or outside of my institute, would know that I was impossible to work with.” Two years ago she decides to take up a job abroad. Her husband still works in the Netherlands.

The question whether it is reasonable to report such incidents and how organisations handle complaints will be further discussed in the second article of this series.

 “You end up thinking that you’re the only one”

“I was wondering whether this conversation could remain anonymous. I am still in the middle of it. And if I make it public now, I might as well leave immediately.” This professor is not the only one who wants to make sure we treat the stories with care. All of the women who share their stories urge us to leave their own names, those of their colleagues and the name of the university out of the article. Mainly because they are concerned about the possible consequences of publicity. Secondly, because they have, either verbally or in written form, agreed to nondisclosure agreement discretion. Lastly because they still, in spite of everything that has happened, believe in the university and don’t want to harm their department or institution. There were also women that decided to back out after they read their own story in draft.

There seem to be plenty of reasons to keep quiet but eventually some women decide to talk to us. A university associate professor explains her motivation for speaking up in a following way. “We are not allowed to talk about it. This means that the many distributed parts of the view on the matter are not coming together. And being silenced gives you the feeling that you are the only one who is experiencing this. You feel like you are the only one. In the end if it’s only happening to you and that’s the only thing you know, and then it’s going to be hard to build a case. So it’s also about undermining the possibility of building the case. I’m not saying that it should be a witch hunt. But at some point we have to speak out and the signals need to come together.”

The women we talked to could not be silenced. But still, the experiences with harassment and especially the lack of help and action on the side of the university had a big impact on their careers. PhD’s that were not completed or even professors who left the country. In these stories the women where the ones who had to adapt themselves to a situation that is in itself unacceptable. “This is just how the system works.”

The women who did speak out and made a formal complaint end up in a process of years. “After twelve years of proceedings, he is still in his position and is he still considered the super star of our institute. It’s just a matter of time. Something else will happen someday. In Leiden it also took thirty years before the behaviour of professors led to their resignation. Maybe we just have to wait for another couple of years?”

A female professor in the medical sector analyses the problem in her own words. “In response to the question: ‘Why do women keep disappearing on the way to the top positions in academic institutions?’ we always talk about the wish to have a family, the workhours, the style of leadership, the lack of ambition. Very rarely we address the fact that it is a world of men and how much women have to defend their position.”


We do not want to imply that we have the full range of the problem of sexual harassment in sight. We intend to convey the voices of the woman who shared their experience with us.

It has become clear that there is abuse of power in the academic world. In what way, on what level and where exactly are questions that the sector itself has to deal with. The names of the woman are known. If possible the cases have been verified by emails available to us, news reports and other stories.

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