Leiden Law Blog

Combating harassment through education

Posted on by Jasmina Mackic in Public Law
Combating harassment through education

A couple of weeks ago, End Rape on Campus Australia, an organisation working to end sexual violence at universities and residential colleges, published a report which outlines numerous examples of hazing and sexual harassment within twelve Australian universities. Known as the  Red Zone Report, it describes in detail various sexual and physical assaults mainly suffered by first year students during the annual orientation week and unveils a misogynistic culture at Australia’s universities. The report comes at the right moment to maintain the discussion on the widespread prevalence of sexual assault and harassment towards women (an intense debate on this topic flared up recently after the #MeToo campaign). Initiatives such as the publication of the Red Zone Report and the launching of the #MeToo campaign are definitely useful in exposing a widespread, systematic problem and in raising awareness about it. However, there are at least two issues related to harassment that, in my view, have not received sufficient attention in the media and beyond.

Firstly, up to now, the debate has very much focused on the sexual nature of harassment. Less attention has been given to non-sexual bullying or mobbing in the employment or education sectors. Such behaviour may include: instructing certain employees who possess certain characteristics to conduct less serious work; not inviting them to attend certain work-related events; making negative comments which are related to their characteristics, such as a person’s sex, sexual orientation or ethnicity (see for some of these examples Rikki Holtmaat’s contribution in European Gender Equality Law Review). That harassment can go far beyond sexual conduct has been recognised in several EU Directives which cover discrimination on various grounds (e.g. Directives 2000/43/EC, 2000/78/EC, 2006/54/EC). These Directives indicate when certain behaviour crosses the line to become harassment: essentially, this is the case when unwanted conduct towards a person occurs that is related to grounds that are protected and which has the purpose or the effect of violating the dignity of a person and creating an intimidating hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. Like sexual harassment, non-sexual harassment possesses a serious safety and health hazard. According to the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, this type of conduct may have various negative consequences for the direct victims and their families, but also for their colleagues and the whole of society.

Secondly, the important question that still stands is how to combat both sexual and non-sexual harassment. The Red Zone Report offers some recommendations in the specific context of Australian universities and colleges, including: that Australian universities require that any residences owned by the university comply with university policies and procedures regarding sexual assault and harassment, rather than using their own ad hoc procedures; that Australian universities ensure that any counselling services they provide are clearly advertised to students in residential colleges; and that State governments legislate to criminalise the act of hazing. In order to prevent sexual harassment at the workplace, the International Labour Organization (ILO) has also developed some guidelines and suggested that employers should at least make an effort in developing, endorsing and communicating to all employees a sexual harassment policy within the working environment and in implementing formal and informal complaints procedures.

It can be questioned whether some of these proposals will actually have an effect in preventing harassment. For example, how useful will formal and informal complaints procedures be if victims feel anxious about speaking out on the harassment that they were subjected to? After all, what characterises harassment in the workplace or in an educational setting is that it occurs in an institutional context. Rikki Holtmaat, former professor of International Non-Discrimination Law at Leiden Law School, once described how the victim in such situations is somehow trapped and often cannot freely choose not to be exposed to the harassment.  She explained that when a victim is  harassed at work or school, for example, there is no escape from the (sexual) harassment, unless the victim is prepared to give up his or her job or to quit school (see, again, Holtmaat’s contribution in European Gender Equality Law Review). So, I can’t help but wonder how many persons will actually make use of the formal or informal complaints procedures.

An effective way of combating sexual and non-sexual harassment can be achieved through education. Catharine Lumby, Professor of Media Studies at Macquarie University, asks in her introduction to the Red Zone Report how there can be ‘educational equity for women, members of the LGBTI community or any male regarded as not appropriately “masculine” if they have to face harassment and assault on campus and in their residences?’ In my view, equity can be achieved – at least to a great extent – by making a course on non-discrimination law obligatory for all first year students at universities, and not just in Australia, but essentially anywhere. We must not forget that a notion like ‘gender’ is a social construct. What people think of one another or how they behave towards each other on the grounds of, for example, a person’s sex, gender, sexual orientation or race, is determined by societal views and their upbringing. So let us start with education, by introducing courses where students get the opportunity to learn about the meaning of notions such as sex, gender, sexual orientation and race, about the impact of discrimination which occurs on such grounds and about the different ways in which discriminatory treatment can manifest itself. 

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