Sexual Harassment at UK Universities

I only have time for a very short post today, but it seems important to point out an article about sexual harassment in UK universities which has just appeared that gives some measure of the scale of the problem. There’s also an accompanying piece that lists the number of cases in different institutions across the country over the past five years or so. If you work in UK university you might want to see how many sexual harassment cases have been reported there. In most institutions investigations into such matters are carried out confidentially, and the outcomes are generally not announced publicly. I think it is welcome that real information is starting to become available.

In most cases there are only a few reported instances per institution since 2011 – the most is 10 (at the University of Nottingham) – and very few seem to have led to persons leaving their job. These numbers represent a lower limit, of course, as not all cases are reported officially. I won’t comment on the general reliability of the figures, except to say that I doubt if all institutions have reported in the same way because their internal procedures may differ, which makes fair comparisons difficult.

Note that the report covers both harassment of students by staff and harassment of staff by other staff.

Anyway, in case you’re wondering what the legal definition of sexual harassment is, here is an excerpt from my current employer’s guidance:

Sexual Harassment has a specific definition under the Equality Act 2010. Sexual Harassment includes:

Conduct of a sexual nature that has the purpose or effect of (i) violating an individual’s dignity or (ii) creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment; or

Unwanted conduct of a sexual nature or that is related to gender reassignment or sex that has the purpose or effect of (i) violating an individual’s dignity or (ii) creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment and that the individual is treated less favourably because they have rejected or submitted to the conduct.


In deciding whether conduct has the effect referred to above each of the following must be taken into account:

the perception of the person claiming harassment and

the other circumstances of the case and

whether it is reasonable for the conduct to have that effect.[1]

Harassment which is related to a person’s sex, gender identity, race (including colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin), disability, sexual orientation, religion or belief, or age, can constitute unlawful discrimination for which staff and students can be held personally liable.

[1] In deciding if behaviour amounts to (unlawful) harassment, it is important to take into account all circumstances, including in particular the perception of the individual who feels that harassment has taken place and whether it can reasonably be considered that harassment has taken place. What the individual would determine to be offensive is a key issue in determining whether harassment has taken place, however there is also an element of whether a reasonable person would view the behaviour as offensive if they were in the same circumstances as the individual finding the behaviour offensive.


10 Responses to “Sexual Harassment at UK Universities”

  1. Themos Tsikas Says:

    Do you ever worry that public comments on supporters or members of certain political parties contribute to “creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment”?

    • telescoper Says:

      No. Political views do not constitute a “protected characteristic” in law.

      • telescoper Says:

        Yes, let me clarify my previous (rather terse) comment. According to my current employer’s guidelines:

        Harassment, in general terms, is unwanted conduct affecting the dignity of people. It encompasses many different types of physical, verbal and non-verbal conduct. It can occur through a single explicit incident or may be sporadic or ongoing. The defining features in the Equality Act 2010 are that:
        • the behaviour is unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, and
        • the conduct has the purpose or effect of (i) violating the individual’s dignity, or (ii) creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.

        So yes, harassment can be construed more widely. If it is not relate to a protected characteristic, however, it is not under the remit of the Equalities Act. It could still lead to disciplinary action, but it would not be a matter of employment law.

        If you constantly harangue a colleague about their political beliefs that could constitute harassment. If you state publicly that you think Jeremy Corbyn is an idiot or that Nigel Farage is a hypocrite then I don’t think it could. People should not feel that they have to hide their political affiliations in the workplace as long as it does not bring them into conflict with the law or interfere with the proper execution of their job. By the same token they should not expect others to hide their political beliefs if they feel uncomfortable with them.

      • telescoper Says:

        The inclusion of religious belief has been quite controversial, as there seems little distinction between some political groups and religious cults….

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        The controversy about religion as protected characteristic is also because the law is enforced selectively.

      • telescoper Says:

        I don’t think so, but if you state that you hate Catholics or Muslims then it might.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        One problem is the blurring by the law of belief systems with the people who believe them. It seems that I am not allowed to say that I hate any particular religious system but love the people who follow it. That is barmy, given that it is no different from “hate Nazism, love Nazis”, which is surely the right attitude. One should try to love all people.

      • telescoper Says:

        I’m not sure that’s the correct statement of the law. The problem is that the law is really established by precedent when its formal statement leaves so much ambiguity, and that means it’s up to individuals to take pursue cases. Harassing people at work should not be acceptable whatever the motivation but not all aspects of this have come to litigation, and some probably never will.

  2. So there were of order 5 reported cases of harassment per large university over 5 years. Based on my own experiences I can make some estimate of the number of cases which required management action but which could be resolved without going through the complaint procedures. Scaling from my experience, I would expect of order 100 cases. (Note that this excludes student-student cases which may be far higher.) Almost all are sexual harassment and the most common victims (in cases I have seen – it may be different elsewhere) are female postgrads. Religious harassment is more difficult to handle: there is a fair amount at universities but it is done in ‘intelligent’ ways that makes it hard for people to complain. Most people who suffer from it decide to accept the discrimination in silence as the alternative is ridicule.

    • telescoper Says:

      One of the things that makes this a bit complicated is that procedures may be different in different universities. Sometimes the “preliminary investigation” stage (which is merely intended to establish whether or not there is a case to answer) may be reported as an official investigation, and sometimes not.

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