Academic journal

the largest national survey ever reveals a grim reality

A national survey found that 7% of employees and students at Swedish universities had been bullied in the past year.Credit: Tom Werner/Getty

One in 15 people studying or working at Swedish universities have experienced bullying in the past year, according to the largest-ever national survey of university culture in the workplace.

The results, which include responses from people at all of Sweden’s 38 higher education institutions, reveal that women and young researchers are most affected, with one in 7 female doctoral students saying they have been bullied in the past 12 last months.

BULLYING IN THE ACADEMIC ENVIRONMENT.  The results of a survey conducted by Swedish universities suggest that women are more likely to be victims of bullying.

Similar patterns are likely to be seen in other countries with comparable research systems, such as the UK or the US, says Matthew Martin, a researcher at the University of West Virginia at Morgantown who studies the intimidation. He adds that in general, women are more often the target of bullying and sexual harassment than men.

Bullying and harassment in science has received increasing attention in recent years due to broader public awareness campaigns, such as the global #MeToo movement, through which large numbers of women spoke about their experiences of sexual harassment. Research funders are also placing greater emphasis on cultivating work cultures that deter such behavior through the introduction of formal anti-bullying policies. Since 2018, at least two top researchers in Europe have had their funding withdrawn after investigations by their institutions found evidence of bullying.

National survey

To better understand the prevalence of bullying and sexual harassment in Swedish universities, a group of researchers sent a survey to a sample of university students and employees, asking them about their experiences. The team, led by Christina Björklund, who studies bullying at the Karolinska Institute in Solna, Sweden, received nearly 39,000 responses between May and July 2021. A report outlining the findings was published in May.

“This is the biggest survey [of its kind] globally,” says Fredrik Bondestam, a gender-based violence researcher at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, who served on the study’s steering committee and helped design the research.

Of all staff and students, 7% of respondents said they had been harassed in the past 12 months, with this figure rising to 14% for female employees and 15% for doctoral students (see “The harassment in academia”). The proportions of researchers and administrative staff affected were 12% and 10%, respectively (there was no gender breakdown for these groups). Bullying rates in Sweden for the entire working population are around 10%.

The survey took place when many universities encouraged employees to work from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so the researchers also asked about cyberbullying. Around 5% of respondents said they had been harassed at work on social media, email or text.

Across the group, 4% of respondents said they had experienced sexual harassment in the past year, with male university employees and male doctoral students reporting such experiences at half that rate. Björklund claims that among all Swedish workers, the rate of sexual harassment is around 3%, according to surveys. About half of those who experienced sexual harassment in academia said they told someone about their experiences, but only 12% reported the behavior through official channels.

Interrupted and ignored

The researchers also asked how often respondents had experienced types of microaggressions – such as being interrupted or spoken to, ignored or yelled at – which, if left unchecked, can lead to a work environment in which the bullying and harassment are tolerated.

More than 95% of respondents said they had never been shouted at or called names, but 50% said they had experienced situations in which their contributions or opinions were not taken into account. A fifth said they were often or sometimes interrupted or talked about (see “Problematic Behaviour”).

PROBLEMATIC BEHAVIOR.  Chart showing that survey respondents experienced microaggressions that can lead to bullying.

These incivilities matter, says Björklund. “If you are interrupted all the time, what will happen to your opinions?” she asks. “We can see that if you have a good, inclusive work environment with support, it’s linked to better performance, you’ll get more money for research, and write more publications,” she adds.

Prior to the publication of the survey results, there was little large-scale data on the prevalence of bullying and sexual harassment in the higher education system of any country. In January, the government department responsible for science in Ireland published the results of a nationwide survey on sexual harassment sent to all university employees and students, which garnered around 11,500 responses. She revealed that almost a quarter of staff had experienced sexualised comments and a third had been the target of sexist remarks.

The European Union is also carrying out a major study to help policy makers understand the prevalence of sexual harassment and gender-based violence in universities and research organisations, on which it will report later this year.

Bondestam says the Swedish team solicited responses from a large number of employees and university students to ensure that the study had representative data, to avoid criticism from people who do not think that these problems exist in universities. “We wanted to be able to say ‘this is the data – don’t mess with the numbers’.”