Event report: Bullying and Harassment in UK Classics Departments: Finding Solutions


The workshop Bullying and Harassment in the UK Classical Workplace: Finding Solutions took place on 11th September 2017 at Roehampton, and was organised by Professor Fiona McHardy, Dr. Katerina Volioti and WCC UK steering committee member Dr. Susan Deacy. The programme is detailed here. In this blog post, Susan reports back on the thinking behind running the event, how it all went, and where we go from here.


At the WCC-UK AGM in April 2017, I was struck that there seemed to be a shift from the inaugural AGM in 2016. In 2016, there had been a focus on problems that WCC might address in Classics. Now there was a move towards how WCC could address some of these problems. The presentation at the 2017 AGM from Dr. Anna Bull of the 1752 Group fitted this shift. Anna’s presentation raised some problems that run deep in HE culture around sexual harassment, but Anna identified various possible actions, including some do-able steps that individuals can take, and these can make a difference. It was in a similar spirit that Fiona, Katerina and I organised an event looking for possible solutions to bullying and harassment in UK Classics. Fiona and I had already written a paper that was problem-focused. It was a goal of this new event to discuss ways forward.

A number of people contacted me once the Call for Papers had gone out to give support or relate their experiences. Some were torn between coming along to help ensure that others will not go through what they had – and keeping these experiences in the past. And it was the latter that won out. This included attempting to go through institutional policies: one respondent (not a classicist) told me that they only had any success when the union at their HEI was serious about legal action for failure in duty of care. The perpetrators left, but for other institutions. This academic highlighted weak management and peer silence as practices that ‘give permission’ to bullying. Another person who got in touch – a classicist – had experiences of ‘gagging orders’ which can create a ‘wall of silence’ that allow some individuals to bully a succession of colleagues. Correspondents also discussed the ways in which universities can make their staff insecure at all stages in their careers. This culture not only mitigates against a good working environment, but it also discourages whistle-blowing, as people feel scared to put their necks on the line, for the sake of their careers.

Everyone present at the event, the programme for which is available here, was there because the topic mattered to them and/or to others close to them. We agreed to keep discussion in camera, so no twitter. Among the key issues raised were the following – and there is plenty here that WCC can explore further.

One point made was that the REF can help change the culture in UK HEIs because of the shift from individual submissions to submission units. This can foster team spiritedness between academics within and across departments. Could we do anything at WCC to help encourage a move towards such cohesiveness?

Another point was that some institutional policies advise that victims initially approach someone that they consider to be displaying bullying behaviour. The advice given is that the individual should do this informally, either face-to-face or in writing. But as we discussed, this might not be advisable as a response to being bullied – not least as this can lead bullies to try to turn the tables and accuse the complainant of bullying them. So instead it is advisable to look for allies. We discussed how, because it can sometimes be hard to know who to turn to in one’s institution, the WCC’s development of a mentoring scheme can offer a step forward. The trade union was also mentioned as a source of support – from which one of the participants had benefited.

We explored how beneficial it might be to try to understand bullies in the wake of a paper on this topic – and how useful the business literature on personality types might be here. One feeling was that the literature might risk oversimplifying the issue – as all sorts of people can be bullies, and there was discussion about the importance of recognising any bullying tendencies in ourselves. (This can include instances in which, for example, more junior women exhibit bullying behaviours towards senior men.)

One point raised concerning particular issues in Classics was around class – in a subject whose gatekeepers can help perpetuate elitism. This can include attitudes towards colleagues who are not experts in the ancient languages for example. Thus, initiatives by the WCC and others around combatting elitism can help change the culture.

Then we had a presentation on combatting homophobic bullying. One practical strategy – highly successful in a particular UK university and which has provided a model for others – has been to work with existing institutional structures to help stimulate interest in particular issues, by organising events, ideally including outside speakers, the more high-profile the better, tied in with specific ‘months,’ such as LGBT History Month. This can provide peer education and tackle discrimination including lower-level discrimination by those who may have no idea that they are behaving in a bullying way.

The final session was on conference Codes of Conduct led by speakers with experience developing and then upholding a Code for a major annual sci-fi convention. It had never struck me that the WCC itself might need a Code of Conduct – rather I saw the role of WCC to advise other conferences (e.g. CA, FIEC…) to develop them. But the advice here was that we should practice what we preach – indeed one of the speakers said that she made an exception to her usual practice in coming to our workshop owing to our forward-looking policy in one area, around childcare. Usually she declines any invitation from a body without a Code of Conduct. Classical and other academic conferences are only, it seems, at the start of a process that tech conventions have been working through for years. On the upshot, there are plenty of models available which the organisations in question are happy to share.

Fiona McHardy will present some ideas generated by the event to SCS in Boston in the winter. What came up at Roehampton, and what comes up in Boston, can then feed into the 2018 AGM.

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