Sexual harassment in universities becomes visible…again

Susan Currie reviews the forty-year battle over sexual harassment in Australian universities, and the pioneering efforts of Dr Janet Irwin to give women a voice.

On 23 August 2016, the launch of a ‘groundbreaking’ national survey on sexual assault and sexual harassment within Australian universities was announced. This survey is to be conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission in partnership with Universities Australia.

It is timely, therefore, that my biography of Dr Janet Irwin will be published this month. Janet was a fearless activist on health and social justice issues. Amongst many other achievements, she was a pioneer in arranging surveys of sexual harassment at universities, and naming it as a workplace health and safety issue.

Premier Anna Bligh delivers speech at the Proclamation Day celebrations, Brisbane, 2009. Image via State Library Queensland.

Janet saw her brief as Director of Health Services at the University of Queensland (1974-1988) as encompassing occupational health and safety, at the time still a novel concept. Indeed, she was instrumental in the university appointing a Director of Occupational Health & Safety. In 1981, she read an article in the student magazine, Semper Floreat, about an issue that was interfering with the studies of a number of women students and was ‘a real threat to women’s academic careers’. That issue was sexual harassment by male academics. The reporter was Anna Bligh, then Women’s Rights Vice-President of the Australian Union of Students, later a Member of State Parliament and Premier of Queensland.

Janet approached Deputy Vice Chancellor, Professor George Davies, about the matter, and suggested that he bring to the University’s attention its potential legal responsibility for the actions of its employees. As a result of her initiative, an Advisory Committee was established to handle complaints of sexual harassment at the university.

screen-shot-2016-10-14-at-9-19-07-amConcerns expressed to Janet by students at one of the female residential colleges, coinciding with several female college students seeking medical treatment as a result of severe sexual harassment, led her to believe that the problem was not confined to behaviour by academic staff. She became convinced of the need for research to determine the nature and extent of the problem. Semper Floreat ran another article on sexual harassment in its July 1982 issue. This article claimed that harassment in the colleges was a serious problem, especially during Orientation week, and was one of the university’s best-kept secrets.

The article further reported that the Sexual Harassment Committee had raised the idea of conducting a survey of the colleges, and that most of the college heads had agreed, but that the Vice-Chancellor had ‘torpedoed’ it on the basis that it could bring the university into disrepute, discourage parents from sending their children to colleges and that it was an issue for the colleges themselves and not for the university. (These allegations were later denied by the Vice Chancellor.) The article went on to say that ‘Unconvinced by these arguments, however, the Director of Health Services, Janet Irwin, has decided to go ahead with the survey through individual colleges.’

Janet did proceed with a survey in conjunction with Janet Jones, who lectured in the Department of Sociology. It was envisioned not only as a fact-finding investigation, but also as having an educative function in heightening awareness and facilitating discussion of the problem of sexual harassment. The introduction to the survey report indicates that there had been resistance from the heads of some of the co-educational and male colleges and that a decision had been taken to survey only female students and only some colleges. From the 756 questionnaires mailed out, 422 replies were received. There were also 151 questionnaires completed by non-college female students waiting to be seen at the Health Service. It was emphasised that the survey was not implying that college females were different from other female students nor that males were immune from sexual harassment.

Women’s movement poster, circa 1980. Gift to the Australian National Gallery, from Canberra Contemporary Art Space, Canberra, 1993. Image via Trove.

Of those surveyed, fifty-two per cent reported having been sexually harassed. Those living in co-educational colleges and rented accommodation were more likely to have suffered considerable harassment. One student said that ‘It was quite a terrifying experience to be made feel that sex is a must at Uni, and that, if you are a virgin, it is worse than having the bubonic plague.’

Another spoke of strange males banging on their door, groups of drunken males piling into their rooms without invitation. Eight per cent said that the harassment had affected their academic work. One spoke of an incident in the library where ‘the guy was masturbating on the floor near my desk and deliberately shot semen over my legs.’ Twenty students were thinking of leaving their colleges because of the problem; fourteen of these came from co-educational colleges.

The most common offenders were casual male acquaintances. Harassment by male academics occurred in six per cent of cases. One student said that the lecturer who was harassing her was on the institute which decided who was accepted into the profession, so that there was too much at stake for her to risk making a complaint. Fifty-nine percent said that pressure was put on females to put up with potentially harassing behaviours in order to be socially accepted. Most respondents were unaware that the university had a complaints system.

Sexual harassment awareness poster, circa 1980s, produced by the NSW Women’s Advisory Council/Anti-Discrimination Board Australia. Image via Powerhouse Museum Sydney.

Janet was later to report to Professor Davies that a number of female students who came to the Health Service told her that the survey had empowered them to talk about the issue, and that a friend on the council of one of the co-ed colleges reported that they were looking seriously at aspects of college behaviour since the survey. Guidelines were drawn up for the Sexual Harassment Committee. The primary role of the committee was confirmed as educational and preventive, but it was also given authority to hear individual complaints, to mediate complaints in appropriate cases and to recommend appropriate disciplinary action where warranted.

In 1986, it was determined that the extent of sexual harassment on campus would be monitored by conducting a survey on an adequate sample of male and female staff and students every three years, analysing the results and disseminating the information. The University Colleges posed a problem because the colleges themselves were privately owned and did not come under the jurisdiction of the university for disciplinary purposes. Educational programs were instituted during Orientation Week where Janet and other Committee members addressed incoming students on the issue and also visited the Colleges to foster awareness.

The Committee also became aware of the need to educate specific groups of students such as those about to undertake hospital, school or community placements, and overseas students who may have different cultural expectations. By the beginning of 1989, approximately fifty cases of alleged sexual harassment had been dealt with by the Committee. However, attempts to instigate general university-wide programs in sexual harassment education had not been successful.

Meanwhile, Janet had been active on this issue at the national level. In 1982, at the Australian and New Zealand Student Services Association conference in Melbourne, she put forward a proposal that:

Because of increasing public awareness of and concern about the problem of sexual harassment, we as student service personnel from various disciplines, wish ANZSSA to make representations to all tertiary educational institutions to set up formal systems of communication for the handling of complaints. There is no doubt that this problem exists in the educational system and involves students and staff, male and female. So that allegations may be dealt with confidentially for the protection of the complainant, the person complained against, and the institution, it is essential that such systems be introduced.

It was passed. The following year, ANZSSA conducted its own survey of members. Thirty-three institutions replied and in only ten of these had any formal complaint procedures been established. By the following year, however, sexual harassment was being studied and actions taken at the majority of tertiary institutions in Australia.

It seems however, from the current state of play that these same battles need to be won over and over again.

screen-shot-2016-10-14-at-9-13-14-amSusan Currie has worked variously as a lawyer, academic, teacher and librarian. As well as numerous journal articles, book reviews, short stories and poems, she has written a textbook on legal studies for Queensland schools, and seven significant profiles for A Woman’s Place: 100 Years of Queensland Women Lawyers (2005). She has degrees in Arts and Law from UQ, a Masters of Laws and a Masters of Arts (Research) in Creative Writing from QUT and completed her recent biography of Janet Irwin as the major component of a Ph.D. in Creative Writing from Central Queensland University.

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