How Culture Can Breed Sexual Harassment in the Academy

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In higher education, relationships of trust and confidence that are built outside of the classroom are often just as important as those built inside of the classroom. Whether the out-of-classroom experiences are receptions for consequential events, conferences, networking events (e.g., meet-and-greet), work in a laboratory, and/or field research, among other academic experiences, a trusting relationship established between student and professor is often an important part of a student’s academic success; thus, such a healthy dynamic needs to be maintained.

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These aforesaid events are intended to connect faculty and students, but, depending upon the institution’s culture, said events can instead become a breeding ground for sexual misconduct among faculty and staff that cannot exercise such restraint. When sexual misconduct occurs is when the trust factor is diminished and, consequently, is when institutional integrity can become compromised.

The ripple effects of sexual misconduct on the institution can be daunting and can range from loss in federal funds, substantial fines and settlement payouts from criminal and civil lawsuits, loss in student personnel and valuable employees who elect to leave the academy out of disgust and/or protest, and disgruntled donors who withhold future donations and capital campaign gifts. According to Anderson (2018), “too often, women say, men who hold these positions of privilege and power on college campuses have abused that trust” (para. 2). Without the right cultural norms in tact, privilege and power can breed an atmosphere of sexual misconduct; therefore, this is more than a legal issue? sexual misconduct is a cultural issue and must be addressed as such. Before sexual misconduct can be addressed in any capacity, its definition must be made clear in order for the most effective cultural treatment to ensue.

What is Sexual Harassment, and What Constitutes It?

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), sexual harassment covers behavior such as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature” (“Sexual Harassment,” n.d.). Furthermore, such harassment need not assume the form of an actual sexual act. It can involve offensive rhetoric about a person’s gender or uttering offensive remarks toward, or to, a woman. The victim need not be female, as charges can just as easily be leveled against a female. Also, the victim can be of any gender or non-gender-conforming.

Occasional offhand remarks, teasing, and other isolated incidents are generally not prohibited by law; however, repeated conduct of this nature is prohibited, as it can easily transpire into sexual harassment by way of cultivating a hostile or offensive environment. A hostile atmosphere represents another variant of sexual harassment in the workplace. For instance, unfounded adverse employment decisions, such as termination, demotion, or assignment to harsh tasks, can be forms of sexual harassment, depending upon the context, of course. Finally, the workplace harasser, particularly, need not be a co-worker or a supervisor or even work in the same department. The accused can be someone who is not employed by the organization, such as a client, a customer, a vendor, a sub-contractor, etc. (“Sexual Harassment,” n.d.). Finally, sexual harassment and sexual misconduct will be used here interchangeably, as sexual harassment, along with sexual assault and rape, are forms of sexual misconduct.

The Power Dynamic: The Nexus of, and Key to Reversing, a Culture of Sexual Harassment

Power and sexual harassment often go hand-in-hand. The power dynamic at play in a higher education institution can manifest itself in a variety of forms. Faculty can wield power by deciding: a student’s grade; whether the student gets a letter of recommendation for a job or for graduate school; whether the student’s name is on a grant; whether the student can be named a

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How Culture Can Breed Sexual Harassment in the Academy. (2020, May 04). Retrieved from