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Depictions of abusive behavior

The number of academic studies about the incidence and effects of bullying and sexual harassment in the country’s universities is growing

Lívia Serri Francoio

Physicist Marcia Barbosa, a researcher from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS) and a specialist in the discrimination of women in science, says that she was surprised by the impact of a campaign about bullying and sexual harassment organized in her institution in 2016 by the Girls in Science group, coordinated by the members of the teaching staff Carolina Brito and Daniela Pavani. Using Facebook, the pair collected abusive or prejudiced phrases that the students heard from teachers. They reproduced several of these statements on posters, under the heading “This is my teacher,” with which they paraded the campus to denounce sexism and misogyny in the classroom. “Are you finding it difficult? Then go and do ballet,” proclaimed one of the posters. “Come wearing that outfit again and I’ll give you a bonus,” said another. “I need two master’s students, one intelligent guy and a cute little girl to carry my books and serve me coffee,” mocked one poster.

“I thought that these idiotic phrases were only common in exact sciences, in which there are generally lots of men and few women, but I saw that they were also frequent in other areas, including human and social sciences. I was left with the feeling that harassment is much more widespread than I had imagined and also poorly documented in the literature,” says Barbosa. The researchers then had the idea of mapping the incidence and the perception of employees, teaching staff, and students from UFRGS in relation to attitudes that characterize sexual harassment and bullying, as well as the profile of victims and perpetrators.

The results were published in 2022 in an article in the journal Anais da Academia Brasileira de Ciências, also coauthored by physicist Carolina Brito and by other colleagues from UFRGS. The group adapted a questionnaire used in a pioneering study about harassment carried out at Harvard University, USA, in 1983 for each of the three groups — teachers, employees, and students. The survey was applied online and was answered by 739 teachers, 521 employees, and 4,791 students. Bullying, which includes violent behaviors, cursing, and humiliations which degrade the academic environment, was shown to be widespread, impacting around 40% of teachers and students and over half the technical-administrative staff. “It is a scary percentage. Lots of people only realized they had been victims of this type of abuse upon reflecting about the topic at the time of answering the question,” states Barbosa. “Bullying is an instrument for maintaining power. The logic of bullies in the university is to humiliate to see whether the victims give up and get out of their way.” The distribution of cases was uniform in the subgroups of students, but not in teaching staff and employees — in which bullying was more frequent among bisexual, trans, and nonbinary people, as well as women and Black people.

The occurrence of sexual harassment, which is characterized by verbal or physical abusive conduct to gain sexual favors or to humiliate individuals for characteristics of gender, was reported by 12% of those interviewed in all categories. However, it was most frequent among women (around 15% of female participants reported having suffered sexual harassment, compared to 5% of the male group) and was twice as prevalent among bisexuals than heterosexuals and homosexuals. A curious finding relates to the perception of harassment. More women than men classified comments of a sexual nature, undesired invitations and phone calls, or sexist jokes as harassment. A higher percentage of men considered unwanted touching of another person as bullying, despite touching almost always being of a sexual nature.

According to the research, sexual harassment is committed mainly by men, who may be teachers, employees, or students, whereas bullying is also practiced by women, although in a lower proportion than men. Only 6.5% of the teachers, 7.5% of students, and 11.3% of employees that were victims of sexual harassment made formal complaints, a sign that this practice is not being well combated. “It was surprising to see the reporting channels being discredited and this led UFRGS to create more robust structures for receiving complaints.” Barbosa says that the results of the survey have helped to convince organizations she participates in, such as the Brazilian Academy of Sciences (ABC) and the Brazilian Physics Society (SBF), to adopt codes that identify and punish harassment among their members.

The mapping done by UFRGS joins several other works that have recently brought the issue of sexual harassment and bullying in universities and research institutions to the attention of the academic community. One finding from the study “O perfil do cientista brasileiro em início e meio de carreira” (The profile of Brazilian scientists at the beginning and middle of their career), released this year by ABC, points to a similar situation. Around 47% of the women and 12% of the men interviewed reported having suffered sexual harassment during their career. In relation to bullying, 67% of women and 49% of men informed that they had been affected. Over 4,000 researchers responded to the survey.

The discussion is about behaviors linked to the abuse of power, but many of those accused react as if their intellectual production is being judged, says Lidia Possas

Some studies have focused on the effects of harassment among groups that have recently gained more space in the university environment, such as women or those who have benefited from affirmative actions, such as Black and mixed-race people, and graduates from public schools. Researchers from the University of Brasília (UnB) analyzed reports from 16 students from the institution who, before enrolling on a graduate course, had been part of an extension project — Meninas Velozes (literally translated as Fast Girls) — applied in a public school from the periphery of Brasília and aimed to stimulate interest among young girls in exact sciences. Bullying was highlighted as one of the first obstacles faced by the students as part of the adaptation to university life. “There was a teacher who, in an introduction to engineering class, said that he didn’t like working with women because he was not as productive as he was with men. I thought it was really odd, it was really annoying,” reported one of the participants in the survey, identified as Catarina, a fictitious name, a student from Brasília. “This discomfort can be destructive for a student, especially a first-year student in an introductory class to their training. If you report it, you fear being the target of humiliations, insecurity, and confirmations from the environment that reproduces institutionalized sexism,” wrote the authors of the article, coordinated by sociologist Tania Mara Campos de Almeida.

In reflection of the relevance that the issue of harassment has gained in corporations and among human resources professionals, several works about the problem were conducted by researchers from the area of business administration. In one study published in Revista de Estudos Organizacionais e Sociedade, Juliana Teixeira, of the Federal University of Espírito Santo, and Adriana Rampazo, of the State University of Londrina, in Paraná, analyzed reports from researchers from the field of business and concluded that sexual harassment is widespread and is treated with naturality in the academic environment of the subject. “Although advances in gender discussions [in the academic space] should be recognized, talking about sexual harassment is, still, talking about a naturalized and denied topic in this space, even if experienced,” wrote the authors. The prologue to the article presents the report of a 30-year-old researcher, whose identity is not revealed, about the sexual harassment she suffered from a research colleague that she had just met at a party for the Annual Meeting of the Brazilian National Association of Graduate Business Schools, held in a city in the Northeast last decade. After calling her a “dark-skinned beauty” (the researcher is Black), the aggressor asked what star sign she was and, after hearing the response, blurted out: “Can I say? You want sex every day. You are desperate.”

Bianca Spode Beltrame, who is currently doing a PhD in business administration at UFRGS, produced a survey in 2018 that became a reference for studies about harassment in universities. In a final project for a specialization course in public administration, she sent questionnaires to dozens of federal higher education institutions and gave an overview of the institutional combat & prevention strategies against harassment in 71 of them. The study demonstrated that 52.3% had no policy for the prevention of harassment and 70% of them had not adopted measures to combat the problem.

Although the data has been well used to prove the difficulties of tackling harassment in the academic environment, Beltrame states that it is outdated and several institutions are no longer resistant. “Harassment has become a widely discussed issue in recent times and I know numerous institutions that have adopted protocols, policies, and standards against harassment in the university setting since the study was done,” says the researcher, who included UFRGS itself on the list of these institutions and also the Federal University of Santa Maria, where she is employed. Nevertheless, she observes that “the competitiveness in the university environment and the logic of productivity, in detriment to the educative process and academic and professional development, feed and sustain practices of bullying among colleagues, with students, or in hierarchical relationships.”

Many Brazilian universities have woken up to the problem and established policies and programs for dealing with cases of harassment in recent years. In 2019, the University Council of the University of Campinas (UNICAMP) created the Gender and Sexuality Commission, which administers the Attention to Sexual Violence Service (SAVS), responsible for actioning specialized sectors and, in accordance with the specifics of each case, offering guidance and care for the victims, as well as forwarding complaints for investigation. The University of São Paulo (USP) has the USP Women’s Office, which works on the production and implementation of initiatives for the promotion of gender equality on its seven campuses. In 2020, in partnership with the Social Assistance Department, the office launched an attendance protocol for sexual violence and harassment cases in the university, with guidelines on care, referral, and follow-up of the victims through health and psychosocial services (see Pesquisa FAPESP issue nº 212).

Lívia Serri Francoio

Two years ago, São Paulo State University (UNESP) published a guide for preventing harassment in the academic environment and strengthened the ombudsmen on all its campuses, spread across 24 cities, to deal with complaints. The university’s mobilization was sparked after an infamous episode which took place in 2010 at a sporting event for the integration of undergraduate students on the Araraquara campus: The Fat Girl Rodeo. Students from the Assis campus created a brutal competition, using the social network platform Orkut, in which they subjected female students identified as obese to situations of humiliation and violence — the men grabbed hold of the female colleagues as if they were mounting an animal, and disputed for prizes depending on the time they were able to remain on top of them. At the time, the students involved were suspended. One of the organizers was condemned to pay compensation of 30 minimum monthly wages in damages. The case was one of the complaints assessed by a Parliamentary Inquiry Commission in the Legislative Assembly of the State of São Paulo, created in 2014 to investigate human rights violations in pranks and parties at São Paulo universities.

“The period between 2013 and 2019 was marked by an increase in the number of accusations and complaints of violence registered with the UNESP Ombudsmen and, at the same time as the resurgence of aggressions, there was intense action by student movements resisting such practices in the university,” recalled sociologist Beatriz Jorge Barreto, in one of six articles published last year in the dossier Violência de Gênero na Universidade (Gender violence in the university), organized by the institution’s Interdisciplinary Laboratory of Gender Studies (LIEG-UNESP), at the Marília campus.

The LIEG-UNESP dossier also contained an article of autobiographical content, in which lawyer Natalia Silveira de Carvalho, who is currently doing a PhD in Law at the Federal University of Bahia, exposes the importance of student groups within the university for developing policies for preventing and dealing with gender violence. She recounts her undergraduate experiences, from when she studied at UNESP in Franca in the 2000s. “I remember one specific activity well from freshman week about a series of rapes against university students from UNESP from 2000 to 2004,” she wrote. According to her, the activity was an exercise in solidarity with the rape victims, “bearing in mind that their identities remained confidential and the narratives of violence was not relativized or distorted, which was relevant considering that we were living in a context of victim blaming.”

The pedagogue Carolina dos Santos Bezerra-Perez, from the Laboratory School of the Federal University of Juiz de Fora, presented a dramatic study of the case of a Black female student in a Brazilian university who was constantly harassed and who ended up being sexually assaulted by a “veteran,” but faced a series of embarrassments when she reported the case to the university where she studied and to the police — the aggressor was never punished.

For historian Lidia Possas, coordinator of LIEG-UNESP and a teacher at the School of Philosophy and Sciences (FFC) in Marília, studies of this type are important for bringing the issue of harassment to the light of day, but she affirms that discussing them and publishing them creates points of tension in the academic environment. “The space within the university appears democratic, but there are internal disputes that can be extremely hostile,” she says. “Reports of harassment are frequently poorly received by male researchers, who are trained in an environment in which this is tolerated and shrouded. The discussion is about behaviors linked to the abuse of power, but many of those accused react as if their intellectual production is being judged,” explains Possas, who also worked as an ombudsman for the UNESP campus in Marília.

Researchers from LIEG are engaged in new research about harassment, such as the undergraduate research of anthropology student Bruna Silva Oliveira, at FFC-UNESP, in Marília, who compares the guidelines for dealing with harassment adopted in the state universities of São Paulo with those of institutions in Latin American countries, such as Chile, Mexico, and Peru. “In Peru, there is a law that punishes the universities for a lack of protocols or failures to investigate complaints of harassment since 2014,” affirms Oliveira. One of the references of the work is a study by Mexican psychologist Flor de María Gamboa Solís about protocols used in the Michoacan University of Saint Nicholas of Hidalgo, in Mexico. One of the conclusions of her analysis was that protocols of this type depend on profound changes in the culture of the university to work and that, if this does not happen, instead of protecting the people, they can serve as a parameter to be bypassed by aggressors.