by Sarah Jane Brubaker and Brittany Keegan
7th August 2020

In the past few months, the world’s attention has shifted back and forth from a global pandemic sweeping across the world, shining a light on gross inequities across race, class and gender, to police violence against black women and men further exacerbating historical and systemic racism.

Our collective consciousness of systemic oppression and the extensive pain and suffering it causes has never been sharper, and individuals, groups and organisations are scrambling to process and respond to the growing unrest and demands for reform. At the same time, movements such as #MeToo still linger in our minds and remind us of another area in which there is much work to be done. Never in our recent past has the need to address systemic oppression and discrimination through activism and policy reform been more urgent.

We have been examining sexual harassment in academia, its underlying causes and critical approaches to policy reform. Through this research we have seen many parallels between the #MeToo movement and how sexual harassment is (or is not) being addressed on the one hand, and the social justice issues highlighted today on the other. We have seen calls for improvement with no response. We have seen acts of violence against marginalised individuals occur again and again with nothing done to prevent their repetition. We have seen those who commit acts of discrimination and oppression elevated, while those who experience discrimination and oppression are still ignored, blamed, ostracised and pushed aside.

In this article, we discuss these parallels further and explore how many of the underlying causes of sexual harassment, as well as recommendations for how to address them, can be applied to other forms of oppression and misconduct including racism and discrimination. This includes structural factors that can lead to harassment and discrimination, inequities in professional and social opportunities, the role of policies, insufficient responses at the organisational level and, perhaps most importantly, comprehensive culture change.

Social hierarchies and other structural factors can lead to increased instances of sexual harassment and other forms of victimisation, as those with more power cause harm to those with less. Those who are already marginalised, such as people of colour, students and non-tenured professors are most at risk of experiencing sexual harassment and discrimination in academic settings. Those who undergo sexual harassment are harmed in multiple ways, experiencing chronic mental, physical or sexual health problems, substance abuse, relationship problems or damaged reputations. Similarly, those who experience racial discrimination tend to face poorer physical and mental health outcomes, economic disparities and an increased risk of violent victimisation. Both sexual harassment and discrimination can also deny academics professional opportunities and even end careers, which in turn leads to even greater marginalisation of already vulnerable individuals. At the organisational level, sexual harassment and discrimination harm universities and academic professional associations as a whole. When misconduct takes place, it creates an environment that feels less safe and can bring into question the integrity of the university/organisation as well as that of members of its leadership team.

Organisational policy changes in response to sexual harassment and discrimination, such as providing agency and options to those who have been victimised, collaboration with all involved parties to identify solutions, changes in how institutions respond to issues and culture change can lead to much-needed survivor-centred reform. However, while these policies may be put into place to help protect individuals against misconduct and to hold universities and academic professional organisations accountable for the behaviour of their members, not all of them are effective. They may be too brief or too vague to actually be enforceable, or they may lack important components such as methods for filing a report, clear ramifications for perpetrators and the provision of support for those filing a report such as advocacy or counselling services. In other cases, policies against these types of misconduct may not even exist. Furthermore, policies often focus on response while doing little to prevent misconduct from occurring in the first place.

Similarly, institutions of higher education and professional organisations have recently scrambled to respond to cases of racism and discrimination with anti-racism statements that have been criticised as mere ‘image work’ and toothless. These surface-level strategies are similar to organisational diversity statements that are often meant to discourage sexual and other forms of harassment, but are wholly insufficient. Our research has found that statements, though meaningful symbolically, are not a substitute for policy or for reforms that dismantle the structural inequality that creates vulnerability and the possibility for abuse and discrimination. Organisations must have clear anti-sexual harassment and anti-racism policies that can be implemented, with clear mechanisms for reporting and responding to harassment, racism and discrimination. They must centre the experiences, needs and voices of marginalised groups, and must actively engage in improving the response to reports and in holding violators accountable.

However, the organisations and their policies alone cannot ensure real and lasting change. While, when written and enforced correctly, policies can help facilitate individual reporting and formalise organisational responses to misconduct, truly eliminating harassment and discrimination from our social spaces requires comprehensive cultural change.

We all have a responsibility to create and uphold a culture of equity and inclusion that has no tolerance for harassment and racism. Our cultural perceptions are shifting, our values are being re-examined and previously marginalised voices are being amplified. We must keep this momentum going. Oppression, violence and discrimination dehumanise us all. Change is not only possible but necessary, and we all must play a role in ensuring that it lasts.

Sarah Jane Brubaker, Ph.D. is a professor of criminal justice and public policy at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she directs a Certificate in Gender Violence Intervention. 

Brittany Keegan, Ph.D. is the research coordinator and director of the Land Use Education Program at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center for Public Policy.

The are the authors of the chapter ‘Power, Privilege, and #MeToo in Academia’ in the Agenda for Social Justice, out now.


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