Yes, let’s discuss lad culture – but don’t let university leaders off the hook

There has been a flood of news articles over the past year citing examples of lad culture in higher education. Following the reports, the London School of Economics has initiated an inquiry and, across the Atlantic, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has announced steps to minimise unwanted sexual behaviour on the campus.

This discussion on lad culture in higher education is very welcome and urgent. But there’s a problem: it risks glossing over the pervasiveness of discrimination and inequality in higher education. The debate creates a figure to blame – young rowdy men who drink heavily and behave inappropriately to be one of the “lads” – while letting university leaders off the hook.

Without discounting the prevalence of sexism and sexual harassment among students, this opportunity should be used to discuss the prevalence of such behaviour among staff too. Sexism in universities is seen not only in night clubs and student bars but also in classrooms, meetings, conferences and open plan offices.

It’s hard to find statistics on sexism and sexual harassment, but if you’re a woman studying or working in higher education, you’ve probably heard enough stories to last you a lifetime. As a blogger on Tenure, She Wrote writes: “Very often, women quietly tell their stories without naming their harassers.” This exchange of quiet confidences is more common than our universities, the bastions of progressive thought, would like to believe.

How about the only woman in a meeting being asked about tea and cakes or, perhaps a slight improvement, being called a “clever girl”? What about a professor saying: “Sorry about all the women in this laboratory, but at least they’re good to look at”? Women in senior positions are not exempt either – it’s not uncommon for women professors to be introduced as so-and-so’s wife. These stories are from across the UK, Europe and North America and, needless to say, they’re only the tip of the iceberg.

It seems ironic that the people investigating and putting forward recommendations to tackle sexism in universities are most likely to be “pale, male and stale” – 80% of UK professors are men and only one in five vice-chancellors in the country is a woman. These white, middle-class men are only too happy to shift responsibility from themselves on to the “crass” and “badly behaved” young men entering our universities.

In the Russell Group university I work in, there has been a lot of discussion, in light of recent incidents at other universities, on how male students engaging in sexist behaviour should be punished. It’s shameful that this discussion has been selective, completely ignoring the kind of pervasive and insidious sexism I’ve mentioned in the examples above. Perhaps such behaviour is so normalised that the well-meaning men making decisions on tackling lad culture don’t even see it. That, or this is a technique of self-preservation – why turn the spotlight on to ourselves when we have young male students to scapegoat?

This doesn’t give me much hope about changing the culture of higher education to make it inclusive for all. Taking punitive measures against students after an incident is an easy option. But what message are we sending out when lecturers do not give women an opportunity to speak in the class, senior managers discuss a woman’s perfume in a meeting or vice-chancellors making sexist jokes go unchallenged (all are issues I have come across at my university)?

While the focus of discussion here is sexism and sexual harassment, it can easily be extended to all forms of discrimination and continued inequalities in our universities.

If universities truly intend to reform themselves, university leaders need to lead by example. Here are a few ways to get started:

  • Involve female students and staff in discussions about sexism in your university. Remember that informing them is not sufficient. Listen to what they have to say and act on it – their experience of sexism is more valid than any understanding of the issue you might have.
  • Don’t wait to act until something big has happened. If you’re hearing murmurs about sexism or other kinds of discrimination, take it seriously – you’ll stand yourself in good stead if you’re proactive about it.
  • Treat complaints about your star professor the same way you’d treat complaints about students – being a staff member, even an excellent staff member, does not excuse discriminatory and offensive behaviour.
  • Attend equality and diversity training sessions – don’t think you’re above it. You’re biased like anyone else is and these sessions can help you understand and mitigate your own biases.

This week’s anonymous blogger works at a Russell Group university.

Would you like to write for Academics Anonymous? Do you have an idea for a blog post about the trials, tribulations and frustrations of university life? Get in touch: claire.shaw@theguardian.com.

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