Bullies gonna bully

Yesterday I hopped on a Sunday morning flight headed for a workshop. In preparation, I downloaded a podcast and steeled myself to listen to a Background Briefing on sexual harassment and bullying in CSIRO’s astronomy division. 

Over a period of many years, numerous very serious cases of bullying, harassment and sexual assault have been reported and investigated within this group. As a result, several superstar women scientists have left holy grail tenured positions at CSIRO to pursue either scientific careers in the University sector, or have left astronomy entirely.

While numerous investigations have been launched, many high level female (and male) staff members remain incensed about the organisation’s response. In particular, the outcomes of such investigations have been subject to strict nondisclosure agreements. Victims of bullying and harassment, even where substantiated by an investigation, have been unable to discuss their experiences. In addition, any specific consequences for perpetrators of bullying have remained secreted behind human resources (HR) walls.

For many staff members, it has seemed as though there are few, if any, consequences for inappropriate workplace behaviour. In some cases, bullies have been permitted to continue supervising junior female staff, who have also then been bullied. Meanwhile, victims have lost trust in the organisation, given up and left.

In addition, the caring toll on a subset of their colleagues has also been enormous. Some scientists are disgusted that the best minds of a discipline have been driven away by workplace harassment. Others have been crippled by their inability to practically assist those in precarious, or dangerous, supervisory situations. In one example, a vocal advocate for the victims of bullying even had a complaint made against her for inappropriate behaviour, which included false accusations of behavioural issues extending over a long period of employment. 

At a managerial level, aspersions of mishandling bullying and harassment have been rejected. As it is customary for such issues to be resolved privately in accordance with HR guidelines, they argue that these complaints have been handled appropriately. Furthermore, employees should have greater trust in management – although there appears to have been no consequences for those bullying, harassing and assaulting colleagues, they have in fact been reprimanded within these secretive agreements.

I was so angry listening to the details of the investigation. At the same time that the science and technology research industry vacuously argues that we need to get more girls into science, we are largely happy to drive women out with a culture permissive of exclusion, harassment, bullying and sexual assault. 

I have also long been angry about my personal experience in being bullied as a PhD student and feeling that this behaviour was systematically condoned. Despite many complaints, meetings, documents and letters, to various individuals and levels within the organisation, I am not aware that my complaints were ever even investigated. 

At first, I was appeased that CSIRO at least had processes in place for the reporting and investigation of bullying. But I’m not sure that these processes are much comfort when they lead to the same place I found myself as the victim of bullying. Various women (and men) contributing to the podcast spoke of feeling betrayed and angry, of being excluded, and of time lost from research and family in a fog of anxiety, depression and sleeplessness. 

 One contributor spoke of the heartache of young women coming to her with complaints about an individual who had a long catalogue of previous accusations of bullying. This is equal to my heart hurt when a young student sits with me, crying about an awful meeting with the same person who bullied me, but then suggests that it ok because she probably did something to incite his temper. 

Whether bullying is investigated or not is largely irrelevant if, in either case, bullies are allowed to continue in positions of leadership and supervision, with reputations untarnished, while their victims leave or become invisible in their own lives. In either approach, trust in the organisation and industry is eroded. 

In my brief experiences of research, I adamantly feel that the biggest barrier to creativity, innovation and excellence is not working in an environment of constrained funding. It is that a proportion of our greatest, most sparkly minds are excluded or abused by a system that protects their abusers. In many cases, these lost minds are women and the bullies are men, but certainly not in all. 

An organisation that then asks for trust in secreted processes has a very poor understanding of the experiences of an important part of their workforce. How can you ask for faith and trust from those who feel that the system works against them? 

So what can we do? I’m clearly not an expert in human resources or management, but some obvious steps might include: 

– Have clear processes for reporting and dealing with bullying and harassment 

– Follow these processes

– Make outcomes of these processes public (with de-identified data)

– Install a diversity and equity officer

– Be careful with language – sexual assault isn’t unwanted sexual attention, bullying isn’t having personality clash

– Provide support to those who have a role in supporting victims

– Don’t punish victims by changing their work arrangements, while the bully remains in place

– Have meaningful, tangible punishments for bullies, including demotion and denial of opportunities to supervise. 

– Have meaningful, tangible workplace punishments for those who instigate sexual abuse, including dismissal and legal action, where appropriate. 

 Until we recognise bullying as the serious inhibitor of progress and equity that it is, and not some unusual and surprising occurrence, we won’t stop bullies. 

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2 thoughts on “Bullies gonna bully

  1. Have meaningful, tangible workplace punishments for those who instigate sexual abuse, including dismissal and legal action, where appropriate.

    And also for the people trying to cover it up.

  2. Thank you – I think there is much more that needs to be said and I would suggest that this abusive behaviour is more wide spread and widely condoned in this country. It is not only a serious impediment to industry & progress – it tears the fundamental value of humanity to shreds. Our current culture (in a general sense) is not confident enough nor invested in safe guarding the basic human values of respect for equality that are an essential under pinning for healthy societies. God help us all!!!

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