In a culture of silence, Aoibhinn Ní Shúillebháin’s harassment speaks volumes

7 Sep 2020

Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin. Image: Connor McKenna/Silicon Republic

We shouldn’t need women such as Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin to step out as heroes, but unfortunately that’s what it has taken for Irish universities to face the problems festering in their environment, writes Elaine Burke.

Over the weekend, The Irish Times detailed two years of harassment experienced by Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin while working at University College Dublin (UCD). It makes for a discomforting read as Ní Shúilleabháin describes the intensity with which she was pursued by a colleague, to the point where “she moved into a new home alone, and kept a crowbar close by for safety”.

To go public with this account is nothing short of a heroic act. Ní Shúilleabháin has sacrificed her personal privacy in sharing this story, and no doubt there were other hurdles to overcome before reaching the decision to tell all. In doing so, she has given voice to others who have been through similar experiences – some of whom, through no fault of their own, may never be able to speak out. She has also made public the urgent need to address the issue of harassment in academia and spurred change that will seek improvement.

‘There is often a perceived tolerance for sexual harassment in academia’

But while Ní Shúilleabháin’s story is now committed to public record, it’s not the first time she has spoken about it. In Ní Shúilleabháin’s account, she revealed that UCD had been made aware of the harassment early on. The incidents had started and escalated quickly, and Ní Shúilleabháin had reported them to both HR and the dean of the school.

It’s not that UCD did nothing in response to Ní Shúilleabháin’s report, but the measures taken were completely inept. Her colleague was largely undeterred by written warnings and demands that he not contact Ní Shúilleabháin, and it took a Garda complaint culminating in a court case last year to finally put an end to his intimidation. Last year, Prof Hans-Benjamin Braun was charged with harassment under section 10 of the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act, 1997, and barred from contacting Ní Shúilleabháin for five years.

The fact that Ní Shúilleabháin had taken early action to report this harassment via the proper channels and still went on to endure two years of it is appalling. To add insult to injury, an apology from university president Andrew Deeks was issued by statement to the Sunday Independent in response to the Irish Times story and not to Ní Shúilleabháin directly.

“I’m very surprised to be reading about an apology from UCD president Andrew Deeks, since I haven’t received one or any communication from him on this matter,” tweeted Ní Shúilleabháin in response to the statement.

Deeks also apologised “to other colleagues and students who have suffered such experiences while in our care” and pledged to transform the environment at the university, changing how bullying and harassment is dealt with. Ní Shúilleabháin said she later received a written apology from Deeks and will be speaking with him during the week.

While it’s positive that action is finally being taken, the fact is the tools to shape a safer environment for those working and studying at higher level have been at these institutions’ disposal all along. Ní Shúilleabháin detailed in a Twitter thread instruments such as the Irish Universities Association’s guidance on sexual miconduct, the Department of Education and Skills’ framework to end sexual violence and harassment in higher education, and the Higher Education Authority’s gender policy resources.

Data pointing to the problem has always been there too. A 2018 report from the National Academies Press found that 58pc of women faculty and staff internationally have experienced sexual harassment.

‘Let me be clear: if there are any old dinosaurs out there in the system, your day is gone’

“Harassment and sexual harassment contribute to the lack of gender equality of women in academia,” wrote Ní Shúilleabháin.

“In Ireland, 24pc of high-level professor posts were held by women, compared to 51pc women lecturers (which are entry-level academic posts in the university sector),” she added, citing 2017 statistics from the Department of Education.

“The degree to which an organisation’s climate is seen by those within it as permissive of sexual harassment has the strongest relationship with how much sexual harassment occurs in that organisation. There is often a perceived tolerance for sexual harassment in academia.”

Taking action on harassment

Ní Shúilleabháin’s ordeal had already been brought to the attention of Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris, TD, who met with her in recent weeks. In a video responding to the publication of her story, he was unequivocal that there is an old guard in academia that needs to change.

“Let me be clear: if there are any old dinosaurs out there in the system, your day is gone. Third level, the higher education sector, the further education sector is to be an environment of respect, inclusion, tolerance and safety.”

Conceding that “strong words must be backed by actions”, Harris also detailed how his newly formed department will ensure this goal is reached. “Frameworks and guidelines are worth nothing unless they are implemented,” he admitted.

Steps have already been taken to force the hand of the institutions, all of which have been tasked with submitting action plans to the Higher Education Authority, which is to be strengthened with powers to oversee their implementation. The department has also commissioned a sexual violence and harassment survey to take place in the coming months in order to find some measure of the problem to be tackled.

In the US and the UK, research funding can be impacted by complaints of misconduct involving harassment and bullying, and Harris has reached out to Science Foundation Ireland and the Irish Research Council to consider similar measures here in Ireland.

Step-change in higher education

This step-change was not solely inspired by Ní Shúilleabháin, but her role in it is unquestionable. I only wish, like Harris, that she didn’t have to be at the centre of this problem and that universities didn’t have to be forced to face an issue that has been allowed to run rampant for years. It must have taken enormous strength and courage for Ní Shúilleabháin to share her story, and she never should have been in the position to need such fortitude to get results.

Orla O’Connor, director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland, said: “Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin’s experience shows the deep and significant impact sexual harassment has on every aspect of a person’s life. It highlights how this trauma can be compounded by the response from an institution that does not fully recognise the seriousness of the issue and its responsibility to offer adequate protection to the victim.

“We now need to see urgent action by all third-level institutes to ensure both staff and students can be safe on campus. Where an incident occurs, we crucially need to have in place clear policies and procedures that follow best practice in this area and ensure the victim is supported and protected at all times.”

Ní Shúilleabháin would like to see third-level institutions take a “trauma-informed and person-centred” approach to any new policies and procedures. “This issue doesn’t just affect victims, but also impacts on the education and research credibility of an institution,” she wrote.

“I don’t want anyone else, student or staff, to go through the same experiences I did. I hope that speaking publicly will begin a conversation that helps address this problem in third-level institutes across Ireland and helps support other victims to report their experiences.”

Support on these issues can be found from Women’s Aid (1800 341 900) and Dublin Rape Crisis Centre (1800 778 888).

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Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.