December 26, 2017

Bullies have no place in academia – even if they're star scientists

...My self-confidence, scientific progress and mental health were in decline from the beginning. My supervisor belittled me in front of my peers, derided me for enacting laboratory safety measures and denied me the technical training I needed to gain traction in a new scientific discipline. I recall silently sobbing as his large frame hulked over me, and how he gesticulated wildly as he yelled, “Just do what I tell you!”. That meeting lasted 90 minutes, the culmination of months of relentless bullying from he, the principal investigator on our research project.
I walked out of that meeting resolving that no one would treat me that way again. I wanted to complain to the university, so I sought to follow institutional policy, only to find that it didn’t exist. Human resources was completely ineffectual, lacking knowledge and training in conflict resolution, contractual negotiation and my legal entitlement to a safe workplace.

Desperate for help, I reached out to the university with which my institute was affiliated. I was told that it could not offer me support as I was not a member of university staff. Despite the existing arrangement – the institute posing as independent entity and university department, depending on which funding pool it wished to dip into – a political distinction had been drawn, and I was left on my own...

That supervisor followed a pattern of systematic abuse of predominantly female employees. The institute, its senior staff and the university were complicit by failing to provide adequate support to the victims, and for rewarding the supervisor with a position of power while continuing to recruit vulnerable staff to place in his care. No amount of scientific brilliance can excuse this behaviour.

Universities should have avenues for recourse against the perpetrators of harassment at all levels, which the victims can access without fear of reprisal, burden of proof or risk of personal or career injury to the vulnerable party.
I would also have appreciated more support from my institution for the mental health consequences of a bullying supervisor. Instead, I had to rely on my personal network – my partner, friends and family. Fortunately, I could afford the medical treatment I needed to return to wellness. But not everyone is so lucky...


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