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Intellectual Seduction? French Professors' Sexual Harassment Problem

In Paris, what happens in a cafe'...
In Paris, what happens in a cafe'...
Nathalie Brafman

Let’s call her Juliet. This young woman is one of the few who accepted to tell her story, under certain conditions of course: no mention of her name, not even her first name, of her studies or her former university.

“During my Masters, the relationship between my thesis supervisor and I gradually worsened. At first, it was fairly cordial, even friendly. Then, over the months, he started asking me personal questions, told me I would be prettier if I showed more cleavage. He greeted me with kisses on the cheek and once got too close to my lips”, she remembers. “I talked about it to my parents and I sent extremely firm signals, even if it meant getting a poor grade.”

This professor had a reputation for such behavior. The university administration turned a blind eye.

When sexual harassment is mentioned in French higher education, the topic encounters two obstacles. First the taboo, then the impunity, which is increased by various judicial and administrative procedures specific to French higher education that complicate the recognition of facts and the conviction of perpetrators.

The particular relationship that develops between professors and students makes harassment at university different than in companies or administrations. “There’s a special bond between a tenured professor, whose rank is unquestionable and unquestioned, and a PhD or Master’s student,” a Ministry of Higher Education official says. “It is a bond made of complicity and intellectual seduction.”

“A risky duo”

In addition to this intellectual proximity, there are meetings to talk about how research is progressing that often take place in cafés, because of the lack of space in crowded French universities. Some professors think this practice should be banned. Others brush this consideration aside, claiming the only relevant question whether or not the relationship is ambiguous.

Vincent Berger, president of the Paris-Diderot University, is radical: “The student-professor duo is a risky one,” he argues. “More than the intellectual intimacy, there are the mental conditions of the intellectual influence the professor has. He represents knowledge and is therefore in a position of intellectual supremacy.”

The PhD student entirely depends on the thesis supervisor to be granted a scholarship or find a placement as a teaching assistant, “and this dependence can last a very long time.”

Sexual harassment in higher education is a well-known issue; but universities often ignore it under the premise that such practices cannot exist in such a exalted context. On the one hand, no one can imagine that a professor, in charge of passing on knowledge and respected among his peers, could indulge in reprehensible behavior. On the other, how can women (the main victims) who are well into their higher studies and aware of their rights, not do anything about it?

The topic surfaced for the first time in 2002 when young PhD students founded “Clasches”, a feminist group devoted to stamping out sexual harassment in higher education. Ten years later, in November 2012, a Ministerial circular was sent to university directors to draw their attention to preventive measures and the action that must be taken when they are informed of sexual harassment-related incidents. Few universities took action.

“Hinted or explicit”

Yet, the problem most certainly does exist: “Verbal abuse, comments on their private lives, remarks on their bodies and how they should dress sexy (…), hinted or explicit sexual propositions”, the National Feminist Studies Association details in a White Paper entitled Gender in higher studies and research.

But in the absence of quantitative surveys, it seems complicated to grasp the magnitude of the problem. “There is no count of the complaints registered to university directors, of the procedures opened and even less information about any sanctions levied,” says Christelle Hamel, research director at the National Institute for demographic studies.

“For fear of retaliation – the risk of the thesis not being published, threats of slowing down the professional carreer, delays in the visa renewal applications for foreign students – a sort of code of silence is settling in to the benefit of the harassers,” says Clara, a member of Clasches.

The risk is even greater for the victims because internal university procedures remain stacked against the students. “Requests have to be filed to the director, the only one who can decide on the call for a disciplinary sanction. There’s a filter in the treatment of complaints that employees in the private sector don’t have to face,” says Sylvie Cromer, sociologist at the Lille-II university and president of the National Feminist Studies Association.

Peer review

Other incongruity: the cases are handled only by the presumed harasser’s peers, his work colleagues. In this small world where everyone knows each other, ensuring neutrality and fairness is complicated at best. Worse still, investigations and sentencing are not separated. “Those who build the case and investigate are also those who give the verdict,” Cromer notes.

A movement for real reform is starting to brew. During the French Senate’s vote on a bill for equality between men and women, an amendment was passed: in the case of legitimate doubts on a disciplinary sanction’s fairness, the victim will be able to request the transfer of the case to another board. The decree implementing a simpler method for this new procedure is currently being studied at the Ministry of Higher Education.

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