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Sexism on campus

If you’re worried about sexism at university, read facts, see statistics and find out about what’s being done to tackle it.

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What is sexism?

This section is based on an original article by Alison Utley, former universities correspondent at Times Higher Education (THE), and is devoted to raising awareness of sexism, giving support and advice if you encounter it.

It's intended to inform, not frighten or alarm you. Sexism is defined as prejudice, stereotyping or discrimination on the basis of sex and is far too common on university campuses.

Sexism and sexual harassment on campus is a distressing issue, and more prominent than you may think and it takes many forms, from casual 'banter' to online trolling, harassment and physical attacks – it's mostly, but not exclusively, aimed at women.

University is a time for individuals to shape their identities and campuses should be a safe and encouraging space for everyone to do so.

Sexism facts and statistics

The effects of university ‘lad culture’ are beginning to be understood through accounts particularly, but not exclusively, from female students. In all cases they reveal the negative impact and harm that lad culture can have on an individual’s education and university life. 

In July 2015, the National Union of Students (NUS) released their Lad Culture Audit. Based on data collected between December 2014 and February 2015, the audit is the largest ever study into campus sexism.

The audit asked nine university students’ unions to audit themselves on instances of sexual harassment and how they dealt with them. 

Some of the findings were troubling; 51% had a formal policy on sexual harassment and only one union had a policy concerning the display of sexist and discriminatory material.

The survey also found that only 11% provided ‘lad culture’ training and education programmes, 32% provided sexual consent workshops and just 6% counted the issue of consent as part of their curriculum.

However, there were some positive outcomes of the audit. A ‘Lad Culture’ pilot scheme was introduced to encourage institutions to work with students’ unions on tackling this issue. Unions involved include Bradford, Cardiff, King’s College London and Warwick.

The NUS lists four ways to combat sexism at universities:

  • Don’t stand for it – silence is a form of acceptance, so call people out for sexist behaviour
  • Discuss experiences, issues and solutions with those around you – the more awareness spread around society, the better
  • Bring about change – start by speaking to a union representative to see how you can get involved
  • Get involved in the union’s policy – for example, joining a feminist society

Activism works: following the ‘No More Page 3’ campaign, Bradford University banned the Sun and Daily Star newspapers from outlets on campus until Page 3 was removed from the papers.

NUS study from October 2015

Another NUS study from October 2015 found that 17% of respondents had been victims of some sort of sexual harassment during their first week of university. 29% had seen sexual harassment directed at someone else within the first week.

It also found that 59% of sexual harassment incidents occurred at social events or nightclubs, and a further 33% in halls. Graphic tales of highly sexualised alcohol-fuelled nights out which begin in freshers’ week seem to set the tone for an educational experience which, far from empowering students, can leave some feeling unhappy and unsafe.

61% of respondents claimed they were not made aware of any codes of conduct implemented by their university and 66% were unaware of the procedure to report these incidents. 12% felt they wouldn’t be taken seriously if they did.

The worry is that the unchecked growth of lad culture will damage higher education’s mission to create safe, positive environments in which all students can flourish.

Online sexism

Online harassment and internet trolls were uncovered in NUS studies. There have been trends on social media with so-called ‘spotted’ or ‘confessions’ pages at many universities.

Photographs are taken of people unaware in the library or elsewhere on campus, with their pictures widely shared, rated, and commented on – regularly in a misogynistic manner. It has even been reported that female students’ rooms have been entered at night, duvets torn off and photographs taken and circulated.

One woman complained about the Facebook ‘Uni Lad’ group, saying that it “regularly posts demeaning things about women and rape jokes, which I and my fellow female students find appalling. I have seen many male university friends have ‘liked’ the page.”

What is being done about sexism at universities?

Many universities have gaps in policies, training and education programmes, and a lack of clarity concerning procedures for cases of sexism and sexual harassment.

For a while now student leaders have been calling for a coordinated initiative at the highest level to combat the problem.

Labour Life Peer and director of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), Baroness Amos, has said that laddism and sexism in higher education need to be tackled urgently.

Positive procedures in place

There are positive procedures already in place for sexism awareness at universities.

There are now workshops exploring consent, stressing that ‘too drunk to object’ does not constitute consent – in fact, it is rape.

Staff and students have begun signing of pledges to stand up to sexual harassment and wearing wristbands displaying solidarity in the fact that no type of sexual harassment will be tolerated.

There is a growing number of ‘good bystander’ training courses that seek to empower students to help out others more and universities now provide access to trained harassment officers and have links with organisations such as the local police force or Rape Crisis.

Current campaigns at universities

A number of campaigns are currently running at universities or organisations that work with students.

The University of Liverpool Guild of Students has established its ‘Call It Out’ campaign, which urges students to call out incidents whenever they see them.

The University of Bristol has an induction consent quiz and workshops. It works alongside Bristol Students' Union and the Somerset and Avon Rape and Sexual Abuse Support.

Manchester University’s Students’ Union has worked with Rape Crisis to provide support and train staff. The ‘We Get It’ campaign has over 7,000 pledges in support and there has been a 500% increase in the use of the university’s harassment advisers.

Durham University has a Sexual Violence & Misconduct Operations Group, linked with the police, Rape Crisis and the local Sexual Assault Referral Centre (SARC).

The 'Good Lad Initiative' enables men to make the best choices in a diverse range of issues, especially complex gender situations through workshops and team-building exercises. Groups who have already taken part include sports clubs from LSE, Oxford, York and South Wales universities, and Saïd Business School.

BUCS (British Universities & College Sports) have a ‘Take a Stand’ campaign, that promotes positive behaviour in the university sporting environment, making sport inclusive and accessible, aiming to diminish anti-social and unacceptable behaviour linked to university sport.

UUK Taskforce

Universities UK (UUK), which represents the executive heads of all universities and some higher education colleges, has established the UUK Taskforce.

The Taskforce scrutinises and discusses all forms of violence and harassment at universities, particularly focusing on sexual cases against women. The aim is to bring together students, staff and external organisations to look at what universities are already doing and what else needs to be done. The idea that boys will be boys, and that sexism is simply an inevitable, harmless attitude which should be quietly endured, is being firmly archived in history.

The Taskforce reports their findings and developed principles, guidelines and recommendations.

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