Keynote talk: Launch of the Irish Government’s Implementation Plan for Ending Sexual Violence and Harassment

On October 13 2022 I had the honour of giving a keynote talk about the Irish Government’s ‘Implementation Plan‘ for their national programme on ‘Ending Sexual Violence and Harassment’ through the Higher Education Agency. I’ve shared my talk below.

How should higher education institutions respond to reports of sexual harassment and violence? Lessons learnt in the UK

Read more: Keynote talk: Launch of the Irish Government’s Implementation Plan for Ending Sexual Violence and Harassment

Good afternoon, I’m so sorry I can’t be with you in person but like everyone else in the UK I currently have Covid.

I’m going to start with telling you about the experience of a young woman who I’ll call Rachael*.

Rachael was doing her degree as a mature student at a UK university. She was an incredibly keen student, as mature students often are, highly committed to her studies and getting top grades. However in her second year she had some mental health problems which affected her studies. She met with a lecturer in her department to get some support. She was relieved when he was sympathetic and helpful.

After this meeting the lecturer befriended her on twitter and started sending her direct messages, saying he needed to check up on how she was doing. These messages continued, and became sexualized. Rachael didn’t know what to do, so she replied just enough to keep him on side, as she needed his support in order to continue with her degree. This went on for months, and she kept it secret, feeling very guilty and uncomfortable.

Eventually when her mental health recovered, she stopped reply to his messages, and he started being rude and told her she was ungrateful. She realized she needed to tell someone at the university. At first she told a couple of PhD students who she knew in her department, who didn’t know what to make of the situation. She then went to student services, who made a note of it but didn’t seem to think it was serious. Then she told two of her other lecturers. One female lecturer in her department told her that she was doing the right thing to just keep him on side. Another lecturer pretended not to hear and ignored what she’d said.

Next Rachael tried the students’ union. They also had no idea what to do but found the university’s complaints policy. The policy said she had to speak to someone at the level of a Dean. Rachael went to speak to the Dean of her faculty, who said she didn’t know anything about the complaints procedure. By this time, Rachael was on the point of giving up, when she was chatting to a security guard in her building. She told him what was happening and showed him just one of the messages. He was the only person she spoke to who said ‘this is wrong, this is definitely not ok, you need to report this straight away’. He was the only person who had a clear and unequivocal response in this way, and this gave Rachael the confidence to keep trying. She went to the next person named on the complaints policy, who passed it back to the Dean, and eventually a formal complaint was opened up.

All in all, Rachael had to disclose her experience to ten different people before she found someone who would act on it. She had to recount an experience that she was deeply uncomfortable about and even felt ashamed of describing, multiple times. Unfortunately, the obstacles that she faced in reporting continued throughout the process, and she continued to be victim-blamed during the lengthy investigation. She was not told what action was taken at the end of the investigation and the lecturer remained in post, still teaching undergraduate students.

I’ve started with Rachael’s experience because I think it demonstrates why expert knowledge and people who know how to use the systems in place are so crucial when it comes to this work. Reporting systems and processes are only going to work if people know what to do with them – and in Rachael’s story, 9 out of the 10 people she disclosed to didn’t even recognize her experience as sexual harassment and didn’t know how to use the system that was in place.

The good news is that this took place five years ago, and in the UK, in many universities, things have been improving, and in Ireland, the announcement of specialist sexual violence staff for universities from the minister will mean that Rachael’s experience is less likely to happen.

More generally, over recent years, across the world, we’re seeing a step change in how gender-based violence is being tackled, in that responsibility for addressing this issue is shifting from no longer being the responsibility solely of the criminal justice system, towards all institutions in society having a role to play – not least higher education institutions.

I’m going to draw on my research and activism in the UK to reflect on some of the lessons that could be learnt from our experiences over the last five years, particularly focusing on how we can make sure Rachael’s experience doesn’t happen again – so focusing on how institutions should respond to reports. I’ve got four points to share

My first lesson is that it’s crucial to move away from a criminal justice approach rather than trying to copy this response in higher education (See Cowan and Munro, 2021). The criminal justice (CJ) approach is not appropriate to higher education (HE) for many reasons:

  • First of all, higher education institutions have different goals to the criminal justice system – our goals are to provide equal access to education for all genders, and to create a safe and inclusive environment for study, so our approach to tackling gender-base violence has to be in line with these goals.
  • Second, a criminal justice approach is not possible simply due to the sheer numbers we’re talking about- there are far too many students and staff victimised by gender-based violence (GBV) in HE for a CJ model to be helpful – instead we need approaches that work across the whole population rather than just deal with a few offenders.
  • Thirdly, and this is the area I want to focus on today, formal responses within HE institutions should follow a civil law or employment law perspective rather than criminal justice perspective. Civil society processes are different – there is less access to evidence than the police would have, and less resource available for investigations, and there is a different standard of evidence – the balance of probabilities, rather than beyond reasonable doubt. But we’re not starting from scratch here – employers have had a duty to investigate sexual harassment and other discrimination issues internally within their organisations for some decades, and so there’s a wealth of experience to draw on to inform this work. So overall, this means that we’re building systems within higher education that are appropriate to what we want to do – support gender equality, create safer spaces for work and study, and change attitudes.

The great news is that there’s some brilliant work going on here in Ireland on prevention – I’m thinking of the Active Consent project from Charlotte McIvor and Padraig Macneela – But today I am focusing in particular on how institutions should respond to reports.

So, the second lesson from my learning in the UK is that we need to understand why people report or disclose to their institution in order to be able to implement appropriate responses.

  • In my research into staff-student cases of sexual misconduct I’ve found that people often report simply to keep themselves and others safe, and in order to continue their studies and get on with their lives. Most survivors don’t want to punish the person who has harmed them – they just want the harassment or abuse to stop, and to make sure others aren’t harmed as well.
  • Unfortunately, this basic need on the part of reporting students and staff tends to get lost or forgotten in the process of the institution gearing up to act. This is perhaps partly because the formal process can sometimes be complicated.
  • However, it’s also important not to see formal investigations as the only way forward following a report – we need to cultivate a wider repertoire of responses beyond this to address the reasons why people report.Sometimes, a formal process is needed in order to keep other staff and students safe. But sometimes what reporting parties need is simply some adjustments or support in order to be able to carry on with their studies or work. There are more and more unis in the UK implementing variations on what are usually called ‘no contact agreements’ where both parties agree to divide up space between them, or agree not to contact each other.
  • Where we don’t have much in place in the UK – and where I hope Ireland will do better – is around wider repertoires for informal and non-punitive responses. This is a very sensitive area, and in many cases of GBV, particularly domestic abuse, any informal responses risk giving the perpetrator the opportunity to continue the abuse. Nevertheless, students often want informal approaches where they can have an opportunity to explain how they have been harmed to the person who has harmed them. There are difficult decisions to be made around whether and when this is safe. Luckily in Ireland you do have expertise in this area – notably Marie Keenan, an expert in restorative justice – and there is a lot of scope for development in this area and I would love to come back in future and learn from you on this issue.

My third lesson comes back, however, to formal reporting processes. In my research I’ve found that where there is a formal investigation that makes it as far as a disciplinary panel, panels are reluctant to uphold more serious cases or if they do uphold them, to impose sanctions.

  • This appears to be due to social norms of what Kate Manne calls ‘himpathy’ –himpathy is “the disproportionate or inappropriate sympathy extended to a male perpetrator over his […] female targets or victims”. I’ve found it a really helpful concept for explaining what appears to be going on in decision-making panels, and why they are reluctant to uphold or take action on gender-based violence.
  • The one condition that seems to balance out this ‘himpathy’ is the presence of students’ voices on disciplinary panels – for example students’ union reps. Students’ union reps have told me they’ve sat on panels with people 30-40 years their senior, explaining to them why the case they’ve just heard is clearly a breach of consent. So this is one place in which different understandings of consent across generations need to be called into question – and it shows that students’ voices are absolutely crucial in this work. Students and survivors’ voices – are also important to include at all stages of designing and implementing institutional responses to gender-based violence.

My fourth and final lesson is to build in mechanisms for transparency and independent scrutiny of institutional handling of reports.

  • Transparency over how institutions are addressing this issue is urgently needed to build trust with students and staff. This is important both at the level of individual cases, as well as around the wider approach.
  • When it comes to individual cases, in the UK we’ve had major issues with balancing data privacy and reporting parties’ rights. Activists have argued that institutions are hiding behind GDPR as a reason not to share information with the reporting party about what’s going on with their case. For example, at the end of a case, they might simply tell the person who reported ‘your case has been upheld’ but there is no information about what action the institution will be taking, or what sanctions might be imposed. This is an area where in the UK there is minimal case law and it can be tricky to balance transparency and openness with the right to data privacy. But the important lesson here is that GDPR does not trump all other rights – it has to be balanced with equality legislation, health and safety, human rights law – and we are finally finding ways to convince universities to share information where there is a legal basis to do so.
  • To address transparency at the level of the institution or the sector, one relatively straightforward approach that some UK universities have taken to build trust is to publish annual figures with anonymised data on numbers of reports and outcomes of these reports, so that students, staff and the public can see what steps the university is taking. I know that due to low numbers of formal reports, institutions in Ireland might not be ready to do this for a couple of years, but once reporting increases, this should be possible for most institutions.
  • As well as this transparency, mechanisms for independent scrutiny of institutional decision-making in this area are needed, to be able to see where systematic failings are occurring. While legal challenges might provide this, they are not sufficient, as too often they result in private settlements, and as a result there is no wider learning from what has gone wrong. Not only that, but we can’t rely solely on individuals having the strength and the funds to take forward legal cases to find out about where the system is going wrong – there need to be formal mechanisms in place.

Overall, this work will involve a massive level of upskilling across staff in higher education develop expertise on GBV. This upskilling can draw on expertise from the VAWG sector – their knowledge is urgently needed – and of course any contributions from this sector should be adequately resourced.

More generally, resourcing is going to be a challenge for this work so I’m delighted to hear about the investment that the minister has announced today. But perhaps an even bigger challenge is the attitudinal shift from institutional leaders that is needed. In the past, it was a risk for higher education institutions to acknowledge that ‘this happens here’, we’re now moving towards a new normal where it becomes more of a risk for institutions to deny that its happening. Success now looks like reporting rates going up, and institutions being able to tell a clear story about how they’ve gained the trust of students so that now students are reporting. People are no longer going to believe an institution who says ‘we haven’t had any reports because sexual violence isn’t a problem here’. That line is not even remotely credible any more, and it risks leading to backlash from student survivors and activists who would – rightly – feel angered at their experiences being denied and silenced.

Where I’m excited about the direction that Ireland is going, is in your a joined-up approach across the HE sector. This is where you have a huge advantage over the UK. This will make a huge difference to the efficacy of this work and will allow you to address difficult issues such as data-sharing between institutions. Your implementation plan is appropriately ambitious – and I think incredibly exciting – and promises to put Ireland at the forefront of work on prevention and response to gender-based violence in HE.

To conclude, the shift that we’re seeing internationally towards higher education institutions taking up a bigger role in tackling GBV, is a huge challenge. But the scale of the work to be done shouldn’t daunt us, and it is a huge testament to the minister, to the HEA – Ross, Suzanne and colleagues – and to all of you here today that you are taking up this challenge with such commitment and passion.

*Rachael is not her real name. She generously shared her experience with me as part of my research for the Silencing Students report and gave permission for her account to be used to raise awareness of this issue.

Bull, A. (2022). Catalysts and rationales for reporting staff sexual misconduct to UK higher education institutions. Journal of Gender-Based Violence, 6(1), 45–60.

Cowan, S., & Munro, V. E. (2021). Seeking campus justice: Challenging the ‘criminal justice drift’ in United Kingdom university responses to student sexual violence and misconduct. Journal of Law and Society, 48(3), 308–333.

Manne, K. (2017). Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny. Oxford University Press.

Keynote talk: Launch of the Irish Government’s Implementation Plan for Ending Sexual Violence and Harassment

Classical music and diversity: a talk for the Nordic Association of Orchestral Managers conference

In September 2022 I spoke at the Nordic Association of Orchestral Managers conference in Reykjavik (sadly, over Zoom rather than in person) about diversity in classical music. I’ve posted my talk below.


Thank you for inviting me. My background is as a classical musician who has become an academic. As a musician, I worked with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and Wellington Sinfonia, but late retrained as a sociologist and have been combining my specialisms to try and understand some of the challenges around diversity in classical music. I’m going to focus my comments primarily on the workforce, and who plays classical music, but I think this is important because who plays classical music also influences audiences.

To start off, I want to think back to the 19th century. As I’m now based in the UK, I’ll use the UK context as an example, but in many other European countries there are similarities in the ways in which classical music was institutionalised. When I say institutionalised, I mean the 19th century was the era when, for the most part, institutions such as orchestras and conservatoires were established. This history is important for understanding where we’ve got to today, and the patterns of inclusion and exclusion that we have inherited, because these institutions were set up by the middle and upper classes of the time. In some cases they were set up with the purpose of creating a space within the city where the bourgeoisie could come together. In others, they were set up to as a tool to ‘improve’ working-class people. On the whole, however, they were set up by the middle classes, for the middle classes, and to varying degrees in different cities, there was an implicit purpose of keeping out working-class people. In other cases such as some music education institutions, there was an implicit purpose to “civilise” the working-classes through the discipline of ‘good’ quality music – and sometimes, in the UK, to make a profit from doing this.

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Classical music and diversity: a talk for the Nordic Association of Orchestral Managers conference