Forum Explores Climate, Culture and Conflict in Academia

What defines bullying in the workspace? How does bullying differ from harassment? What are the limitations of discrimination laws, such as Title IX?

More than 200 women and men gathered at the Pittsburgh campus to discuss these questions at the University’s ninth annual Women in Medicine and Science Forum. Hosted by the Office of Academic Career Development, Health Sciences,this year’s forum, themed “Climate, Culture and Conflict in Academia,” drew record-high attendance of faculty, fellows and graduate students and explored topics like bullying in academia, the #MeToo movement and discrimination in the STEM and law fields.

“The #MeToo movement compelled several agencies such as the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and the National Institutes of Health to acknowledge and address sexual harassment in the sciences,” said Darlene Zellers, director of the Office of Academic Career Development, Health Sciences. “The forum planning committee wanted to build upon the findings of these recent national reports, increase campus awareness with regard to the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in academia  and provide a venue where members of our academic community could develop strategies for preventing workplace bullying and harassment.”

“The goals of this event are to both foster a culture that supports the professional and personal development of all members of our academic community regardless of gender, and to provide a setting for us to learn from each other’s experiences,” said Ann Thompson, vice dean of the School of Medicine, professor of critical care medicine and chair of the forum planning committee.

Intersection of bullying and harassment in academia

The idea of “bull-rassment”—the intersection of bullying and harassment—was introduced during the forum’s keynote by Leah P. Hollis, author of “Bully in the Ivory Tower: How Aggression and Incivility Erode American Higher Education.” 

“Whereas harassment is unwanted conduct based upon race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability or genetic behavior, bullying is behavior that you know isn’t right, but there isn’t a rule of law to protect you against,” Hollis explained.

She offered a variety of strategies for identifying and preventing bullying behavior in academia  and fostering an inclusive culture that does not tolerate bullying or harassment. One was the idea that institutions should expand policies on harassment to include incidents of bullying. 

Hollis also emphasized the role of leadership in preventing bullying. “Bullying is about exerting control over someone with less power, so leadership is responsible for making it clear that bullying is unacceptable and perpetuators need to be held accountable and subject to consequences,” she said.

University-led sessions explore law and response

Other sessions focused on gender inequality for women in STEM field, the promise and limitations of discrimination law, how gendered institutions affect careers both within and outside of academia and how training in bystander intervention is an effective approach to recognizing and responding to harassment, discrimination and bullying in the workplace. 

Deborah L. Brake, associate dean for research and faculty development and John E. Murray Faculty Scholar and professor of Law at the School of Law, reviewed the scope of protections under Title VII and discussed the limits of the law, with an emphasis on the law’s relevance to the challenges confronting professional women in STEM fields.

Kristin Kanthak, associate professor of political science in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences, explored gendered institutions during a lunchtime presentation. Drawing on her own research and that of others, Kanthak explored how the dearth of women politicians might be associated with the academic “leaky pipeline” and other workplace challenges that women (and men) must consider as they navigate their careers.

Katie Pope,  associate vice chancellor for civil rights and Title IX, and Carrie Benson, Title IX specialist in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, led a discussion-based session focused on how faculty, staff, postdocs and students can recognize and respond to sexual harassment and other types of harassment and discrimination in academic workplaces.

The forum also featured a speed mentoring session where volunteer faculty members provided personalized career guidance and support to pre-registered attendees.

Following the forum, the planning committee formalized a report it intends to submit to the Office of the Provost with recommendations for next-steps. “We are hopeful this report and these recommendations might result in positive change across the University,” said Thompson.