Press release: 18.6% of PhD candidates have (had) to deal with undesirable behaviour in the workplace

As many as 18.6% of the PhD students have experienced or have had to deal with discrimination, sexual harassment, violations of academic integrity, or other forms of undesirable behaviour. This has emerged from research carried out by PNN based on a survey among 1,601 PhD candidates in the Netherlands. Of the various forms of undesirable behaviour, discrimination is the most common (8.6%).

Research by the Dutch Network of Women Professors, published last year, showed that undesirable behaviour occurs frequently throughout academia. However, because PhD candidates are at the bottom of the hierarchy, they are particularly vulnerable. “PNN’s research is a valuable addition to existing cases and figures, and provides tools for universities to get started with social safety. Many PhD candidates know, for example, that universities offer assistance in cases of sexual harassment or violations of the Code of Conduct for Research Integrity, but not whether the university can also provide support in the case of discrimination,” says PNN chair Rosanne Anholt.

The form of discrimination most often experienced appears to be gender discrimination (45.1%), which affects women in particular. In any case, it is mainly women who experience undesirable behaviour (20.5% of women experience undesirable behaviour, compared to 13.4% of men; sexual harassment is also experienced by women in 95.5% of cases). In addition, discrimination on the basis of national origin (41.1%) and ethnicity (24.8%) occurs regularly and mainly affects international PhD candidates. Rosanne Anholt: “If Dutch universities want to ensure their international character and want to attract and retain international PhD candidates, it is important that they feel at home here as well”.

Of the PhD candidates who made use of the support offered by universities in the event of undesirable behaviour, 47.6% were satisfied, but, also, 35.7% were dissatisfied. “Still too often we see that PhD candidates get stuck in procedures, are discouraged, or that perpetrators are protected because they enjoy a lot of status. There is still much to be gained.”  PNN therefore advocates for good support structures that are accessible, independent, offer opportunities to take action against those who show undesirable behaviour, take victims seriously and, moreover, are status blind.

This report is part of a PNN publication series based on the results of the PNN PhD survey. Other reports in this series include teaching, counselling and Open Science. With this report PNN tries to ensure that social safety remains high on the academic agenda.

Response VSNU:
The VSNU takes the findings from this report seriously. The association has been working on a firm approach to social insecurity for some time. The introduction of the ombudsman function at every university is an example of this. VSNU chair Duisenberg: “Workplace safely is of the utmost importance. You may not always be able to prevent an incident, but we work hard to create a safe working culture”.