#MeTooAcademia - sexual intimidation at the university

Liesbet van Zoonen

"I have been invited to a strategy meeting of the university, where people with relevant managerial functions are represented. I am chairman of one of the largest institutes in the university. Upon arrival I greet one of the organizers, and thank him for inviting me to attend. He looks at me from head to toe, and then he says: "We always like to have someone who looks like you with us".

The above is one of the many experience stories that female scientists share on the site Athenas Angels. Together with incidents of sexual harassment from Erasmus University, they formed the basis of the performance The Learning Curve. The performance is an initiative of Professor Liesbet van Zoonen, dean of the Erasmus Graduate School of Social Sciences and the Humanities. This Friday, in the Erasmus Pavilion, the Actor Society will play on cases of intimidation in the academic world, all based on real experiences at the Erasmus University and other universities. Van Zoonen explains how she came up with this idea.

Van Zoonen: 'If you know how #MeToo works, and you know that sexual harassment and cross-border behaviour occur in the world of culture, sport and politics, why should it not occur within the academic world? Our PhD candidates are typically in a position where they can find themselves in an unacceptable situation. The balance of power is quite skewed. I cannot say how many cases of sexual harassment there are every year at our university, but one is already one too many. And I know from female colleagues that there are complaints. That's why I let this show play.

Confidential Advisors
The Erasmus University has two confidential counsellors where cross-border behaviour can be reported. Isn't that a step in the right direction? Van Zoonen: 'It is good that they are there, but there must also be a dean who acts after the report. Someone who believes that the violation is serious enough to have consequences. In addition, as a university, you have to create a safe atmosphere.

Why isn't the atmosphere safe? Because of this crazy competition. Everyone has to do excellent research. It is as if everyone is engaged in top-class sport. In England, where I worked for a while, they use very clear criteria on the basis of which you are promoted. Here, those hard criteria don't exist. At Dutch universities, you go to the next rank based on who you know, whether you fit in well with the team or how much money you have raised. The fact that there are so few women working here at Erasmus University - even fewer than at the universities of technology - is not in itself okay. It does not create an atmosphere in which you can easily talk about sexual harassment and cross-border behaviour'.

What do you expect from the performance? I want to show women that they are not the only ones who suffer from this. I want to make it discussable and show them where to go when it happens to them. I don't want cross-border behaviour to remain invisible. I also understand that one performance will not change the world. That only happens if the deans of the various faculties also speak out, and the Diversity Office. I hope that people become aware that #MeToo affects everyone. The number of people who are victims is much smaller than the number of people standing by and watching it happen. Wrong jokes, a hand in an inappropriate place, you have to say something about that when you see it. You create a safe atmosphere with each other.

#MeToo Academia


Undesirable behaviour is, in principle, any behaviour that is experienced as undesirable. Whether this is (sexual) harassment, discrimination, stalking, bullying, unequal treatment or aggression. If you have experienced this yourself, you can contact one of the two confidential counsellors at the Erasmus University.

  • Speak to the offender. Say that you do not feel comfortable with his or her behaviour.
  • Involve your manager or supervisor
  • Don't think you've provoked it, or that you're childish.
  • Ask the confidant for help. He or she can help you find a structural solution.
  • Ask a colleague or acquaintance for help
  • Write down exactly what happened and ask the confidant to help you file an official complaint. 

The confidential advisers
Luciënne van Hooijdonk
+31 (0)10 4081139

Martin Blok
+31 (0)70 4260511

More information

Performance: The learning curve
Date: 12 October (Friday) 2018
Time: 17.00 - 18.00 hours (doors close at 16.55 hours)
Location: Erasmus Pavilion Theatre Woudestein campus Rotterdam
Admission: Free
Contact: contact@egsh.eur.nl