Let’s be honest.

We know that sexual assault, harassment and abuse of women is still a problem in society.  But as repeated media, UUK, NUS, 1752 Group reports show us, it is also a massive problem in Universities.  As a Union, we have a legal (and moral) responsibility to ensure the safety of all of our members and our students. But what happens when the perpetrator is also a union member?

In 2014, I was advised by UCU to make a rule 13 complaint about another UCU member who had sexually harassed and assaulted me.  I was also advised to make a complaint to my employer’s human resources department. I did both.

You can imagine my surprise, when the response to this, was for me to be suspended. Why? Because my abuser put in a counter complaint about me, which stated that I was making ‘false and malicious’ allegations.

The University ran an internal investigation, and my abuser is no longer working in HE as a result.  He was not however, expelled from UCU.

The damage to me has been irreparable; and I do not want this for anyone else.

Since 2014:

  • I have called on UCU to do better in investigating all rule 13 complaints of sexual violence and harassment.
  • I have raised this in group meetings, in conferences, and in person to senior UCU officials.

After several attempts to learn of the outcome of my rule 13 complaint I was told that despite my “well-presented evidence” my complaint would not be upheld.

No explanation.

No justification.

No support.

As a consequence of recent discussions on Twitter I am writing this blog. As a survivor I have a right to have an opinion about the way in which UCU deals with sexual harassment and violence in education. Let me be very clear about the effect my experience, in relation to recent twitter attacks, has had on me:

  • I have had to return to counselling, for the 3rd time now, as a result of my own case.
  • I have had to revisit what happened to me, both when I was harassed and assaulted, and throughout both the cases I submitted.
  • My family had no idea of the ordeal that I was subjected to by my union. To this day they do not know. But now I have to tell mine and my partner’s four adult children, our older grandchildren, and my goddaughter, who are following my campaign, what happened to me 6 years ago.
  • The distress that this is causing me, and my partner will be unimaginable to anyone who has not experienced what we have lived through. The distress that this will cause my family, will be, I know, horrendous.
  • My right to anonymity and confidentiality has been trampled on for the sake of making false allegations about me.

We learnt from #MeToo that we need to listen to women and their experiences. Because it is not only the abuser himself that inflicts harm.  Violence was done to me, through my suspension, the default assumption that as a woman, my experience was not to be trusted.   What was also devastating to me was the lack of support from UCU through my rule 13 complaint and senior officials who failed to support me.

I recognise that UCU representatives act to the best of their ability for the member at that time, that is their duty to the member. I had exemplary support from my rep. However, during this traumatic experience mine was the only woman’s voice. 

We need a serious rethink of the ways in which perpetrators of sexual assault are represented by the union.  Sadly, mine is not an isolated experience.  For example, a colleague has disclosed to me how in 2019, the chair of her UCU branch represented a perpetrator of sexual assault.  The perpetrator was found guilty, but remains in post.  While we might see this as a victory for the branch Chair and UCU, it is not a victory for the women who were assaulted and paid the price for this. 

The UCU has made a start with the sexual violence task force.  But we need to have an open and honest conversation about how we, as a union, support victims of sexual assault, when the perpetrators are also UCU members.

I had not intended to write about UCU’s task group on sexual violence in education during this campaign. I made my view clear, as a member of the Women’s Members Standing Committee (WMSC), when this task group was first announced, that this important work was absolutely essential, but the proposal was flawed.

How did the Women Members Standing Committee (WMSC) learn about this task group?  At a committee meeting on 17 January 2020 the General Secretary’s assistant Nick Hardy joined the meeting to speak to an agenda item:

14.00 Sexual harassment in the workplace General Secretary’s task
group on sexual violence and misconduct – Nick Hardy
For discussion
  For discussion

We were told that the task group would be set up, inviting members to apply for paid positions, with a number of UCU members and appointed experts sitting. My concern, echoed by all of the committee, was that we felt this task group was fundamentally essential, but flawed in its proposed conception.

My major concern was that this is not how UCU does its work on behalf of members. I explained patiently UCU is a democratic, transparent, and accountable organisation. That if we were to set up a task group it should be through the normal mechanisms.

I offered us an example the Commission for Effective Industrial Action, announced by the then General Secretary Sally Hunt at Congress. That commission report, which led to the USS dispute was written by volunteers elected from UCU’s membership, who met over a period of months and worked diligently with external advisers and reports from branches and regions. None of us were paid, none of us expected to be paid.

UCU’s elected representatives volunteer their time, doing casework, negotiation with management and attending committees, conferences and Congress. If we were paid £250 pw, I can imagine they would be queues around the block to do this work… There is a fundamental unfairness in paying some and not paying everyone. Members should participate in this important work for the benefit of other members, not for payment. There are many who would do this for free.

We were told, in no uncertain terms, that this task group was one of the General Secretary’s commitments in her election manifesto. The implication being that we were without voice in this process. The General Secretary was elected on a higher than usual turnout and she did gain 11,515 first preference votes. Yet our union has over 120k members, so where is the democratic voice of the membership in the development of this paid group?

The WMSC asked Nick Hardy to return to the next meeting with a fully developed paper so that we could offer our contributions and insights. We also asked that before this agenda item was raised with any of the other Equality Committees a paper should be developed. That did not happen. Shockingly, none of the elected equality strand representatives were allowed any input into the task group project.

However, the task group has now been recruited to and I will support the fact that necessary work to support survivors will now take place. I stand by my position that those participating should not be paid but that argument can take place in other forums. If I’m elected as Vice President I will push for UCU’s systems and processes to be safe places for anyone experiencing sexual harassment or violence to escalate their concerns while feeling supported, believed and confident that their anonymity will be kept. I would not want anyone to have to experience what I have gone through. And I will use every platform available to me to call out institutions which I am reliably told are not acting appropriately to protect their staff and students. I should not be attacked for doing so.

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