Let's address the elephant in the room - Bullying in academia — R Voice

Let's address the elephant in the room - Bullying in academia

Andrea Hayward
Andrea Hayward Member, Administrator, Moderator Posts: 943 admin

Hi R Voice family! Today, I want to talk to you about a very serious issue that has plagued academia - bullying. Last week, I ran a poll on Twitter to understand just how widespread this is. And the results were both both upsetting and terrifying. Of the 222 researchers who took this poll, 61% answered "Yes, I have experienced bullying at my university or academic institution/organization." That's one too many 😐️

The worst part is that the results of this poll are unsurprising. Back when I was working on the CACTUS Mental Health Survey, the results showed that one in every three researchers either has experienced or is currently experiencing some form of bullying. This is a cause that I deeply care about and I've been working on a new initiative related to this for quite some time. Before I share this initiative with you (and I soon will), I want to hear your views on this topic.

My question to you - Have you ever witnessed and/or experienced bullying in academia? What did it look like?

I understand that this isn't an easy topic to talk about. So please share only what you're comfortable talking about. You don't need to specify names of people or institutions, etc. Also, if you're not comfortable talking about this on the discussion thread, please feel free to reach out to me via direct message.


  • Gayatri Ramachandran
    Gayatri Ramachandran Member Posts: 237 ✭✭✭

    Unfortunately, your results do not come as a surprise to me @Andrea Hayward. It is not uncommon to listen to at least one person tell me they were bullied once or several times during casual conversations. I find that women are mostly bullied by lab colleagues/seniors and they let it be! Very rarely do they take it upon themselves to set it right since it is perceived to be quite normal. This could partly be attributed to supervisors not being pro-active in giving a patient ear to such cases. They just see it as a "waste of time" and the students' incapability to be mentally strong.

    I have myself been bullied in my previous laboratory, during my early career, by 2 seniors who thought it was their right to bully just because they were senior to me. I wish to be very honest and not polish anything that happened at that time.Initially I chose to ignore it, thinking it would die down in a few weeks. Neither did I wish to share it with anyone at home since I noticed that my lab colleagues were simply silent spectators, and when I heard my peers relating such incidents in their laboratories I thought it to be a normal phenomena. Quite similar to mild ragging I assumed. However, 3 months passed and this trend seemed to only grow in both the seniors. That is when I decided "enough is enough" and escalated the issue to my supervisor. It fell on deaf ears. I repeatedly approached her about it as it kept growing unbearable and led to altercations between me and the seniors, to such an extent that she had to intervene. It was with her intervention that the issue was finally sorted (a year later, to be precise). However, the bitterness stayed between us, remains to date as I can still taste it in my mouth as I reminisce those days.

    Thank you for bringing up this discussion Andrea!. I'm sure it will help address "the elephant in the room" that has always been the tagline of your mental health survey, which I'm genuinely very appreciative of❤️

  • Andrea Hayward
    Andrea Hayward Member, Administrator, Moderator Posts: 943 admin

    @Gayatri Ramachandran thank you for kick-starting the conversation on this thread. I really appreciate it :)

    Before I reply to your comment, I'd very much like to see what others in the community have to say. Tagging a few folks here. Do share your thoughts!

    @Asli Telli @Erin Owens @Vivien Kretz @Hazel Monica Peralta @Omololu FAGBADEBO @Tony Nwankwo @Adaora Anyichie - Odis @Hong Ching Goh @Isurika Sevwandi @Soumi Paul @Karen Hall @S Lee @Aysa MC @Kiran Kondru @Azzeddine REGHAIS @Mohamed Samunn @Yufita Chinta @Usama Konbr

  • Omololu FAGBADEBO
    Omololu FAGBADEBO Member Posts: 192 ✭✭✭

    @Andrea Hayward, I won't describe it as bullying but it is more of coercion based on power relations, especially between senior and junior colleagues. The former seeks to force the latter to submit with the threat of stagnated career or outright termination of appointment. It is an abuse of power. I am a victim. And that is why I left my former university because the HOD said he would frustrate all y efforts to earn my PhD. And he did! Colleagues advised me to "stoop low to conquer" but I decided to move out. Bullying is real. It is an instrument of coercion and it is affecting the mental health of the victims.

    One thing at a time😍

  • Tony Nwankwo
    Tony Nwankwo Member Posts: 18 ✭✭

    Hi @Andrea Hayward .

    To answer your question, I would say that if there is any better or stronger word I could use instead of "YES" I would prefer it.

    However, I see bullying as a serious menace in academia. The worst part of bullying is when you are being bullied and you are ignorant of the reason(s) behind it. Just to give one example.

    During my undergraduate days, I was assigned to a woman supervisor who as at then was an associate professor. She is always busy and doesn't create time for us to talk about my project. However, I was also assisting her in a book she was writing as at then by providing relevant materials for her. in fact, I felt we were cool not until after few one-on-one discussions I had with her based on few corrections she made on my work.

    After that, if I schedule a meeting with her, she will end up with one excuse or the other. this continued to the point that if I request for clarifications on the corrections she made on my project, or any other aspect of my work, her response would always be "Tony, go and sleep over that issue, wake up by 5:am and start thinking about it because by then your brain would be able to understand and articulate the answers to the questions you have ". This sounded weird to me but I had to accept the situation that way. This continued till I completed my project. although there were other negative treatments, I was receiving from the woman which I can't explain the reasons behind them.

    After my defense, I met her to sign my work. At first, she refused and later on she took me to an empty classroom where we sat.

    Quite unexpecting, she started asking me about my family and academic backgrounds. After providing relevant answers to her, she now said,.....

    "Tony, do you know what your problem is?" Hmmmm.....i said 'No prof'.

    She said, "Your problem is that you claim to know too much and you see me as someone that doesn't know anything".

    I was so surprised that I was wondering how possible it was to know so much more than my supervisor. I couldn't comprehend that, but I kept mute so as not to annoy her since my major interest was for her to sign my work. It was at that point that I was able to relate why she was treating me the way she did, because she felt threatened that maybe I was challenging some of the earlier corrections she made. However, after a prolonged argument and talks she reluctantly signed it for me. Funny enough, years later, during my master's program, I needed a reference later from her, and when I took the letter to her to sign for me, she refused and told me to my face that she wasn't going to sign it. I have to take it to my HOD who later signed it for me.

    Your question brought back this memory as if it happened days back. It wasn't a good experience for me but I learnt a lesson from that.

  • Andrea Hayward
    Andrea Hayward Member, Administrator, Moderator Posts: 943 admin
    edited August 2

    @Gayatri Ramachandran it really pains me to hear that these results don't surprise anyone anymore. And I hear it too often 😔 You're right about the normalization of such experiences in academia. It's almost like a "I went through it, so now I'm going to make you go through it" mindset, which is so toxic and harmful. I feel like apprehension to speak up about it or attempt to set things right might stem from a lack of open conversation around this. Like conversations about mental health, I believe conversations about bullying experiences are also stigmatized and not received well. Many researchers who participated in the CACTUS Mental Health Survey said that they were afraid of how they would be perceived or of job-related consequences if they complained.

    I am so sorry to hear that you've experienced bullying, Gayatri 🙁 It makes me so angry that people even think it's okay to treat colleagues like this and create such a hostile working environment. I can't imagine how difficult and painful it must have been to silently endure this and not be able to speak to anyone about it. You must have felt both helpless and hopeless when this matter wasn't taken seriously by your supervisor. I feel like many others are discouraged from speaking up when their complaints aren't taken seriously. It's so terrible that you had to endure this and feel unsafe for a year at work. No one should have to experience this and I'm so disappointed in the system that allows this to happen :/

    You deserve so much better, Gayatri! I'm glad that you're no longer working with these people. None of this was your fault! I know that talking about this couldn't have been easy and I really appreciate you opening up about this. I'm grateful that you found the courage to survive this situation, but firmly believe that you should've NEVER had to. Here's hoping that conversations like these will be a turning point!

  • Gayatri Ramachandran
    Gayatri Ramachandran Member Posts: 237 ✭✭✭

    That is a very classic and "here-to-stay"policy held by many seniors in any government/private organisations here in India as well.Be it academic or non-academic, it is mainstay to bully, bulldoze and coerce. And quite normal. I'm so glad you didn't give in to that@Omololu FAGBADEBO and took a firm stand with integrity for which I'm sure your previous employers must have admired you silently, though they might have coerced you psychologically, for, they couldn't do that, which is why what you did was indeed admirable!👏 May your kind grow!

  • Gayatri Ramachandran
    Gayatri Ramachandran Member Posts: 237 ✭✭✭

    That is a very toxic attitude and I'm sorry to know you went through that @Tony Nwankwo. Such instances make us gritty and strong in fact! Little does the bully realise how they are actually aiding our psychological and mental growth from strong, to stronger. I hope your lessons learnt at that point are helping you now and really hope you do not have to ever face such bullies at work, in future . "Nip it in the bud" is the lesson I had learnt from my experiences. Quite blunt, but it works!

  • Andrea Hayward
    Andrea Hayward Member, Administrator, Moderator Posts: 943 admin

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this @Omololu FAGBADEBO. I agree with what you've said about bullying involving a misuse of power. Usually, when people think about bullying, they tend to picture the most obvious examples such as verbal bullying. So I'm really glad that you've brought up some examples that happen quite often but aren't spoken about as much. Threating to slow down or interrupt someone's career is definitely a form of bullying.

    I am very sorry to hear that you've been at the receiving end of such behavior 😐️ It's terrible to learn that your former HOD was deliberately doing this to stop you from succeeding. He should've ideally been someone who could guide and support you along your doctoral journey. I am so glad that you distanced yourself from that situation. I can't help but wonder how many others there might be out there who are experiencing bullying but can't see a way out. People being forced to leave cannot be a solution. Academia needs to do better! :(

  • Gayatri Ramachandran
    Gayatri Ramachandran Member Posts: 237 ✭✭✭

    "Stigmatised"-right emotion @Andrea Hayward! It is good to open up in such platforms and break that stigma. I really feel comfortable opening up here, no doubt about that! Thanks to you all for those kind words of motivation, reassurances and virtual strength you are instilling in researchers, globally🤗.

    Though it seems bitter initially, reminiscing those incidents, I must admit such toxic experiences have made me stronger. The support I received from my parents and family when I opened up about it much later after I had left that lab was so re-assuring! I felt confident that my decisions had been right after all and I patted my back for standing up to such bulldozing, consistently, though it fell on deaf ears. Like you mentioned, many give in to it coz of the fear of losing their job or because they may be tagged as "immature and un-diplomatic" (Ive heard such words myself). But to stand for one's values and for what you are IS what defines self-respect. When patience and forbearance is considered a weakness by the bully, its a wakeup call to not stand that anymore! Phew! Feels good, just talking about this☺️

    Thanks again Andrea for bringing up such a discussion through your tweet😍. Cheers to ouR Voice again, ONLY for this🤩

  • Syed Munim
    Syed Munim Member Posts: 1


  • Andrea Hayward
    Andrea Hayward Member, Administrator, Moderator Posts: 943 admin

    @Tony Nwankwo thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts and experiences with us. Your first line itself hits SO hard, that I can only imagine how many difficulties you've had to endure because of bullying in academia. I'm so sorry to hear that you've had to deal with such hostile behavior 😔

    You're right. Very often the targets of bullying don't even know why their being bullied. Unfortunately, many of them end up blaming themselves and feel as though they did something to deserve this kind of treatment. But that's not at all true. No one should have to go through such a terrible experience.

    I really appreciate your opening up to us about your experience. I'm sure this wasn't easy to do. As a supervisor, deliberately making yourself unavailable for guidance and support is indeed a form of bullying. Indirectly, they are hampering the progress of a project, study, or career, and are causing the supervisee a great deal of inconvenience and stress. It's quite disappointing that your supervisor acted in this way and you didn't even know why until the very end. It must have felt like fighting a losing battle. It's normal to feel a little threatened by someone who seems to know more than you, but treating them in this way is not right at all. She could have instead spoken openly to you about it and tried to create a 2-way path of learning 😕

    I'm glad that you no longer have to work with this person but I'm feeling frustrated and sad that all of this could've been avoided and you should've never had to deal with it.

    You mentioned towards the end of your comment that you learnt a lesson from this. If you don't mind talking about it, I'd love to hear what this lesson is.

  • Andrea Hayward
    Andrea Hayward Member, Administrator, Moderator Posts: 943 admin

    @Syed Munim thank you for joining this discussion :)

    If you feel comfortable, would you like to share your thoughts or an experience related to this?

  • Soumi Paul
    Soumi Paul Member Posts: 204 ✭✭✭✭

    @Andrea Hayward, currently, I am going through such a situation with my junior. Despite my pleasant, professional behavior, my young colleague continues as a pain in the rear. Although, this is not new for me to experience in academia as I, unfortunately, have experienced it from very early academic life, either by a few classmates or teachers (that too by doing nothing unpleasant to them). I am more surprised how education is failing to enlighten people's behavior. This thought always chases me, and I believe, in the future, I would like to research the plausible factors that dilute/limit the effect of education among people.

    Communication is the key to thriving! 😊

  • Hazel Monica Peralta
    Hazel Monica Peralta Member Posts: 11 ✭✭

    @Andrea Hayward , thank you very much for starting this discussion on bullying in academia. Although I cannot share bullying experience (I am fortunate enough to be part of a really great research group during my time of graduate studies). Perhaps what I can share is the initiative that I saw and experienced from my postgraduate supervisor/adviser in order to keep the morale and sanity of the members of our group. First, as a leader of the project our adviser does the work, not just the talk, always physically present (never absent) to guide and provide ideas accordingly (both in writing and laboratory activities), making sure everyone has basic knowledge of whatever research we are doing by sending us for training/workshop (for hands-on and practical experience) whenever necessary and most especially, our postgraduate supervisor/adviser follows ethics religiously. Perhaps, due to this, when my time came, I made sure I followed her ways.

  • Andrea Hayward
    Andrea Hayward Member, Administrator, Moderator Posts: 943 admin

    @Soumi Paul I apologize for the delay in my response. This week has been a little too hectic and I've been struggling to keep up with all my priorities.

    I am so sorry to hear that you're going through such a difficult situation. It can't be easy to talk about this. The fact that you've said "this is not new for me" really breaks my heart. 😐️

    A lot of people seem to think that only junior colleagues or researchers earlier on in their academic journeys are on the receiving end of bullying. But that's not at all true. As you've rightly pointed out, anyone can become a target of bullying and bullying transcends career stages.

    I'm intrigued by what you've said about education failing to change such behavior in people. I've been thinking about it too and I'm starting to wonder if this has more to do with power inconsistencies. If you do end up exploring this area, I'd be very interested to read about it.

  • Andrea Hayward
    Andrea Hayward Member, Administrator, Moderator Posts: 943 admin

    @Hazel Monica Peralta thank you for your kind words. I really appreciate your support! :)

    I am so glad that you've not been at the receiving end of bullying. Thank you for sharing the kind of work environment you've been in. I feel like your postgrad supervisor has done a wonderful job of demonstrating how everyone can work in harmony when the work environment is caring, understanding, equal, and nurturing. I also feel like "being present" in a very true sense is so important to ensure that such a positive environment is maintained.

  • Aysa MC
    Aysa MC Member Posts: 28 ✭✭✭

    Impressing... I have experimented some similar things... I have stayed, but it is not easy... And sometimes I would like to finally give up