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Sexual Harassment Awareness Day on 23 March

Universities Unite Against Sexism

Sexual Harassment Awareness Day takes place on 23 March. In this interview, legal scholars Brigitte Tag and Sina Staudinger explain what UZH is doing to protect its staff and students against sexual harassment.
Marita Fuchs; English translation by Caitlin Stephens


Schutz vor sexueller Belästigung
UZH wants to ensure that all its members can study and work in a safe and respectful environment.

Brigitte Tag and Sina Staudinger, you are contact persons for people affected by sexual harassment at UZH. Sexual Harassment Awareness Day, a Swiss-wide campaign to tackle sexual harassment in higher education, takes place on 23 March. Why is it important for UZH to be involved in this campaign?

Brigitte Tag: Sexual Harassment Awareness Day is important because it shows that universities across Switzerland form a united front on this issue. We speak with one voice to declare zero tolerance for sexual harassment and sexist behavior in higher education.

Sina Staudinger: The University of Zurich was one of the first higher education institutions in Switzerland to introduce regulations for protection against sexual harassment (RSB), back in 2007. Nevertheless, it’s important that we continue to highlight the problem of sexual harassment and ensure those affected know where to turn for counseling or support. The fact that an awareness day is now being held nationwide for the first time shows Swiss universities’ commitment to taking action against sexual harassment. A varied program has been organized for 23 March. We have taken a two-pronged approach: raising awareness of the topic in general, and highlighting existing support services.

How many cases of sexual harassment are there at UZH?

Brigitte Tag: For data protection reasons, we can’t provide exact figures. But I can say that the number has increased considerably in recent years, and that some cases are very complex and resource intensive. This increase is likely also due to a change in attitudes. Many people, especially the younger generations, are more alert to such issues than in the past and are also more willing to talk about incidents and report them. The #MeToo debate may also have contributed to this shift.

Sina Staudinger: I work part-time as general manager of the RSB Commission. Part of my role involves conducting advisory consultations with affected people, together with Brigitte Tag in her role as investigating person.

Brigitte Tag: My main job is professor of criminal law and medical law at the University of Zurich. This professional background is very helpful when it comes to quickly assessing the situation and taking appropriate measures if a violation has been committed. 

Sexual harassment covers a wide range of behavior. What is acceptable and what not?

Brigitte Tag: There is indeed a broad spectrum. “Sexual harassment” is a technical term which describes anything from suggestive or appraising looks or supposedly accidental physical contact to more serious incidents including sexual assault or rape. In cases of stalking, for example, the victim is seen as an object by the stalker. If the motivation is sexual or sexist, stalking would usually meet the criteria for sexual harassment, as would someone touching another’s primary or secondary sexual organs without consent. Obscene language can also violate a person’s sexual integrity, and thus also constitutes a boundary violation. Sexualized micro-aggressions, i.e. subtle verbal or nonverbal insults with sexist or sexual undertones, are also unacceptable.

Sina Staudinger: Our position is that no sexual infringements are acceptable at UZH, wherever they fall on the spectrum of severity. If incidents do nevertheless occur, we are here to ensure they are scrupulously investigated. Everyone who contacts us is guaranteed help and support. That doesn’t just apply to women of course; men or people with other or fluid gender identities are also welcome. We’re here for all members of UZH, especially students, teaching staff and employees.

Does sexual harassment occur more frequently at universities than in civil society?

Brigitte Tag: Universities are part of civil society, and thus also a reflection of it. The academy is no cloistered world – we’re no better or worse than the society of which we are part. We’re just as affected by these issues as other areas of society.
But academia does have some special features that are relevant with regard to harassment: students are usually at university for a shorter period of time than employees in companies. That means new students have to quickly find their feet in the academic environment, get to know peers and cope with exam stress. This makes them somewhat vulnerable. Students are dependent on their instructors, who set and grade exams. Due to this dependency, there is a power imbalance. In one-to-one supervision, whether for Bachelor’s or Master’s theses, PhDs or habilitation papers, protection against sexual harassment is paramount.

Sina Staudinger: At the same time, the university is and should continue to be a place where life is lived – many people fall in love or make friends for life at UZH. We want that to remain the case, provided mutual respect and consent is always present.

The student organization CLASH conducted a survey on sexual harassment among medical students at UZH and ETH Zurich in 2022. Of approximately 2,700 students contacted, 613 completed the online questionnaire. One-third of those who completed the survey in full reported experiencing or witnessing sexism. Does that surprise you?

Brigitte Tag: No, it’s not surprising, there are reasons for this result. In principle, we think it is important that such surveys are carried out. They support our work. The more visible a problem is – with reliable data – the more we can enter into a clear dialogue with those responsible and put a stop to it.

Many of the incidents reported in the survey occurred during the students’ clinical year. That is a particularly challenging time for medical students. They are confronted, often for the first time, with the hierarchies of everyday hospital life, and come into contact with patients, nursing staff and others. As well as professionally enriching experiences for all involved, there can also be a lot of stress and also feelings of vulnerability. Inappropriate behavior may be particularly likely to occur in such high-pressure situations. 

Will the Faculty of Medicine take any special measures?

Brigitte Tag: The Faculty of Medicine and the RSB Commission are in close contact with CLASH and support the association’s work and commitment. It is important to us that the survey results are used to bring about lasting, sustainable change. The RSB Commission is supporting and advising CLASH on how best to provide easily accessible information for potential victims about the various support services available. Together we have defined processes to help standardize the work of CLASH members and ensure it is in conformance with regulations, in particular in terms of contact with those seeking support. We have jointly held workshops, developed workflows and clarified structures. In addition, meetings were held with representatives from CLASH, the Faculty of Medicine, the Equal Opportunities Commission of the Faculty of Medicine, the RSB Commission, USZ and ETH to clear up outstanding questions. These meetings have led to concrete action. The Equal Opportunities Commission of the Faculty of Medicine and the faculty leadership team are actively engaged in this area and will present specific measures in due course.

What can members of the university do if they are currently affected by sexual harassment at UZH?

Brigitte Tag: Contact us – i.e. the UZH contact persons, of whom Sina Staudinger is one, or me as investigating person (or my deputy Markus Golder). We have many years of experience and can react quickly. The next steps then always depend very much on the individual situation. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and it wouldn’t be helpful for us to recommend such a thing. In principle, we clarify the facts with the person affected and take appropriate measures accordingly, with their agreement. In addition, people have the option of receiving psychological counseling from a specialist at UZH, and we also work with the Safety, Security and Environment Office. If a crime has been committed and the victim agrees, we will contact the Zurich Victim Support Center (Opferberatungsstelle) and the police.

Reactions to sexual harassment can vary greatly. Factors include the environment in which the harassment occurs, how much of a shock it was, and a person’s individual resilience. Many people say that they didn’t react at all while the incident was happening – sometimes they were unable to react because they couldn’t believe it was happening to them. In the case of violent assault, there is also the phenomenon known as freezing. Whatever one’s reaction in the moment, it is still important to talk about such incidents and get help as soon as possible. Even if we’re personally unaffected, we should watch out for others and offer them support if they are the victims of sexual harassment. We can all contribute to making sure that everyone feels comfortable at our university and can work and study freely and securely.