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Gender-Based And Sexualized Violence In Higher Education

Survey Studies

In this section we present survey studies and survey instruments that were utilized in universities around the globe to investigate sexual harassment, sexual assault, and gender-based violence. The studies point to important contextual factors at universities and research organizations, they ask about the effects of and attitudes towards sexual assault and provide tools for assessing the effectiveness of protective measures.

Cases of sexual harassment may have been reported to different parts of the organization. Good practice suggests that universities should work with different data sources and synthesize the findings in order to record, for example, the actual reported incidence rate and frequency of gender-based violence on their campuses. The American Association of Universities has made available a guide for data management (Moving Toward a “Data Ecosystem” to Assess Campus Responses to Sexual Assault and Misconduct. A Resource for College and University Decision-Makers), which gives convincing reasons for the use of mixed-method approaches.

The only Europe-wide survey on violence against women until now, which was carried out in all former 28 EU Member States, does not specifically detail the situation in higher education. Nevertheless, the study is worth mentioning here, as it covers relevant forms of violence, is documented in an exemplary manner, and it has become an important reference point for decision making in gender politics. The study comprises issues such as stalking, sexual harassment, including the role that virtual technologies play in women's experiences of abuse, as well as physical, sexual and psychological violence, including incidents of violence by an intimate partner.

In 2009/2010, the EU-funded project “Gender Based Violence, Stalking and Fear of Crime” collected for the first time comparable qualitative and quantitative data on gender-based violence experiences of female students at universities in six European countries. In Germany, 16 universities took part in the survey. The effects on health and academic performance can lead to obstacles and interruptions in a person's life and career. The study raises the issue of accountability of the universities for societal problems such as gender-based violence among students.

The Australian Human Rights Commission conducted survey studies in 2017 and 2018 with the total participation of 39 Australian universities, to assess the situation of sexual harassment, sexual violence and prevention/intervention measures. The results show the incidence rates of sexual assaults, sexual harassment, as well as the consequences in those affected. The study reports how universities deal with incidents and additionally includes the results of a survey among bystanders. “Change the course” is the title of the final report published in 2017.

The “Center For Changing Our Campus Culture” provides various resources of US universities in an index document which assists with the implementation of surveys on the working climate and harassment cases at universities. The Wikipedia page of the ARC3 study of 2015, which investigated the full spectrum of sexual harassment and sexual assault in academia in numerous universities and colleges in the USA, is also referenced there. 

The Association of American Universities (AAU) conducted a survey on sexual assault and sexual misconduct among students at 27 universities in 2015. The aim of the study was to document reactions to sexual assaults in universities and to enable the evidence-based development of prevention strategies. The results show that women and first year students are most frequently affected by sexual assaults. The AAU study website provides reports on the survey findings, including descriptions of methods, statistics, questionnaires and a brief summary of the project. The questionnaire covers items on the perception of sexual harassment, awareness of support and counselling services, experiences with different forms of sexual harassment, experiences with stalking, intimate partner violence and experiences with sexual violence. The AAU repeated the survey in 2019 and presents the results online.

The two studies from the US presented above followed the field study “Campus Sexual Assault” of 2007. For this study, students reported experiences with sexual assaults. The data was evaluated according to personal characteristics, situation- and context-specific risk factors, and in relation to additional experiences with violence. Among the contextual factors taken into account are not only experiences from laboratories or lecture halls, but also from dormitories and student parties.

In France, the National Institute for Demographic Studies INED has been conducting a nationwide study on experiences of violence among women and men, the VIRAGE study, since 2013. Its aim is to update the knowledge about experiences with violence and to evaluate measures against violence. One part of the study is dedicated to universities, including sexual, physical or verbal violence or combinations of these forms. Students at several universities were interviewed. The study website presents a series of evaluations, findings and methodological reports.

Without collecting empirical data, “Universities UK” commissioned a group of experts to re-visit research studies and a survey which was implemented by the student union. The purpose was to assess the extent of incidences of harassment, especially sexual harassment, and to propose countermeasures.

The first quantitative survey on violence against women in science was conducted in universities in Spain in 2005-2008, followed by an EU intervention project “Universities Supporting Victims of Sexual Violence” (USVreact). On the page Tools And Resources For Prevention And Intervention you can find more information on USVreact in the section Intervention Measures.

In the Czech Republic, the issue of gender-based and sexualized violence of female university employees was investigated, here in the context of bullying.

The EU project Ending Sexual Harassment and Violence  in Third Level Education (ESHTE) did not conduct an empirical survey study at universities, but re-assessed existing data from surveys and general population statistics.

In general, gender-based and sexualized violence is only acted upon if it is perceived and recognized as such. Barak et al. point to a number of socio-psychological factors that seek to explain the differences between objective situational characteristics and personal perceptions of harassment. Bursik went one step further by considering, in addition to individual factors, differences in the power dynamics between perpetrators and victimized persons.

In research on sexism, the measurement of sexist attitudes towards different genders is an established variable. In addition, “myths” about sexual harassment and violence against women can be surveyed in different scales.

The POT scale is used to quantify the level of tolerance towards psychological harassment in the workplace inside organizations, including verbal and non-physical sexual harassment. It focuses on the degree of awareness with which organizations manage the psychosocial risks to which their employees are exposed in the workplace.

In the case of online surveys, the Campus Climate Survey Validation Study (CCSVS) evaluates how field time duration and financial incentives affect the overall number of responses, the representativeness of the sample, and the accuracy of the prevalence extrapolated from the survey results. The outcomes of this methodological research indicate that the use of monetary incentives corrects bias effects which may result from intrinsic motivations to respond to the survey.

Low participation in quantitative surveys can lead to strong bias effects in the study results, especially when the sample sizes are small. According to Giroux et al. , careful and forward-looking planning of the studies is therefore particularly important in universities and research institutions in order to make the findings less susceptible to statistical errors.

Furthermore, it must be ensured that the re-identification of individual persons is ruled out. In 2001, the WHO made available a special guide for research in the thematic field of violence against women, which provides solutions to concerns around security, anonymity, and research ethics. Rosoff’s article discusses the topics of confidentiality and respect for victimized persons, as well as other research ethics factors in the case of investigations of sexual assaults at universities.

Trauma research has raised awareness of the concerns of people affected by trauma and initiated the development of trauma-informed survey practices. It emphasizes the well-being of victimized persons, which must be at the heart of all interactions, decisions, and program practices. This has implications for empirical research, which on the one hand must provide the highest possible standards for open access to research data (Open Science) and on the other hand formulate a trauma-informed research ethic to protect research partners.

All too frequently, established scales and survey instruments assume that women take on the role of the victimized person and men the role of the perpetrator. Walby and Towers propose a more nuanced approach to gender-based violence research, taking into account gender diversity and the fact that multiple victimization occurs. Beyond research on violence and harassment, social science survey research distinguishes between biological and social gender identities.

A study by the University of South Carolina is seeking to find new ways to shed more light on the number of unreported cases of harassment by collecting and analyzing field reports by applying text mining and topic modeling methods.