Inappropriate gestures, sexually-charged comments and even jokes of a sexual nature are still fairly common at Wits University despite last year’s high profile dismissals for sexual harassment.
Regarded as “minor” infringements, these incidents are just as serious and need to be reported, says Professor Jackie Dugard, director of the Wits sexual harassment office (SHO).
Dugard spoke to Wits Vuvuzela earlier this week about the less obvious forms of sexual harassment that occur between lecturers, staff members and students.
She emphasised that “unwanted attention, unwanted gestures, touching and comments,” by lecturers to students as well as staff to staff could fall under the “category” of sexual harassment.
“Minor” infringements are “just as important to report as major infringements” because both are “serious offenses that must be taken seriously.”She said the determination of the seriousness of an infringement depends on circumstance and context.
“If we’re talking about the more clear-cut scenario where the attention is unwanted, then anything of a sexist or sexual nature is unacceptable.”
“Sexual harassment is sexual harassment no matter how big or small the allegation,” she said.
Dugard says that all reports of sexual harassment regardless of their nature, are recorded by her team. “We report it all and take it all very seriously so that if there are repeat transgressions we have a historical record that might collectively add up to something much more ‘serious’.”
The newly-formed SHO has already recorded a variety of issues which include “sexist” material being shown by a professor in a staff meeting and incessant commenting about a student’s appearance by a tutor.
Student on student harassment is also an issue that Dugard and the sexual harassment team hope to tackle. As examples of the problem Dugard says earlier this year a case of student on student rape at a party was reported to the SHO. Another case involved the intimidation of a female student by her ex-boyfriend.
Lecturer to Student Contact
Despite the differentiation between offences, Dugard said she is “not sure how helpful it is to categorise or try to delineate too rigidly between serious and minor” infringements because “according to Wits policy, if you violate the Wits code of conduct or any related policies such as sexual harassment… you can be subjected to a disciplinary inquiry and sanctioned accordingly”.
“Anything that falls outside of a professional relationship is not acceptable. In addition anything that falls outside of professional mentoring is not okay, unless it is wanted and reciprocated.”
Dugard said that at the moment there “isn’t an outright ban at Wits on student-staff relationships,” but it is something “being considered” by the university.
“Some universities have such policies in order to eliminate a lot of grey areas.”
Wits Vuvuzela: Former Witsie is new sexual harassment office head, February 6, 2014
Wits Vuvuzela: Wits academic resigns amid sexual harassment investigations, October 31, 2013
Wits Vuvuzela: Wits sexual harassment inquiry complete, September 4, 2013