Recent terrorist events in New Zealand and around the world have prompted reflection on how such hate and discrimination arises in a society, whether considered racism or other forms of harassment and bullying. The latter anti-social behaviours may underlie and lead to more extreme examples. Definitions of forms of harassment are outlined here.

International surveys found one quarter to one-third of university staff reported being bullied in 2017, while 40% witnessed or heard of instances (Else 2018). It can be especially the case for new, minority and/or junior staff, and Parkes (2017) reported 42% of academics experienced some sort of workplace bullying.

Within the University of Auckland, recent weeks saw two students abuse teaching staff and other students by directing white supremacist-style rants at women, Muslim’s and Maori. Because of this behaviour, some students are now afraid to come to class. This instance may have been extreme, but I have witnessed and/or heard of other forms of harassment within the university. These included demeaning (belittling) comments, verbal harassment and bullying, thinly veiled threats, ignoring somebody’s presence, requests or emails.

To better understand to what extent harassment was present in our University community, and how it might be addressed, I surveyed my recent and current graduate students as to their experiences. We then held a group conversation on the topic. Of 17 people who replied before the meeting, 7 were female, 8 were from Asia, and others from New Zealand, the Americas and Europe.

While most respondents had not experienced any harassment in the university or New Zealand, 38 % had received racist comments or abuse outside the university, and 24 % had been harassed or bullied within the university. The first took the form of “get out of New Zealand” comments because the student was speaking a foreign language, wearing a Muslim headscarf, or did not look Caucasian. The survey thus showed clear examples of racism and Islamophobia outside of the University.

People witnessed dismissive comments by people in positions of power targeting people based on their old or young age, colour and ethnicity. It was hard to know if these behaviours could be officially considered or proven to be discrimination on the basis of gender, age or race, but typically the abuser was a person in a position of power and male. Examples of gender-based discrimination are provided here, and all forms of harassment here.

They assumed the other person would be too frightened of the consequences to make a formal complaint. This can be a compounding issue for international students, because they may struggle with the language, local culture and lack a social support network. Thus, rude behaviour that a local student may shrug off may cause stress to an international student. It can impact on their confidence, performance of their studies and work, and health.

Several students noted that they felt marginalized by being newcomers and in a country, especially if English was not their first language. Some rarely socialised with New Zealanders in the years at the university. Proactive inclusion of international students by local students and staff would help address this.

Addressing harassment

It seems a not uncommon problem that higher education institutions struggle to deal with harassment and bullying, often because the perpetrators are in positions of influence and are more valuable to the organisation than the people they harass (Else 2018). It extends to malicious rumours and gossip behind people’s back (so they cannot counter it), false accusations, and undermining others opinion or work. Often, people must make a formal complaint or it is not taken further. Thus the abuser continues their disrespectful and/or bullying behaviour and it is effectively endorsed.

The people affected, especially if students and early career staff, fear reprisal and being labelled ‘difficult’. It impacts upon these people’s studies and work, and they are likely to leave as soon as they can. This is also bad for universities. There needs to be a system where harassment can be addressed without fear of complainant’s reputations and careers being affected. To address this at the University of Auckland there is a Whistleblower service managed by an external organisation. The person making the report can choose to remain completely anonymous, or only anonymous to the university. The university is made aware of the complaint and may respond, such as by making its own internal enquiries.

What can we do?

We all have a role to play in refusing to condone this behaviour on University campuses. Here are ten suggestions that came out of the recent conversation I had with my graduate students. When others witness these positive behaviours, it can influence how they behave.

  1. Recognise there is a problem with racism, discrimination, bullying and harassment in our community, and that it affects people differently.
  2. Challenge abusive comments, stand up for people not in positions of power.
  3. Support people who share their distress or unhappiness with you.
  4. Support them if they wish to make a formal complaint. Do not discourage this because that is victimising them a second time; it is their decision.
  5. Listen, have patience, compassion, and understanding.
  6. Be sensitive – we do not know how others may respond to stress and situations. What may seem funny in one situation can be hurtful to somebody else.
  7. Practice and promote respectful behaviour. Do onto others as you wish they would do to you.
  8. Be inclusive: let everyone speak at meetings; open body language (do not turn your back on others); give everybody in the group your attention; never be dismissive even of unusual viewpoints.
  9. Celebrate diversity: Come together and share meals from different cultures and countries. Recognise the national days of different countries.
  10. If you are in a senior or management position, take leadership to shift attitudes to avoid discrimination and more positive and inclusive behaviours (such as by male academics addressing gender inequity).

When is it a problem for me?

Everybody occasionally comes across rude or anti-social behaviour. Some may be accidental and trivial and some judgement is needed as to when to how to respond. I suggest that if your work or life is being affected by fear or distress from any kinds of harassment you need to do something about it.

What can you do about harassment?

We recognize that some marginalising, discriminatory and even harassing behaviour can be unintentional. If you’re in a position to speak to someone who is behaving in a problematic way, whether towards someone else or yourself, then that may be a useful step towards change. However, not everyone feels comfortable or able to do this.

Do not feel alone. It is highly likely the perpetrator has done the same to other people. Reach out to colleagues, friends in the university and city for advice and support. If nobody knows your problem they cannot help.

Members of our research group had found the Auckland University Students Association Advocacy service to be responsive and helpful, and they can provide legal advice in confidence as well. For staff, the Tertiary Education Union continually works to improve working conditions for all staff, including dealing with discrimination and harassment (e.g. gender equality, bullying, racism).

We also found the New Zealand Police to take complaints seriously and you can file a complaint by telephone (there is a 1997 Harassment Act in New Zealand). The more facts you can provide them the better; the place, date, time, and name of the person. You get a written confirmation by email and can access and update the report online. This is then on file should the person abuse you or anybody else again.

Other resources regarding harassment, whether by verbal, physical, mental or electronic means:

YouthLaw: YouthLaw is part of the Community Law Centre network that provides free legal advice to anyone under the age of 25 who are unable to access legal help elsewhere. They take calls between 10 am and 4 pm Monday to Friday. You can give them a call on 0800 884 529.

Community Law: If you are not eligible for YouthLaw’s services, you may be eligible if you contact a community law centre. There are centres in the CBD, Mangere, Waitemata and South Auckland.

You may also be interested in looking at Netsafe: Netsafe is a non-profit organisation in New Zealand focused on online safety. They can provide information and advice about using digital technology safely, and about managing online challenges like online harassment, bullying abuse and scams.

For definitions and options to deal with all forms of harassment see this university webpage.

Further reading

Anonymous. 2020. OCB Program Code of Conduct. Ocean Carbon & Biogeochemistry website.

Craig-Henderson K. 2020. I’ve been there. Fighting stereotypes in the world of science. National Science Foundation, Science Matters. 

Langin K. 2020. ‘A time of reckoning.’ How scientists confronted anti-Black racism and built community in 2020. Science, doi:10.1126/science.caredit.abg2701 

Morris V, White L, Fuentes JD, Atchison CL, Smythe WF, Burt M, Williams L, Tripati A, Demoz BB, Armstrong RA. 2020. A Call to Action for an Anti-Racist Science Community from Geoscientists of Color: Listen, Act, Lead.

Popp, A. L., C. A. Hall, and Y. A. Yılmaz (2020), How to combat bullying and discrimination in the geosciences. Eos 101,

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