Gender-Based Violence and Sexual Harassment

Gender-based violence denotes forms of behaviour that are directed against people on the basis of their sex or gender identity. It can take the form of physical violence, but it can also take the form of harassing or degrading comments, bullying, or unwanted attention. This behaviour occurs not only in face-to-face interactions but also, increasingly, in online environments. Gender-based violence is both a cause and a consequence of gender inequalities.

Forms of gender-based violence

Gender-based violence takes many forms, the most notable examples of which are:

  • gender-based harassment
  • sexual harassment
  • cyber violence
  • stalking
  • organisational violence
  • physical violence and abuse
  • psychological violence and abuse
  • economic and financial violence
  • sexual violence

Specific examples of gender-based violence can include derogatory comments that diminish a person’s abilities because they are a woman/man or a person of a different gender identity (gender harassment), sexually-oriented comments about a person’s appearance or unsolicited touching (sexual harassment), or sending intimidating or sexually explicit emails (cyberbullying), repeated harassing messages (stalking), tolerating or encouraging individual violence at an organisational level (organisational violence), threatening bodily harm (psychological violence), kicking, pushing, or hitting (physical violence), preventing a person from attending work or denying access to financial resources (economic and financial violence), rape or sexual coercion (sexual violence).

Gender-based violence in the academic environment

Gender-based violence also occurs in universities and research institutions. In addition to its serious effects on mental health, this violence has severe implications for the academic and professional performance of those who experience it. Furthermore, it affects those who are exposed to it as witnesses (bystanders). Gender-based violence consequently harms universities and research institutions as a whole. When gender-based violence and sexual harassment drives people out of academia or prevents them from fully pursuing their studies or work, institutions experience a loss of talent and human potential.

Universities and research institutions should strive for an environment where gender-based violence does not occur in any form (physical, psychological, or otherwise) and should actively work towards creating an inclusive and safe environment for all.


UniSAFE Project has conducted a survey among 46 participating universities and research organisations in 15 countries in Europe to collect data on the prevalence of gender-based violence in academia and research. With over 42,000 responses from staff and students, the survey is the largest conducted so far in the European Research Area. The results show that 62% of the survey respondents have experienced at least one form of gender-based violence since they started working or studying at their institution.

Nearly 2 in 3 respondents have experienced gender-based violence.

According to this survey, the most prevalent form of gender-based violence is psychological violence (57%), followed by sexual harassment (31%). One in ten people report having experienced economic violence and under one-tenth have on at least one occasion been subjected to online violence (8%) or physical violence (6%). Sexual violence is the least reported form of gender-based violence (3%).

The consequences of gender-based violence

The consequences of gender-based violence in universities and research organisations are clear for both staff and students. For staff, such experiences have led to decreased work productivity, increased consideration to leaving the academic sector, more disengagement from colleagues, and dissatisfaction with their job.


Persons with a gender or sexual identity other than the majority, such as transgender or non-binary persons, lesbians and gay men, are particularly vulnerable to gender-based violence and sexual harassment. UniSAFE survey shows, that women (66%) and non-binary people (74%) were more likely than men to experience all forms of gender-based violence. Persons who identify as LGBQ+ (68%), who reported a disability or chronic illness (72%), and those belonging to an ethnic minority group (69%) were more likely to have experienced at least one incident of gender-based violence, compared to those who do not identify with these characteristics.

Women are more likely to experience violence and harassment (66%), as well as people who are more vulnerable because of their LGBTQ+ identity (68%), their ethnicity (69%) or health disadvantage (72%).

Persons with intersecting forms of potential disadvantage also face higher levels of violence. In addition to gender, disadvantaging factors include age, length of time at a university, or belonging to a minority or otherwise disadvantaged group. These groups include younger women, people with precarious work, people working on fixed-term contracts, and international students.

The power dimension of gender-based violence and sexual harassment

Research shows that although men also experience sexual harassment (primarily those who are non-conforming with the gender stereotypes about the typical male role in society), most cases of sexual harassment are directed against women and are predominantly perpetrated by men. Indeed, gender-based violence and sexual harassment inevitably involve an element of power – the use of the symbolic superiority of men over women. In academic settings, this is compounded by the organisational dominance of teaching staff over students. This, too, has a gender dimension, given the small share of women in leadership positions in academic institutions.

Gender-based violence in academia inevitably involves a power aspect by the very nature of the institution as a hierarchical structure.

Sexual harassment, therefore, constitutes a form of discrimination and a mechanism by which women are systematically excluded from jobs, and where their abilities and performance are denigrated and their access to education and careers is hindered. This is often compounded by the institutional structure of organisations, where men are often in positions of leadership, while women are in a subordinate position to them.


‘What is a pretty girl like you doing here? […] This is a difficult course. This is hard work. You will spoil your beauty […] why don’t you go do some modelling. Find a rich husband.’
D5.3 Report on interviews with researchers at higher risk of gender-based violence (GBV), UniSAFE, page 17.

‘I was pregnant during my PhD and my supervisor wanted me to measure radioactivity, which obviously I couldn’t do. I was forced to say why I couldn’t do it. He also said to me: “Well, if that’s the case, you won’t have the data to finish your PhD […]. If you don’t do it yourself, the experiment will fail”.
D5.3 Report on interviews with researchers at higher risk of gender-based violence (GBV), UniSAFE, page 15.

‘[…] the difference is not your skin colour, […] the difference in the way that you are treated is based on whether you speak the “national language” or not. They will not take you seriously if you don’t. Or we are not involved in the conversation; that happens a lot with other colleagues who don’t speak the “native language”. They’ll start speaking the “native language”. And that’s a way to push you back, because then you won’t be integrated into the conversation because they don’t want to talk to you.’
D5.3 Report on interviews with researchers at higher risk of gender-based violence (GBV), UniSAFE, page 37-38.

‘It was turned into my personal problem. The dean said: “If you want to change something, you’ll have to talk to him.” I said that I didn’t dare do that because I didn’t feel safe, but the dean insisted: “You’ll have to, if you want to move on.” So that was where it ended for me. […] It feels like you have to be raped here before they take any action. I feel that what happened to me doesn’t really count.’
Naezer, Marijke, Marieke van den Brink and Yvonne Benschop. “Harassment in Dutch academia: Exploring manifestations, facilitating factors, effects and solutions.” (2019), page 33, available here.

‘One interviewee described an experience with her supervisor with whom she had been in an intimate relationship for 8 years
‘He didn’t hit me, but, at some point, he grabbed me by the arm, threw me against the wall, shouted something in my ear, and held me so tightly by the upper arm that afterwards I had bruises from that.’
D5.3 Report on interviews with researchers at higher risk of gender-based violence (GBV), UniSAFE, page 22.

‘It was with my supervisor. And now I see that it was like a long-term thing, but I didn’t know what our relations should be like. When I passed the evaluation, he said, what can we do for you to extend your PhD for one year or two to have it five or six years? […] And he said, you know, pregnancy is a good way to extend a PhD. […] So be ready tomorrow, and we can try. And to me that was an offer of sex, not exactly directly but in a way. Because also that day, and at that meeting, he proposed going on a date and for wine and to come to his house. […]. So, from his perspective, […] he didn’t want to use me. He just wanted us to have a relationship actually […].
D5.3 Report on interviews with researchers at higher risk of gender-based violence (GBV), UniSAFE, page 24.