A single day is not enough

To mark Sexual Harassment Awareness Day at Swiss universities, Vice President Julia Dannath analyses the situation at ETH Zurich, explains what anonymous reports can and cannot achieve, and presents what she believes is most needed to effectively combat sexual harassment.

Today, for the first time, Swiss universities are joining forces to raise awareness about sexual harassment in the context of university education.1 For me, this day elicits mixed feelings. Part of me is grateful that this important issue is in focus today. At the same time, I am disappointed that we aren’t further along considering it’s 2023. It annoys me that we obviously still need awareness days to shine a light on sexual harassment.

If we want to change something, the first step is to recognise and understand that there is a problem in the first place - only then can we do something about it. We know from Swiss federal survey studies2 published last year that between 20 and 60 percent of women in Switzerland have experienced sexual harassment at some point in their lives, with between 2 and 10 percent experiencing it in the past 12 months. These findings clearly demonstrate that sexual harassment is a major and widespread problem. It happens every day, in large and small ways, across social strata, across genders and generations. It happens everywhere - including at ETH.

’ETH Zurich has zero tolerance for sexual harassment and will take action against it.’

Julia Dannath
Of course, I can’t change all of society, but as Vice President for Personnel Development and Leadership, I am responsible for making sure that we do everything we can to improve the situation at ETH and to create a climate that does everything possible to prevent sexual harassment. The Executive Board is clear on this: ETH Zurich has zero tolerance for sexual harassment and will take action against it.

Directly addressing deficiencies - all the time

We know that a marked power imbalance and pronounced hierarchies are risk factors that can permit sexual harassment to go unchecked. These risk factors are present in the university environment - and ETH is no exception. Declaring today Sexual Harassment Awareness Day is only one of the ways that Swiss universities are showing they now understand that they must address this issue and not look the other way.

At ETH Zurich, we’ve been working hard at this for several years now through campaigns, contact and advice services, training courses, and more. The goal is always to raise awareness and ultimately bring about cultural change at ETH. While these developments are certainly positive, it’s also clear that despite all we’ve already done and everything we’ve achieved, the fight against sexual harassment is never over. What’s required is unrelenting, active engagement with the topic of sexual harassment together with a continuous process of learning and adjustment in those areas where ETH still has room for improvement.

An even lower threshold for reporting

But how can we tell where there are problems at ETH? Are our contact and advice services sufficient for this, or do we need other instruments? These are questions that my team and I ask ourselves constantly. We have recognised that the threshold for reporting cases of sexual harassment to ETH needs to be even lower. So at the beginning of April, we’re launching an online form that people can use to file an anonymous report if they have experienced sexual harassment at ETH - either as a victim or as a witness.

What’s particularly important to us in this new project is that we’re encouraging everyone who comes forward anonymously to tell us what we could improve and to put specific suggestions to us. We’re convinced that we all stand to benefit a great deal from these people’s experience. The goal of this survey is to further develop ETH as an organisation, to see where we need to strengthen our issue management and where we should take preventive action.

’Only if we as an institution are aware of harassment can we combat it.’

Julia Dannath
Our tried and trusted advice and counselling arrangements will of course remain in place. We have a variety of in-house and third-party contact and advice services that can provide those affected by abuse with confidential counselling. At this "informal stage", we listen to those affected by sexual harassment and give them options for how they might wish to proceed. As a matter of principle, it is the victim who decides on the next steps. Furthermore, people have the option of reporting an incident to the Reporting Office in writing, which will initiate formal proceedings. And if the worst should happen and an assault occurs, our Emergency Desk is available day and night and is tasked with responding. You can find all information about our advisory services here.

Anonymous reporting - the solution?

Since anonymous reporting is often touted as the cure-all for sexual harassment and assault, I feel it is also important to clearly state what anonymous reporting cannot do:

First, without an accuser, there will be no proceedings. That is to say, the Swiss legal system requires that an accuser be willing to stand up and be named before a lawsuit can be initiated against someone. Anonymous reports are not permitted to serve as the basis for any institution to contact the accused or even open a case file, let alone take any measures. Our legal system obliges us to inform the accused of the allegation and allow them to respond. In no way do I want to create the impression among those affected by sexual harassment that ETH will take action against the accused on the basis of an anonymous report, as this is not the case. That is also why it will not be possible to accuse someone by name on the online reporting form.

Important piece of the picture

And a second point: we are aware that a data pool based on such anonymous reports is of limited value. Quite apart from the fact that we cannot prevent the form from being submitted improperly, these anonymous reports alone can never reflect the entirety of the situation at ETH. Before all of that, we need to gather empirical data on how people use this new reporting opportunity.

’I want to live in a society and work at a university where people aren’t harassed or discriminated against, sexually or otherwise.’

Julia Dannath
Moreover, I see these reports as important piece of the picture, one of a whole range of tools that we must have at our disposal to find out how members of the ETH community perceive the situation at our university. Specifically, we will do more to link the experience of our contact and advice services with the results of surveys and any anonymous reports received. This will enable us to build up a more comprehensive picture of where we stand in our fight against sexual harassment and where we still need to take action.

Joint commitment

I want to live in a society and work at a university where people aren’t harassed or discriminated against, sexually or otherwise. I will do everything in my power to ensure that ETH does what it can as an institution. But we must remember that sexual harassment impacts us all - it’s not just an institutional issue, it’s an issue for each and every one of us. So please play your part and help make ETH a place where no one is harassed. Only if we as an institution are aware of harassment can we combat it. Please get in touch with our contact and advice services if you experience or witness sexual harassment. You can do this anonymously, confidentially, or by way of a formal report - but whichever of the several options you choose, we will support you.

Most importantly, I call on each of you to take a personal stand against sexual harassment before it even occurs. The one thing that is more powerful than any measures that the justice system or institutions could ever take is a change of mindset: the will to live by a shared culture that won’t tolerate sexual harassment (anymore) - ever again, on any day.