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The quest for top female academics — a search and destroy mission?

Groningen, the Netherlands.
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Gender-equality initiatives in academia can have unintended drawbacks (see C. Tzanakou Nature 570, 277; 2019). Counter-intuitively, they can result in the serious under-reporting of sexual harassment in academia, according to the 2019 European Gender Summit at which I chaired a session (see gender-summit.com).

Universities recruiting women academics through gender-equality initiatives search for top-tier talent. Those that receive extra funding for such initiatives do not necessarily look kindly on staff who speak out about harassment or unequal treatment. There are reports of leaders exposing whistle-blowers to retaliation tactics such as intimidation, exclusion and silencing (D. Fernando and A. Prasad Hum. Relat. 72, 1565–1594; 2019).

The research output of whistle-blowers can plunge under such harrowing circumstances. They lose trust in the institutions they worked so hard to become a part of. Moreover, witnesses to such retaliatory practices become reluctant to report harassment.

Universities must embrace complaints if they are to achieve diversity and inclusivity. Otherwise, recruiting top women academics through gender-equality initiatives could become an unintentional search-and-destroy mission.

Nature 577, 29 (2020)

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