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Spotlight on Sexism at French Universities

Translated by Nina Fink, Mathilde Saliou  |  Publié le

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Manifestation contre le harcèlement sexuel
Universities have launched campaigns to promote gender equality, and created psychological and legal services for harassment victims. // © Marta Nascimento - REA

Students at the University of Avignon have launched a new blog to denounce everyday sexism at French universities. The Tumblr of overheards is part of French schools' growing efforts to combat sexism, raise awareness, promote gender equality and support victims.

When an engineering professor said, "Girls, no need to raise your hand. I'm not answering your questions. You don't belong here.", a new French blog on sexism heard about it. It also got wind of the remark, "Before you turn me down, remember I'll be your professor next year."

Where is the line between sexist put-downs and sexual harassment? Between acceptable and unacceptable comments? The blog, started by six women and one man, offers many examples. It grew out of a societal sexism assignment at the University of Avignon. One co-founder notes that contrary to popular belief, "sexism is very present at universities."

Call It Out

For Élise Brunel, gender equality researcher at the French Ministry of National Education, unlike the blog, the remarks are nothing new. "Universities began tackling sexual harassment thanks to pressure from nonprofits, the new French Ministry of Women's Rights and France's first sexual harassment memorandum in 2012. Students and teachers used to dismiss harassment as dirty jokes. Our first challenge was to call it out in order to raise awareness."

Several initiatives have followed, including a 2015 harassment handbook for universities. A 2016 letter from the French Minister of Education, Higher Education and Research and academic leaders urged university presidents to adopt a zero tolerance policy.

Count It Up

Quantifying harassment is still harder in France than it is in the U.S. The number of victims remains elusive. As of this year, the INED study on violence and gender relations will include a university section in its report on rape and sexual assault.

Keep It Going

This shortage of statistics hasn't held schools back. At Aix-Marseille University, for example, a poster campaign has raised awareness and publicized psychological and legal services for victims and witnesses. Board vice president Marie Masclet says, "We owe it to society to combat all forms of discrimination and violence."

Brunel notes, "Every university needs a program" to fight harassment and promote gender equality. Support services for victims can even be outsourced. "Since it's a tricky issue, there's a real need for training," she adds.

Translated by Nina Fink, Mathilde Saliou  |  Publié le

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