I have been conducting research in diversity & inclusion for many years and worked with many different organizations to address diversity & inclusion challenges, as for example sexism. Although issues of diversity and inclusion in many ways are also of personal and professional value to me, I have always tried to enter the questions from a scientific and research-based point of view. Organizing this petition was therefore in many ways crossing some boundaries between the emotional, the political and the theoretical, which are tricky to negotiate. Still, it was without any doubt – and maybe even without too much ‘thinking’ – that I immediately agreed to front this petition when a dear friend and colleague asked me to join her. Once the possibility had been voiced, there was no option for me not to do this – not with my values and ‘myself’ intact. I had to do this. For myself, as well as for the many people, who have trusted me with their stories over the years. I felt a deep need to make these voices heard in a proper and powerful way. And although the next two weeks came with very little sleep, much worry and many tears, they also came with deep solidarity, respect, new friendships, laughter and many smiles. And as I sat at night reading the stories and copying them into a document of testimonies, which got longer and longer, I knew without any doubt that I had made the right decision. These stories needed to be heard.
From the very beginning it was important to me that we aimed for a culture change. And to do that, we needed to keep our own stories out. We needed to show the scope of the problem, not singling in on individuals. Yes, there are horrible individual cases, and yes, they need to be dealt with. But not by us. Our aim was to show the depth and scope of the problem; that it is everywhere in the academy, and that everyone is a potential target of sexism: men, women, non-binaries; victims, perpetrators and (silent) bystanders. Particularly due to the informal power hierarchies and precarious employment structure that characterize higher education organizations, we need to focus on how this is a collective, organizational and leadership challenge; not an individual problem. It was important for me to address this in a way that looks towards future change, not past wrongdoings. With the petition and now the website and the book, we want to educate, facilitate and foster a culture change that will ensure a better work-environment for us all. Everyone benefits from a culture free of sexism.
Many people have asked me what surprised me the most about this petition, many assuming it would be the scope of the problem. But it wasn’t the scope. We received almost 900 stories in just 4 days, and it still wasn’t the scope. I was aware of the scope. What surprised me the most was the vast amount of people who were not aware of the scope. Of course, there are people who don’t see it, the petition is definitely also for them to see. But what surprised me the most, was the many many people, who had been harassed and thought they were alone. During those 4 days, I received countless emails from people thanking us for doing this, for letting them know they weren’t alone. One email in particular stands out. A woman who wrote to me that she read our email over her morning coffee and had just broken down in tears; not from sadness, but from relief of knowing that she was not alone. Her story was heart breaking and it is one of the many stories which is not included in the material as she didn’t want it public, she was afraid that she would be recognized, afraid of losing her job if she told her story. This was the most difficult thing about this petition, the many voices, who couldn’t speak up in public, but who spoke up to me at night in an anonymous email inbox. So, this is not just for the voices we now hear, as a powerful roar; it is most definitely also for the ones we don’t hear. I know you are out there, and I hear you.