Preventing misuse of power

Power structures, that some individuals in a group have more influence than others, exist in all workplaces, and Stockholm University is no exception. That’s why the Department of Ecology, Environment and Plant Sciences (DEEP) organized a workshop.

- Talking about power it the first step of preventing its misuse, one example being harassment.

The workshop was therefore wrapped up by round table discussions to create a document stating how we want our work place to be and how we want to treat each other, says Elsa Fogelström, PhD student and member of the equality group at DEEP.

Elsa Fogelström, Johan Eklöf, Andrea Caputo (from the left) and Delphine Menard (not in the photo) are members in the DEEP equality group and organized the workshop. Photo: Amanda Gonzalez Bengtsson.

Interactive theater helping empathy on the way

During the workshop, representatives from Human Resources at Stockholm University centrally informed about power structures at the workplace and the legislation regarding harassment.

- It’s important to know how to react and who to contact, says Elsa Fogelström.

Johan Eklöf, member of the equality group and associate professor at DEEP, continues:

- Everyone has a feeling of what power is, and we wanted to make it more concrete. Some asymmetry of formal power is of course necessary for the functioning of a department and to assign responsibility. However, exertion of power can cross over to misuse and it can be difficult to know where to draw the line, creating a gray zone we wanted to address.

To find strategies to handle difficult situations there was an interactive theatre with actors from Aktör Edutainment / http://www.aktore.se/. During the interactive theater, scenes were played out and afterwards participants in the audience could change the role of the characters and speak them right. To give some examples of scenes being played out: A professor sexually harassing a PhD student, a professor bossing around a PhD student and the reverse, a PhD student bossing around a professor.

Helen Lindahl (to the left) and Carl-Johan Stenlund (to the right), actors at Aktör Edutainment. Photo: Amanda Gonzalez Bengtsson.

Focus on women’s behavior at first

Delphine Menard, member of the equality group and research engineer at DEEP, was at first a bit skeptical with the theater approach:

- First I thought, is this a puppet show?  But no – very soon I changed my mind and understood they had a point. The scenes were inspired by real events.

Sofia Czinkoczky from Aktör Edutainment. Photo: Amanda Gonzalez Bengtsson.

What touched and surprised Sofia Czinkoczky, one of the actors at Aktör Edutainment, was that the majority of the audience wanted to change the women’s behavior around the man in the sexual harassment scenario:

- Instinctively, we think that it is women's responsibility to dress in a more boring way, not being charming, to bite out, take a stand, be clearer, and so on. It took a while before the participants realized that you could try to influence the man to stop harassing. In the scene with a female professor bossing around her PhD student, everyone wanted to change her behavior. Interesting…

One of the reasons that the workshop was held was considering the background of #metoo and the equality group is surprised that not more departments at SU have arranged workshops in the aftermaths of it.

Delphine Menard concludes that the sexual harassment scene was eye opening for some male PhD students that asked themselves “Is sexual harassment happening like that for women? We didn’t know since it does not happen to us!”.

Andrea Caputo, member of the equality group, reacts on the statement above:

- Unfortunately it is a reality that many males (students or not) are also sexually harassed by other men or women. Recently, the #metoo campaign movement reported some male sexual assault victims http://theconversation.com/many-men-are-sexually-harassed-in-the-workplace-so-why-arent-they-speaking-out-93081  Therefore I feel that it’s generalizing and taking that one comment as an example can bias and ridicule the common (male) view and knowledge about sexual harassment.

However, Sofia Czinkoczky, actor at Edutainment, vision with the theater is that participants get a greater understanding for other people:

- There is no manual for attitudes, it takes empathy and courage to really listen and tune into other people. If a colleague does not seem comfortable, refrain from all forms of intimacy. If you are unsure, ask. And be okay with the other person not wanting the same relationship as you do.

PhD students get more informal power over time

Apart from the harassment theme, the interactive theater presented how professors and PhD students have power over each other. An interesting realization was that the informal power can shift between professor and PhD student after a while. The professor has a lot of both formal and informal power over the PhD student in the beginning, Andrea Caputo comments:

- If the power is misused, it can lead, e.g. to superiors asking for help with assignments that are not relevant, like changing his/her pointer battery, an example given in the interactive theater. However, from the follow-up group discussion turned out that “time” is the main issue, e.g. not taking the time to give feedback or not attending previously planned meetings. That will of course be reflected on the PhD students’ performance.

However, as the PhD progresses the more informal power the PhD student gains, since he/she becomes the expert and the professor is dependent on him/her for publications and in extension financing.

In the end of all the scenes the actors also illustrated the importance of body language in how we interact – how you exert power with your body language and how you don’t.

Open communication is the answer

The members of the equality group think that the workshop spurred discussion and open communication afterwards, in the form of statements like: “Are you aware of your informal power?” or “Don’t be afraid to talk to me if something goes wrong” and “I’m here to support you”.

They all think that a good quality stamp of the workshop is that others, not attending the workshop, had heard about it and that it was considered to be valuable.

- Our vision is that these discussions will lead to that we work more efficiently and in harmony, Delphine Menard.

Andrea Caputo, member of the equality group closes:
- Together we achieved important results in the equality group, and perhaps laid the first “stones” for bigger changes.

The equality group at DEEP strongly encourages other departments to have similar workshops. The members of the Equality Group are: Andrea Caputo, Elsa Fogelström, Delphine Menard, and Johan Eklöf.

The Swedish discrimination act in English

In this brochure, Stockholm University explains Harassment and victimisation