Sarah has worked at Nuffield College for the last six years. She grew up in Newcastle but has lived in Oxford since completing her own degree here in 2010. She lives with her partner and their cat, Winterfell. When she has time to spare, she runs a local creative writing group, participates in pub quizzes, and does some amateur theatre. Here, Sarah shares her experience of being a Harassment Advisor with us.
Why did you decide to become a Harassment Advisor? And why is it important to you?
“In both my professional and personal life, I find it rewarding, if challenging, to support people. My day job includes a substantial student welfare component, and I also thought it would strengthen my skills to know more about the university’s policies and procedures around harassment, and the experiences of people going through it. The role absolutely broadens my perspective about the experiences people have in all areas of the institution and I think it’s important for us all to know about the bad things that happen here as well as the good things.
I know from my own experiences that it can be difficult to navigate complex policies and procedures when going through something emotionally difficult, and it can be incredibly helpful to have someone somewhat external to the process whose role is to support you and your choices.
What is the role like?
“The role can be very sporadic, there can be months where I have no cases, and weeks where I speak with multiple people.
Usually people reach out by email because they have found my details on the university website, or been directed by the Harassment Line. I mostly speak with staff and students outside of my own College, who get in touch because they want to speak to a BME Harassment Advisor specifically.
We have an initial chat where the person tells me why they have got in touch. This can often be quite emotional for them, as they may be describing distressing events that have taken place over a long period of time, and it may be the first time they have told someone the story. I see my role here as providing space for them to share their feelings, and what their worries and concerns are about potentially taking action.
Often people have made contact because they might want to take action, such as making a formal complaint, and either (or both of…)
- They aren’t sure what the process, especially the first step, looks like. Who should they contact? What will be required of them? Do they need to provide evidence and/or make a watertight case?
- They are concerned about potential negative repercussions for them if they make a complaint, either overt retaliation or more subtle behaviour. This is a particular concern given the power dynamics, and the importance of networks and connections, in academia.
I don’t try to persuade people into taking or not taking any particular action, I just provide a sounding board for concerns and answer questions about the relevant policies and procedures. This may involve helping them identify the relevant people in their department or College to talk to; discussing what informal resolution might look like in their situation; discussing what they might like to include in a formal written complaint; and alerting them to resources to support their emotional wellbeing.”
What are the most difficult aspects of the role?
“A central part of the role is hearing about distressing experiences that people have encountered and, sometimes, how institutional responses have been poor and thus compounded the distress. This absolutely brings up feelings in me of sadness, disappointment, and anger which can be tough. The fact that these experiences are often related to race adds additional complexity because I can be reminded of experiences that I have had myself. I try to build in a little time to decompress after these conversations, and I lean on my own support system when I’ve had a tough conversation (without sharing details, of course).
Some people I speak with once, others a few times. I usually know something about what the person plans to do next after our conversations, but very rarely will I know what ends up happening in their case and if they achieve a resolution. It can feel strange to have had quite an emotional conversation with someone and then that be the end of my involvement, but that is the reality of the kind of support a Harassment Advisor provides – a confidential sounding board for someone as they are making decisions and thinking about what to do.”
What about positive moments?
I hope that our conversations help people clarify their options and their thoughts, and also that they feel supported.
That hope brings me satisfaction, even if there is always some frustration that I can’t really fix anything for them. I don’t expect to receive feedback from people I have supported, but occasionally someone does reach out to tell me how my support has helped them feel they have a way forward and that is always great to hear.”
If you'd like to speak to a harassment advisor, or are interested in becoming an advisor for your department or college, please contact the Harassment Line by emailing email@example.com.