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Leadership for change

It bears repeating again and again: leadership is absolutely crucial to bring about desired changes in an organisation.

Leaders can convince their co-workers that there are problems and challenges that they need to be aware of if they are to help bring about change. Leaders can pre-empt problems by initiating proactive processes for change, by providing others with support and guidance. A prime example is proactive work against vulnerability and sexual harassment.

We have data which shows that women experience vulnerability and harassment to a higher degree than men at KTH. And that many people in the academic sphere, both men and women, perceive a lack of respect in various ways in everyday situations. Academic leaders also perceive vulnerability in their work on the basis of their roles. It is often colleagues among employees, and other students among the student body, who are perceived as the ones doing the harassing. Research into sexual harassment often emphasises that harassment is not about actions and behaviours per se, but that these actions and behaviours need to be linked to contexts and relationships to be understood.

There are generally three parties or positions when sexual harassment takes place: victim, persecutor and observer. Leaders can work on the problems involved in each of these three positions. In efforts to change the organisational culture, the emphasis tends to be on the importance of the third position. As an observer, or trusted person, we can be pulled into a course of events that might be difficult to deal with. A lot of people become unsure, and prefer to avert their gaze, keep quiet or ignore what has happened. Leaders can make a difference here, for example by making the rules and guidelines clear, and allowing open dialogue.

Leaders who feel vulnerable themselves can receive help and support from other leaders who are colleagues. So how should academic leaders actually do this? This is no easy question, and there is no quick fix. Leadership development regarding an inclusive culture for academic leaders on all levels is one of the ways forward, and a complement to all the other work that’s already under way for greater gender equality. The process is ongoing, and patience is key.