The Ubiquity of Bullying

In the last month alone, I have been confronted anew with the ubiquity of bullying:

In July I attended the annual conference of the (American) Council of Writing Program Administrators in Baltimore, Maryland, where there is a new strand on Self Care. A plenary in that strand featured female writing program administrators bravely discussing the impact of bullying and trauma in their personal and professional lives.

Before my trip to the US, I’d visited my female GP, who confided that over half the mental health patients she treats are from nursing, where bullying is apparently rife. She added that apart from mental health, bullying can wreak havoc on blood pressure and cholesterol levels and impact sleep patterns.

On my first day back on campus after my trip, while walking to my car parked in the Law Building, I passed a symposium in progress entitled “Confronting Bullying in the Legal Professions.”

And catching up on my favourite journalist Jane Caro’s Facebook page, I was horrified to read her recent article on the growing epidemic of female school principals being bullied by parents. One such principal was sandwiched in a door jamb and badly injured in her attempt to escape an irate father.

So while this project focuses explicitly on bullying and trauma in higher education, the problem clearly isn’t confined to our sector but is rather a growing societal concern.

All of these examples have confirmed yet again how timely this work is, but they have also left me wondering anew about what motivates bullies. Is it a particular personality type? an inferiority complex? pressure? fear of failure or competition? lack of work/life balance in the fast-paced juggling acts that now define our lives? Or maybe a general lack of self-esteem and/or good communication skills? Or could it be some combination of all of these? We are determined, through our shared stories, to uncover as much as possible about the motivation(s) for bullying, while collaboratively contemplating possible responses and solutions.

Lisa had a particularly encouraging conversation with a prospective contributor on the importance of forming strong collaborative networks as a means of avoiding the traps of bullies. With the focus on collaborative research at an all-time high in academic institutions around the world, it seems that research productivity, sustainability, and longevity may well be secondary benefits of such practice, behind the more personal advantages of increased stamina and resilience that come from belonging to a protective, nurturing community.

Over the past months, Lisa and I have spoken with many strong women with compelling (and often heartbreaking) stories to tell, but it seems the more women we meet and the more stories we hear, the more questions that remain unanswered. For that reason, we are hoping to hear from as many more of you as possible before the end of the year. Please be in touch to confirm your place in this important work, which is bound to become a meaningful resource for collectively confronting and resisting a rampant, destructive phenomenon, not only in higher education, but in our daily lives.

Support staff and administrators: women and bullying in higher education

Our research on bullying and trauma of women in higher education is not just focused on academic staff. Women in support or administrative positions can be just as vulnerable to bullying. In fact, given the power differentials and the very close working relationships some support staff have with academics, it’s possible that women in support positions may be MORE vulnerable to bullying.

If you’re a woman in a support or administrative role in an institution of higher education, and you are experiencing (or have experienced) bullying or trauma in the workplace, please consider being part of our research. We want your story to be heard. We’re looking for contributions by any support staff, including:

  • administrators, secretaries and PAs
  • librarians and library staff
  • learning support advisors and writing center tutors
  • student services staff or student advisors
  • lab assistants or technicians
  • IT support staff
  • Building/resources or timetable managers/staff

Ways you can contribute:

Be assured that anything you share with us will be completely anonymous. Whether you write a story yourself or are interviewed by us, we will work with you to ensure that your contribution is not identifiable, and we will not publish anything without your full consent. We know it takes courage to tell us your story, and we consider protecting our contributors to be of vital importance.


Write your story: Date for Expressions of Interest (a proposal to write your story): November 30 2019. Date of submission: June 30 2020.

Request an interview: Final date to request an interview December 31 2019.

If you would like to discuss your possible contribution or have questions about our research, please contact us through the website or through our Facebook page.

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Rhetorics of bullying and trauma in higher education worldwide

We are conducting a study of women and trauma/bullying in higher education worldwide. Whether you are a full professor facing conflict in the workplace, an adjunct or tutor accepting unreasonable requests or unacceptable behavior in the hope of further work or a postgraduate student struggling with an advisor, we want to hear from you. You can contribute in a range of ways:

  • Join our Facebook page to keep up to date with our research.
  • Write your story for the project. Details of how to do this are provided on our website. Date for Expressions of Interest (a proposal to write your story): November 30 2019. Date of submission: June 30 2020.
  • Participate in an interview. If you would prefer to talk through your experience, we can conduct an interview in person or online. Final date to request an interview December 31 2019.
  • Participate in our survey. Details of the survey to be released shortly.
  • Share this invitation with your networks – we are hoping to reach as many people as possible.

All contributions will be anonymized to protect participants. The safety of our participants is very important to us and you can read more on or website about how we will work to protect your identity.

We believe that sharing our stories is our most powerful means of collective activism, and by publishing a collection of narratives we will send an effective message to the academy about the systemic problems of abuse experienced by women in higher education.

Please explore our website for more details about the project and the researchers. If you would like to learn more about the project or have any questions, please get in touch through the contact section of our site.

Lisa Emerson and Susan Thomas

Welcome to our research

This research began, as research often does, with a conversation between colleagues. Susan Thomas and I work on opposite sides of the Tasman Sea (which stretches between Australia and New Zealand) but we had been colleagues and friends for many years. In 2018, we were working on a special edition of a journal together, and we were both going through a bad patch at work. We shared our experiences over a number of months, by email or Skype, and one day I mentioned to Susan how helpful it was for me to talk about this with her – how sharing the story made a difference both to how I felt and the decisions I made to address my situation. “We should write a book about this, about the bullying of women in higher education!” I said jokingly. I hadn’t expected her to write back with an enthusiastic “YES!!” We tested out our idea, cautiously: did other women, our colleagues, in higher education feel that telling these stories as a form of collective activism would make a difference? Yes, they did. We read the literature: and while there were books about bullying in higher education, and about women’s experiences of bullying, there was no literature that we could find that prioritized the voices of women in higher education speaking about bullying – that enabled them to be heard. And hence the project began to take shape: what was needed was not a conventional scholarly text, but a text that used story telling as a way communicating a collective story – and as a form of analysis.

This week we are launching our research, sending out the call for contributions, and hoping that that call will travel around the world, into the mail boxes of women working in institutions of higher education, in academic and non-academic roles, tenured and non-tenured positions, in all disciplines. If you receive this call for contributions, please send it on to colleagues who might be interested. And if you have a story of harassment or bullying, please consider contributing to this project. For more information about what’s involved, click here:

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