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  • Writer's pictureVanessa Leite

PhD Candidates meet ETH Executive Board

On the 25th of January, 2023, following up on an event organized by 500 Women Scientists about sexism, harassment, and microaggression in academia, we got to talk with the ETH Executive Board.

On that day, I gave my personal testimony about what I experienced in my first years of the Ph.D.

Here is the transcription of my testimony. I must confess I thought it would be easier to read it out loud.

But doing so in front of all the people there brought me to tears. It was not only the revival of the situations I've been in. It was also some sort of shame. That awful thinking telling us: "how did I let this happen to me?"

I share this with all of you now in the hope it will make a difference to someone out there. You are not alone.


Dear ETH Board,

It was a realization of a dream to start my Ph.D. in a well-known institution.

I couldn't imagine, however, that I would face situations that can be described as bullying and harassment.

Here, I've been yelled at and cursed at, and my abilities and capacity were questioned by my superiors and PIs. I've cried in the bathrooms more days than I wish to count.

I started psychological counseling, and it took me over two years to realize that even brilliant scientists have sexist behaviors and feel entitled to ignore concepts of basic human decency.

I understand the system is competitive, and we must go beyond the extra mile to shine. However, female candidates are massively hindered by non-explicit barriers.

I talked to my peers and realized I was not the first one going through that situation. And, unfortunately, I won't be the last one either.

The system didn't only fail me. The system has been failing since others before me.

Why is it failing us? ETH claims that we have the right and the duty to protect ourselves. We must react quickly, set our boundaries, and keep a written file containing the occurrences. And if the conflict remains unresolved, we can simply submit a written report to the Reporting Office Conflict Management, and these issues will be investigated to find an effective solution.

But for that, we need to give up on being anonymous.

How can I give up on being anonymous and risk my career to put forward a complaint when I have no guarantees that there will be any measures for accountability? And what does finding a solution even mean when I've been bullied and harassed?

ETH tells us that any form of bullying, harassment, discrimination, or threats and violence will not be tolerated and can result in disciplinary actions.

We don't know exactly what those actions are and which can be applied to each situation.

You need to realize that the current system forces us, victims of harassment and bullying, to give up on our lifelong dreams of doing impactful research just to have our basic rights not infringed!

To alleviate this, we urge you to have those disciplinary measures clearly defined and explicit, to help us, those going through these situations, to have more hope and courage to put ourselves out there non-anonymously.

ETH needs to have clear consequences and disciplinary actions established for offensive behaviors. Harassment, bullying, and discrimination are not conflicts. We don't want to be told, "we will find a solution". We need accountability. We need a system that enforces an academic environment without sexism, harassment, and bullying.

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