Wetenschap - 29 februari 1996

Morals and manners at WAU

Morals and manners at WAU

Sexual harassment is just one aspect of undesirable behaviour which occurs at WAU. However, this is a sensitive topic which means it is difficult to discuss openly. In order to create a policy which deters sexual harassment it might help to reverse the matter and take desirable behaviour as a starting point for discussion," suggests Nynke Venema, who is responsible for policy formulation within the university personnel department. Desirable behaviour is the central theme of a mini-symposium to be held on Friday 8 March to mark International Women's Day.


Venema recounts the case of man who recently called female students and asked them all kinds of questions about their sex life, saying he was carrying out a survey on behalf of an official institution. Venema continues, He called me the other day claiming to be a student working on a questionnaire. I find that quite sick, especially since he calls people at home." She mentions other examples of undesirable behaviour such as sick jokes and mugging, as well as less obvious examples: Within some departments high performance is expected of researchers, requiring long working days. Women with young children are then often faced with a dilemma: it is more difficult for them to meet these expectations, and after a while they begin to feel outcasts within the department."

According to Venema desirable behaviour at WAU means that the atmosphere in the university and student accommodation is such that everybody feels at ease, and their performance at work is in no way inhibited by someone else's behaviour. She feels that focusing on desirable behaviour is a positive way to approach the issue and start a debate. A number of years ago the University appointed three people to work on issues requiring confidentiality. These people can be turned to in cases of sexual harassment, as well as where there are problems with colleagues or supervisors, and a position of deadlock has been reached.

International Women's Day

The University believes that the prevention of sexual harassment and other conflicts should be of concern to everybody. Creating a culture of openness and good manners goes a long way to preventing undesirable behaviour. Hence the theme of the mini-symposium to be held next week Friday on International Women's Day.

WAU employee Jolanda Reintjes is on the editorial committee of LU-vrouwennieuws, a quarterly Dutch language bulletin focusing on topics of concern to women working or studying at the University. A special issue of the bulletin devoted to desirable behaviour will be available at the mini-symposium. In this special issue there is an article by Dine Brinkman of the Department of Agricultural Education in which she addresses behaviour in relation to cultural differences. Brinkman explains that what passes for desirable or good behaviour in one culture may be deemed unacceptable in the context of another culture.

Pork

By way of illustration Brinkman uses the following example. Practising Muslims do not eat pork. In student accommodation here they are confronted with shared kitchen utensils which other students may have used to prepare pork. How does such a student deal with such a situation where he or she does not intend to change his customs, but does wish to integrate with fellow Dutch students?

Brinkman goes on to make a distinction between functional and emotional behaviour. Functional behaviour covers the range of practical and observable acts: habits and customs which may vary from culture to culture, but which can be learnt fairly easily. For example, in the first week after their arrival in Wageningen, foreign students are usually told that the Dutch are fond of their privacy, and that it is not done to visit a Dutch family unannounced at dinner time. These sort of tips provide guidelines which make the process of adjustment somewhat smoother.

Emotional behaviour is another kettle of fish. The way feelings are expressed varies greatly between cultures. The forms that emotional behaviour takes will be generally less obvious to the outsider, and it is far more difficult to obtain information on the subject. How do you tell your roommates that you would prefer them not to be so noisy at night, or that your neighbour's cat pees regularly on your armchair? How to express criticism and disagreement, but also love can be tricky in a different culture. It is usually more difficult to adjust to desirable behaviour on the emotional level," concludes Brinkman.

Power game

Cosy Harpe, member of the Working Group on Women in Agriculture is involved in the organisation of one of the workshops of the mini-symposium. She stresses that undesirable behaviour is strongly related to differences in position and power between people. However, according to Harpe, it is possible to deal creatively with these problems. During her study she was a board member for a WAU department, and was often the only student and the only woman. Sometimes I felt I was a double underdog. The staff were strongly in league with one another. Even when they agreed with me on certain points, from their attitude it was clear that they regarded me as only a temporary contributor, and that they were more concerned to cooperate with colleagues with whom they would be working for a longer period." Harpe explains that she managed to improve her position by making sure that she was better informed than the rest of the board. She had good contact with someone on the Standing Committee on
Education. Through this she managed to keep one step ahead in board meetings, and feels she was therefore taken more seriously.

Harpe has also experienced the other side of the coin as a university employee supervising students. She noticed that students often wrote proposals to include information that they believed she would like to read. All of a sudden I found myself in a position of power. I urged the students to be critical of what I was telling them. Students have to form their own opinions and ideas."

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