A story of workplace bullying

Woman sitting on a bench looking out onto the sea.
Photo credit: Krists Luhaers on Unsplash

Everything that I have read about Priti Patel has the hallmark of bullying about it. Not so much the shouting and swearing, but the constant criticism and belittling. I should know, because I was bullied myself in the workplace some years ago, also by a woman. And I am not at all surprised that Boris Johnson has not sacked Priti Patel, because it suits people in high places to keep bullies in position, as they do not have to dirty their hands themselves.

My bullying experience took place over a five-year period in the late 1990s at a well-established university. A woman professor was appointed from another university to ‘shake up’ our department, which was perceived, rather vaguely, as not pulling its weight.

At first, the new appointment seemed friendly and sympathetic. I remember going home after our first meeting and telling my husband that she seemed nice and that I felt optimistic about our relationship. How wrong I was. I made the mistake of confiding in her early on about some of the problems I was having as course leader. In her eyes, I had positioned myself as weak and from then on, instead of supporting me, she started a barrage of criticism and undermined my position whenever she could. Like an abusive parent, she could change from being charming to insulting at the turn of a sentence.

The bullying took various forms and was designed (I assumed) to wear me down progressively until I resigned my position. One way was through emails. These were often sent by her at 3 a.m. and consisted of literally pages of criticisms and things that I could and should do better. As they were in writing, I felt I should refute what were often unsubstantiated statements by replying in full, which took hours, often in the evenings. This had a negative impact on my family life.

Another way was by returning reports that I had written covered with red ink and comments like ‘not good enough’ or ‘please rewrite’, like a strict schoolteacher. In one case, I was forced to rewrite a major report while I was officially on leave. Another time, she left a report with comments pinned to my door, so that anyone could have seen it, reducing me to tears minutes before I was due to address hundreds of students. I had to call a colleague and ask them to go in my place.

In departmental management meetings she often harangued me in front of senior colleagues, none of whom came to my support. My abiding memory of these meetings is a group of male professors just sitting there while she criticised me. They looked awkward but said nothing. Only one other colleague of similar status to mine tried to defend me on these occasions. The worst instance was when, during a meeting with external partners, she launched into a diatribe against me and by implication also chastised them. They were shocked and afterwards wrote a group letter expressing confidence in my leadership.

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This constant barrage of negativity inevitably took its toll: I felt demoralised and depressed. At the same time, I was having to support other members of my team who were getting the same treatment – I was by no means the only one. I was fortunate in having tenure, but other colleagues did not. After being threatened with their contracts not being renewed, two walked out before they were pushed, and two others retired prematurely.

My husband begged me to take a step back from constantly resisting because of the knock-on effect on our home life. I started to develop a bit of a drink problem, downing a couple of glasses of wine when I got home in the evenings before I could start to relax, and on more than one social occasion getting horribly drunk. I became obsessed with the whole situation and could think of little else, but I was determined not to be beaten. My mother always said, “You must fight against bullies and injustice”, so I tried to emulate her Celtic fire and do just that.

At the time, I was the union representative for the whole department, so I got together a petition not to renew my boss’s contract (she initially had a three-year position), signed by most of the more junior members – no professors would sign it. When I took it to the (then) vice-chancellor, he just said, “Don’t you think she’s too old to change?” as though this excused her behaviour. Soon after this, her appointment was renewed for a further three years. At that point, I really did feel like giving up.

The story has a happy ending of sorts. Not long afterwards I was away for a few days doing some external examining work. When I got home, my husband said that my boss had rung, asking me to call her urgently when I was back – this was another thing she tended to do in the evenings. Instead, I called a colleague to ask if they knew what it was about and was told our boss had resigned. I could hardly believe it. When I made contact the following day, my boss said that she had decided to leave on ill-health grounds. Comparing notes with others, though, I found that she had given a slightly different account to each of them. She was gone by the end of the week.

I found out later that the professors had finally come to their senses and gone to the vice-chancellor themselves to argue that she was jeopardising the department with her dictatorial attitude. Rather oddly in the circumstances, I felt a moment’s sympathy for her: a rare senior woman in the institution, she had been ousted by a group of men who presumably began to fear for their own interests.

Suffice it to say, it took me a long time to recover my confidence, but I felt quietly satisfied that I had stood my ground and not left my post or the university. I finally achieved an overdue promotion, that she had blocked four times, and the previously toxic atmosphere in the department gradually cleared. Was it worth it though? I am not sure.

There are many lessons about gender and leadership in this story, but I will leave readers to come to their own conclusions. Sadly, bullying is commonplace in universities. They are highly competitive environments where bullying often thrives and is allowed to do so uncurtailed. And at the moment, the same is true for the government.

All names and other details have been removed or changed to protect the identity of individuals.

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