Abuse of power in science: “This is not individual misconduct”

Anyone who has experienced abuse of power will be advised by the members of the MaWi. But Sophia Hohmann from the network against abuse of power in science is certain: those affected are not the ones who have to break down the power imbalance.

When I spoke to Sophia Hohmann on the phone for the first time, we quickly agreed: power imbalances are not just a scientific phenomenon, but rather a social phenomenon. Sophia volunteers in the network against abuse of power in science (MaWi), which offers independent advice for those affected – and wants to ensure that there is less for them to do in the future.

We are less in agreement about what this ‘abuse of power in science’ actually means. Because I come to her with clear ideas. Even back in college we had this one professor who had this particular reputation. It’s better not to get in the elevator alone with him. At that time the story was nothing more than a horror story. As part of our project, I ask myself today: Was this a man who abused his power to harass female students? Should these rumors have been taken seriously? Sophia says: yes, of course, such “whisper networks” should be taken seriously – treated with trust. But she also gives in: “First of all, we see very clearly from this example that there are certain ideas about what constitutes abuse of power in science” – and what doesn’t.

She is right. Professor gropes student, this is a classic in the history of sexual harassment. Which is certainly not a coincidence. Nevertheless, abuse of power is so much more than a hand on the knee. It shows itself subtly, in overtime, shift schedules, false names on published papers, laurels embedded in sentences like “We’ve always done it that way here.” In an interview with Brigitte.de, Sophia talks about the many faces of power in science, which is ultimately exemplary for many branches of our society.

Science, with its extreme dependencies, enables opportunists in particular to exploit the potential for abuse of power.

BRIGITTE: What do you imagine by abuse of power in science?

Sophia Hohmann: Abuse of power in science is very diverse, so it is impossible to name all of its manifestations. As a member of the power-critical network against abuse of power in science, I do not consider the understanding of abuse of power to be final. Because this can also give rise to potential for abuse of power. I continue to learn new things through the members and my involvement in the network, among other things, and I have no authority over the abuse of power in science.
What all manifestations have in common is that people are in a more powerful position compared to other people. They abuse this position, for example when they gain an advantage for themselves and/or harm another person. This may sound like a calculated action, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. Science, with its extreme dependencies, enables opportunists in particular to exploit the potential for abuse of power.

In what constellations can abuse of power occur in science?

Accordingly, abuse of power in science occurs in very different constellations – for example in the constellation of supervisors of theses and students. But there can also be abuse of power between colleagues who should formally have the same amount of power. When it comes to doctoral theses, it is often the case that supervisors are also superiors. When a person combines multiple roles, the potential for abuse of power is particularly high. And there are more and more roles like this in science.

This makes it clear that abuse of power is not a matter of individual misconduct, but rather a structural problem. Cases of abuse of power are often linked to various cross-cutting issues, such as racist and/or sexual discrimination, social background, good scientific practice, the aforementioned diverse dependencies and the precarious employment conditions in science.

Therefore, people who experience discomfort should take this feeling seriously. It can be the first indicator that power towards oneself is being abused.

What are early warning signs that I can use to notice: Something is going in the wrong direction, I feel uncomfortable and in a dependent situation?

It is often difficult to recognize early warning signs. The term suggests that there are ways to act on such warning signs. However, this option is often only available to a limited extent in science. It is therefore important not to set such warning signs in absolute terms and not to make those affected directly or indirectly responsible for protecting themselves in the event of signs of abuse of power. In my opinion, the fact that there are warning signs does not mean that those affected can be accused of ignoring them or not taking certain steps. Therefore, people who experience discomfort should take this feeling seriously. It can be the first indicator that power towards oneself is being abused or that there is the potential for it.

What can abuse of power look like? Are there any everyday examples?

Many things are taken for granted in academia, such as completing overtime that is not paid. If all colleagues also do unpaid overtime and you are competing with these colleagues for jobs, it is not easy to recognize that the demand to work unpaid is not okay and that superiors are abusing their position of power with such a demand .

Maybe the supervisor also tells you that he/she also worked overtime at the time and that you can only achieve something in science if you accept such conditions. Without reassurance from colleagues, friends or family members, it can be very difficult to come to the conclusion that this is an abuse of power.

But there are also more concrete manifestations, such as the requirement that tasks be taken on that are not part of the actual area of ​​responsibility. The appropriation of achievements that are not one’s own. In science, these are often authors or research data.

It is of course easier to deal with an individual case than with which structures made this action possible.

What would have to change in order for power structures to become more visible and secure?

From my perspective, promoting the visibility of power structures is an essential factor in containing the potential for abuse of power. It is not about concealing (formal) power imbalances, but rather about actively naming them.

However, increased visibility alone will not make the science system safer. Therefore, people in positions of power must actively and continuously deal with their role. In places where the potential for abuse of power is particularly present, the institution should consider how this potential can be reduced as far as possible. For example, the role of supervisors should always be separated from qualification work and supervisors.

In my opinion, the internal processing of abuse of power also needs more visibility. The steps for this must be clearly stated so that those affected can make an informed decision as to whether they should contact contact points or not. A transparent designation of contact points and their decision-making and action authority is not the rule. This is a very easy measure to implement. This quickly creates the impression that there is no abuse of power at the institution and when it does occur, people quickly try to tell the story of the individual case, which protects both the perpetrators and the institution. Because it is of course easier to deal with an individual case than with which structures made this action possible and how the structures need to be changed in order to prevent abuse of power in the future.

What would you advise someone who is sitting out there right now and has the feeling that they are being affected by abuse of power – but doesn’t trust their own judgment, doesn’t want to cause a stir, is afraid of the consequences and, above all, is insecure?

First, I would like to encourage the person to trust their own judgment. To support this, it can be helpful to document your experiences with the place, date, time and people involved. It is also helpful to discuss your own experiences with people you trust. If desired, you can also visit the relevant contact points or external contact points. Unfortunately, the wheels of the internal contact points often grind very slowly. I believe that this is also something that needs to be communicated proactively to those affected in order to protect them from having too high expectations.

But another important point seems to me to be that it is not up to those affected to take action. Those affected are not responsible for preventing or clarifying the abuse of power that undoubtedly takes place in science every day and is repeatedly normalized. They can of course contribute, but it is not their job to change the institutions, some of which do not adequately protect them from abuse of power, for the better. Your own safety and capacities must always be decisive.


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