Sabine Oertelt-Prigione

“The abuse of power and harassment are no longer taboo topics”

The anti-harassment task force has achieved its first goal. Since January, it has been developing guidelines for addressing bullying, harassment, and discrimination at the MDC. The concept will now be submitted to the Board of Directors. We took this occasion to talk with the project facilitator, Professor Sabine Oertelt-Prigione.

The Anti-Harassment Task Force has completed its first task and will be submitting its recommendations to the Board of Directors this week. More than 50 employees got involved. You moderated and guided the process. How would sum up the results?

The task force has submitted three important papers, and the process has been really successful. The task force came together after a center-wide call for participation. Many employees volunteered, so it has a very diverse makeup. All status groups are represented: TAs, secretaries, PhD students, postdocs, lab heads, administrative staff, and Staff Council members. And they all have been taking advantage of the opportunity to provide input up to this very day. This is a great achievement! Coming from the outside, I only initiated the process at the beginning. The task force quickly figured out what would make sense for the MDC.

What was the concrete task?

To develop a procedure for dealing with sexual harassment. But it soon became clear that harassment is part of a bigger issue. We therefore also examined other boundary crossings. The task force sought to develop for the MDC and its employees a legal framework that specifies what should be done when discrimination, abuse of power, or harassment occurs. What steps should be taken? What rights do employees have? And what can the MDC do to prevent such incidents?

What everyone should know

What did the task force accomplish in these six months?

In what was a very constructive and transparent dialogue, three groups and several plenary sessions produced three documents: Principles of Respectful Interaction at the MDC ; a Flow Chart that details what should be done when an incident occurs; and a List of Proposed Measures. All of this was, of course, produced in consultation with the Legal Department.

Let’s talk about the Flow Chart. Who is it intended for? The envisaged procedure looks very bureaucratic…

There’s going be a simpler, easier-to-understand version. Everyone should be familiar with it: Who can I contact? What can I expect? What are my rights? Everyone at the MDC should know these three things. During onboarding, each new employee should receive this short version and the principles document. The brief overview will make clear that it’s primarily about advice and mediation. It’s only when this doesn’t work that the legal part comes into play.

A transparent process

And what is the aim of the extended Flow Chart?

This version is hugely important internally for all official points of contact and for other places at the MDC where advice can be obtained. But it’s also helpful for those who are seeking support. The detailed chart maps out all the possible paths that can be taken when someone makes a complaint. Having clear procedures is important. Because as long as the process is not absolutely transparent, many affected persons remain silent. They fear triggering a huge lawsuit, although they may initially only want to get advice. That has been my experience at Charité and in the Netherlands. The chart therefore includes both official and low-threshold contact points – i.e., the Staff Council and the Women’s Representative as well as the PhD Ombudspersons and other people in positions of trust.

When do you recommend that someone consider seeking outside advice or filing a complaint with the competent outside authorities?

This is advisable particularly when top management staff is involved. The internal points of contact can then no longer act in a neutral manner. But I believe outside advice is usually not necessary. The problem can often be resolved through mediation, and here knowledge of the structures, the departments, and the labs is helpful.

How binding are the proposed guidelines?

First a comment: There is, of course, already a legal framework in place – the General Equal Treatment Act (Allgemeines Gleichbehandlungsgesetz, AGG), which covers many forms of discrimination. It is binding in Germany. The MDC guidelines go beyond this. They are voluntary internal rules that stipulate what is acceptable at the center and what isn’t. They define what we understand by harassment, bullying, discrimination, and abuse of power. The fundamental idea is – I quote verbatim: “Neither ethnicity, place of origin, background, sex, gender, sexual orientation, religion, disability, age nor world view should lead to personal or professional disadvantages. The MDC is committed to providing prevention, information and assistance and consistently opposes any form of behavior that violates the dignity of its staff members.” Also outlined are the responsibilities of both employees and management, as well as disciplinary actions such as reprimand, relocation, or even dismissal.

Is the task force at times too ambitious – for example, when it talks of “a guide for thought and action”?

Of course, no one can control what people think. But there are many places in the document where one can tell that the task force brought together a diverse group of people with different perspectives and perhaps also very different cultural expectations and notions of the task force’s work as well as of what workplace interactions can, should, or may be regulated. All of these differences are brought to bear on the guidelines. That was precisely the great thing about it: A compromise was found!

But is it possible to regulate every human interaction? Where is the freedom in that?

These questions did indeed come up. I would say that the more vulnerable the status group, the more rules and regulations it wants. If I am vulnerable, I need more protection. There were also discussions about how to deal with romantic relationships at the MDC: For example, what should be disclosed? This issue remained unresolved. We left this us up to the Legal Department.

Training, informing, collecting

Let’s move on to prevention. What do you and the task force recommend be done in this regard?

Here we also foresee three areas of emphasis: First, trainings for employees and, most importantly, for management staff; bystander trainings; and lectures on topics such as “What is discrimination and how do I recognize it?”. What is crucial here is that all members of management are aware of their duty of care and are able to recognize discrimination. They need to know what to do and how they can help. Management staff have a duty to protect those affected. The second area of preventive measures focuses on information: How is the key information about the topic publicized – via flyers, events, posters, the internet? Running awareness campaigns is another possibility. The third area is the long-term collection and evaluation of data, including through anonymous surveys. The goal is to find out which groups are especially affected.

What if someone refuses to participate in the trainings?

That has to be decided by the MDC. But I believe the trainings for management staff should be compulsory. The Board of Directors needs to get involved here.

What are the next steps?

The task force will submit the results to the Board of Directors. It will provide comments on a number of issues and might want to change some things. But I don’t anticipate that it will intervene in a massive way. In any case, that would be strategically unwise. The feedback then goes back to the task force. Our goal is that the proposed procedure and the guidelines go into effect starting January 1, 2020. What also needs to be clarified, little by little, is how the recommendations will be incorporated into the MDC’s standard procedures – into onboarding, into recruitment, into management staff training, into information policy. Generally speaking, this document is not set in stone and will be evaluated and adapted over the years.

And what about a general code of conduct?

Such a code is difficult to define. The overarching principles, the ethical-moral foundations, are the same, no matter if it’s about harassment or abuse of power, or about general management principles or good scientific practice. Perhaps our approach can provide an example of how the big initiative on MDC’s culture could be structured.

In your opinion, has the task force’s work increased awareness at the MDC?

Absolutely. The topic is no longer a taboo. That alone has changed the discourse. I presume there will be a rise in the number of reported incidents and the number of people seeking advice. That could actually be considered a positive sign, because it would mean that discrimination and harassment are now being discussed more at the MDC.

What should be avoided at all costs?

The results should in no case be ignored. The worst thing that can happen after participatory processes is that nothing happens. But it’s also clear that it will take quite some time before everything is implemented. It’s certainly possible to get started with the trainings and information activities soon. But – if I may venture a prediction – it will be three years before the topic is tangibly incorporated into the center’s culture.

Jana Schlütter and Jutta Kramm conducted the interview.

About Sabine Oertelt-Prigione


Professor Sabine Oertelt-Prigione, MScPH, has since summer 2017 been Chair and Professor of Gender in Primary and Transmural Care at Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. She also continues to serve as a research associate at Charité’s Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences.

Oertelt-Prigione worked as research associate at the Berlin Institute for Gender in Medicine (GiM) from 2009 to 2016. She previously studied medicine at the University of Milan, where she completed her training as a specialist in internal medicine in 2008. From 2004 to 2006 Oertelt-Prigione worked as a postdoc at the University of California in Davis, where she studied how gender-specific factors influence autoimmunity. In 2012 she received her Master of Science in Public Health from the University of London and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. She both earned her doctorate and qualified as a professor at Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin. Her main research interests lie in developing innovative methods for gender-sensitive prevention and analyzing implementation strategies for sex and gender-sensitive medicine. Oertelt-Prigione led the development of the first international database on gender medicine, GenderMedDB, which also resulted in one of the first textbooks in the field – Sex and Gender Aspects in Clinical Medicine – which she co-edited with Vera Regitz-Zagrosek.

Together with Sabine Jenner, Women’s and Equal Opportunity Commissioner at Charité, she conducted a study entitled “Prävention sexueller Belästigung” [Preventing Sexual Harassment] that examined what institutions, works and staff councils, and employers can do to stop such misconduct from occurring. In cooperation with the Hans Böckler Foundation, she evaluated 120 company-level agreements in civil service agencies and in the industrial and service sectors. The evaluation was part of a multiyear project at Charité.