Sabine Oertelt-Prigione

“Haressment doesn’t happen in a vacuum”

In late January, the Anti-Harassment Task Force started its work at the MDC. More than 50 employees from all areas and across all hierarchies will develop guidelines for respectful interaction. To mark the launch of the task force, we spoke with the project facilitator, Professor Sabine Oertelt-Prigione.

About our “We at the MDC” series


The MDC aspires to provide all employees with an attractive work environment – through an outstanding infrastructure and through collaboration with leading researchers, but also by being a place where tolerance, respect, and good interpersonal relations are paramount. It doesn’t always succeed in equal measure at attaining these aims. Our series introduces you to people who are engaged in this field. It also sheds light on internal processes that seek to ensure a positive organizational culture. And it provides tips for an attentive togetherness.

Read more about the series “We at the MDC”.

The MDC has initiated a process for communicating common rules against harassment and discrimination. We would like to make this process transparent not only for all employees, but also for the public.

Both are extremely important. At the MDC, you are sending a signal that everyone has the opportunity to get involved. The possibility to do something exists. In this way, you promote empowerment while reinforcing the task force at the same time. Public transparency is also an important aspect. Unfortunately, it is still not a matter of course for institutions to deal with this issue. We know that the problem affects all areas of life. So the question is: When does an institution or company face the issue, and when does it intervene? Does the institution operate proactively or does it merely react on a case-by-case basis? The latter would not prevent other cases from arising.

Last year, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in the United States also published a study report on the sexual harassment of women in science…

...and there it has also been shown that sexual harassment or general discrimination is only the tip of the iceberg.

Which iceberg?

The iceberg of an entire culture. Harassment doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Nobody wakes up in the morning, saying to themselves, “Today I’m going to the lab to grope my colleague.” Something like this happens in a culture that gives individuals the feeling that it is tolerated or allowed. A culture that signals that no consequences are to be expected for such incursions. That’s why it’s important to ask: What makes people in an organization feel that something like this is possible?

How can this be determined?

We have a kind of escalation model for this. It begins with verbal communication. In the study we conducted at Charité, more than 60 percent of employees experienced some form of verbal harassment. If an institution creates an atmosphere in which this is possible, wrongdoers will dare to take the next step.

You were at the first working session of the MDC Task Force. What is your impression?

I think it’s very good thing that all status groups are represented. And everyone had their say. That is very positive, because the more people or groups involved, the more can be implemented at the MDC afterwards. Even if we divide into smaller groups later on, there should be people from all areas involved, if possible, so that everyone can bring in their experience and needs. Not only because people sometimes shut themselves off to other points of view. Often one does not even know how a technical employee or a PhD student or even a research group leader is doing or why he or she is behaving in a particular way. Much depends on where someone works. My impression is that people want to do something, the issue is close to their hearts, and everyone wants to get into work mode quickly.

Dependency, insecurity, stress

You previously worked on this topic for Charité. University hospitals certainly have their own special problems as a result of the close personal contact. In your opinion, what are the special characteristics of the MDC?

At Charité, we have noticed that students in particular have specific problems, and this could apply analogously to PhD students at the MDC. They work in a special relationship of dependence. Here, power dynamics are reflected in a completely different way than with other employees. In a worst-case scenario, a permanent employee can be transferred to another department. She may have to do some extra learning there, but she can continue her job. It’s a very different situation for a PhD student. Students have great difficulties when an incident occurs in the middle of the dissertation or when confronted with such problems over a longer period. They often feel: What should I do in such a situation? I’m dependent, I don’t want to let two years of my work go to waste, I can’t just jump into a new topic. This relationship of power and dependence is a decisive aspect of scientific institutions. Secondly, most of them have a fixed-term contract. That applies to PhD candidates, to postdocs, and it even applies, to a large extent, to young PIs at the MDC. This is a situation fraught with insecurity, which causes extreme pressure and stress. The need to find a job, the desire to perform well, the power hierarchy of knowledge – all these factors play a major role in research centers.

Is the task force also looking at ways to fight against workplace bullying and general discrimination, or is sexual harassment the top priority?

That’s an interesting question. I would argue that here at the MDC, sexual discrimination is a partial or even peripheral phenomenon of all forms of discrimination that we see. Incidentally, the core problem in sexual harassment is also a power issue. Sexuality only plays a marginal role here; the perpetrator pushes discrimination from a professional to a non-professional level. Therefore, it could very well be that we will deal directly with general discrimination. Guidelines against general discrimination would not look much different than guidelines that “only” deal with sexual discrimination. Both are mentioned in our brief from the Board of Directors.

In your experience, how long does it take before a new culture is put into practice?

30 years? There are different phases. At Charité, we started with a survey, then developed measures, adopted and implemented guidelines – all this took two and a half years. We saw that there are “early adopters” who implement new ideas very quickly. But it takes time for us to reach the wider workforce. After all, we want to change the culture. And in resilient organizations like Charité, which has been around for 300 years, this is always a very lengthy process. It is important to first set the legal framework and quickly start training sessions. Incidentally, these are only effective if they are not too brief and take place regularly. In the end, the process has a sandwich effect: We support and offer empowerment from below, and from above we work directly with the Board of Directors, who demands certain things from management staff and PIs.

Does the MDC also need a survey?

That would be a long process; an ethics committee vote would be necessary. It would involve the issue of data protection, and many other questions would have to be clarified beforehand. And it would take some time for the data to be evaluated. We had a survey on sexual harassment at Charité. Here at the MDC, a survey on organizational culture seems more sensible to me. But what is now essential is to start working immediately. We need guidelines, we need a time schedule and flowchart for interventions, and we want to train management staff and PIs. We have one year in total to achieve all this.

What advice can you give the MDC; what mistakes need to be avoided?

One definitely needs the full support of the Board of Directors. Otherwise it will be a hopeless endeavor, and the initiative will fizzle out. That’s why those overseeing the organization at the very top must be involved. And all employees need to be regularly informed; one has to communicate with them and directly involve as many as possible. It is important that the organization really makes an effort and focuses on the process. Nothing would be worse than learning that an incident had taken place, but nothing had ever happened.

Don’t be silent

But it’s going to take quite some time to adopt all guidelines, train staff, and raise awareness. What would you advise people who are in an acute situation, who feel they are being harassed or bullied? And what would you advise those working around them?

I’d advise the people working around them to not be silent. Do something, say something! Approach the affected individuals afterwards and ask them how they are! Ask if you can help! This changes the culture as well. It’s also necessary to set up contact points where people can seek advice and support. In my opinion, there are not yet enough trained support options available at the MDC. You have the Women’s Representative, the Staff Council, and the ombudspersons. That’s not enough. Because we tell everyone: If something happens, get counseling! Unfortunately, many don’t seek help because they're afraid it will immediately trigger a legal process. But often those affected don’t want that at all. They mainly want the harassing behavior to stop. It’s therefore important to know that such counseling won’t lead to something those affected don’t want. They must decide themselves what steps to take next. They alone should have control over the process. In any case, it is important to create a memory log after an incident, for yourself and if you want to take further steps. You should note the time, place, people involved and details of the incident.

Do people tend to trust outside counselors more?

There are pros and cons to both. On the one hand, it’s important that person know the organization well. But it can also be important and necessary to have someone from outside the organization, such as a lawyer or another trusted person from outside. We offer both at Charité.

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.

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