Waterford Academic awarded €10,000 in Sexual Language case

A College Lecturer in Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) has been awarded €10,000 by the Labour Court after a series of incidents of sexual harassment by a large group of male agriculture students. The lecturer, a woman named Louise Walsh who had lectured in WIT since 1999, told the Labour Court that she had been sexually harassed by a large group of male students in her class on various dates between October 10th 2014 and March 19th 2015.

In the case, the Labour Court has ordered WIT to pay the €10,000 compensation to Ms Walsh forn“the distress and the effects of sexual harassment and harassment based on her gender”. Ms Walsh also told the Court that WIT took no adequate steps to respond to her complaints, took no adequate steps to reverse the effect of the sexual harassment and harassment based on gender, and further took no adequate steps to avoid a reoccorance.

The incidents include being told that students “Would do her”. Ms Walsh also told the court that said male students in her class blurted out inappropriate sexual references and sexual language including coarse words referring to parts of a woman’s body, references to sexual acts, and explicit sexual questions.

The class was made of 100 students from three courses, 85 of whom were male. Ms Walsh told the court that she first informed WIT of the sexual harassment on the 10th of October 2014. Arising from another incident on the 24th October 2014, Ms Walsh informed the Head of Department of the experience and advised that the harassment had the purpose and effect of violating her dignity and creating an intimidating and hostile working environment. On the ninth of November Ms Walsh once again informed WIT of the continuing sexual harassment, and WIT subsequently split the class. Ms Walsh, a Waterford native, stopped teaching the class in March 2015 but continues to lecture in WIT to this day.

WIT contested the claim, telling the court that it had taken all practical steps to avoid sexual harassment or harassment based on gender in this case. The Chairperson of the Labour Court, Kevin Foley, however, said that the Labour Court was satisfied that WIT is liable for the sexual harassment and harasment based on gender suffered by Ms Walsh. To the Labour Court Mr Foley said that while WIT had responded to the complaints made by Ms Walsh, WIT “cannot be found to have taken such steps as were reasonably practicable to avoid a recurrence of sexual harassment and harassment based on gender”. Mr Foley said that course heads, the Head of Department, and the then President of the Students' Union had spoken to the class involved, but that “No evidence has been put before the court which established that the issue of sexual harassment and harassment based on gender were specifically raised during any of these interactions with the class”.

Mr Foley also stated that for unrelated reasons WIT’s Student Disciplinary Committee was not functional for a date beginning before October 2014 until a date in early 2015. He stated that that this meant in effect that there were no mechanisms in place to facilitate a response to Ms Walsh’s complaints about sexual harassment or harassmnet based on gender where the identity of the students who were allegedly responsible for the acts was unknown to the victim.

Further to the €10,000 payment Mr Foley ordered be made to Ms Walsh by WIT, he has also ordered WIT to review the operation of its Dignity and Respect Policy, and in particular the effectiveness of current methods for communicating these policies, and in particular WIT’s intolerance of sexual harassment and harrasment based on gender, with students. The Labour Court also ordered WIT to review the effectiveness of its current arrangements to respond to complaints made by teaching staff of harassment and sexual harassment by students, including in cases where the identity of the alleged individuals is not known to the victim.

Commenting on the case after the ruling, Ms Walsh said that the sexual harassment had "had a serious impact on me”. She said "I took the case to ensure that WIT take steps to have proper procedures in place to ensure that no one else go through what I had to go through". Ms Walsh also called the complaints procedure for harasment and sexual harassment “outdated and still not fit for purpose”. She also said that the ruling vindicated her decision to take the case to court, and that the overriding emotion she feels about the decision is “relief”.

In a statement, WIT said it “is committed to providing a safe working environment to all employees and takes this matter very seriously...At this juncture we are taking the time to reflect on the decision of the Labour Court and continue to work with staff and their representatives in the monitoring and review of our policies and procedures to ensure that such an environment is free of all forms of bullying, harassment and discrimination”.