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  • Writer's pictureKathleen Bortolin

Research Participants Sought: Investigating the Silencing of Women in Higher Education

Updated: Sep 20, 2023

Title: Sit down and shut up: the silencing of women in Canadian higher education

Principal Investigator: Dr. Kathleen Bortolin, Faculty of Education, Vancouver Island University

Research Assistants: This project will employ student research assistants from VIU who have completed Tri-Council training in research ethics and have achieved CORE certificates). They will also sign a confidentiality contract.

Participants Sought: Women employed in universities in an academic capacity who have experienced forms of silencing in their workplace.

Purpose: To collect data on the conditions that exist when women in Canadian post-secondary perceive a threat to speaking up in their workplaces, and the impacts women identify when faced with that threat. Also, what strategies do women use to mitigate risks faced in these environments

Information Sought: Qualitative data in the form of first-person narratives from the lived experiences of women employed in academic contexts who have experienced acts of silencing and censure. Qualitative interviews (face to face or in zoom).

Time Required: Reviewing consent forms (1 hour); interview (1.5-2 hours); reviewing transcripts (1.5 hours): Total 4-5 hours.

Contact information:

Project overview and purpose

Universities are expected to be places where respectful critical discourse and dissent are honored and encouraged. Academics are trained and educated for years in critical thinking strategies, and employed for these very skills. Furthermore, most academic institutions will cite a commitment to academic freedom and critical discourse in their high level strategic and policy-based documents. Universities are also built on a system of collegial governance, where regardless of power differentials, colleagues have a say in the decisions impacting their working environment. For these reasons, universities are meant to create robust democratic spaces by honoring collegial governance and the principles of equality, equity and inclusion and critical thinking that is closely connected to academic freedom (Giroux, Kamis, & Rouillard, 2015).

However, universities are also highly political spaces, steeped in hierarchy and traditional patriarchal systems of power. For this reason, critical discourse and collegial governance are sometimes challenged, resisted, or not honored in favour of maintaining status quo power differentials or unilateral decisions of governance. When power is privileged over collegial governance and critical discourse, the result can have far reaching impacts of the lived experiences of many people working in higher education. In particular, people working in positions of lesser power such as women, people of colour and Indigenous people can be impacted deeply when trying to challenge the status quo by speaking up, or engaging in critical discourse. People of colour and women experience bullying, including silencing, to a far greater degree than white and male colleagues (Swann, 2022; Hollis, 2022). When these groups engage critically, they can experience stronger resistance than their colleagues in the form of silencing, gaslighting, harassment and even discipline. These actions have deep and troubling impacts to peoples’ mental health, career trajectories, finances, and even their families (Wang, 2006; Mattiesen & Einarsen, 2010).

*Silencing: Silence in workplace settings refers to employees’ inhibition to speak out especially when this action has potential to influence issues that impact their working life (Dundon & Rollinson, 2011). Silence in organizations is often maintained through management personnel and practices that may or may not create spaces for voice and, in turn, establish cultures of silence within the workplace (Fernando & Prasad, 2018, Donaghey, et al., 2011). These cultures can impact people in significant and negative ways, from their sense of safety and well-being to their career trajectories.

The two-part question I seek to answer through this work is: “What conditions exist when women in Canadian post-secondary perceive a threat to speaking up in their workplaces, and what are the impacts women identify when feeling silenced?”

What participants will be asked to do

This qualitative research project uses a social constructivist framework, as well as a grounded theory approach. Semi-structured, qualitative interviews will be used to collect data, and data will be analyzed using a constant comparison method and axial coding.

Participation in the project involves completing an interview (in person, or through video conferencing (e.g. Zoom), with the potential for follow-up contact by phone or email from the interviewer to check for accuracy. The interview will be conducted by the Principal Investigator. Interviews taking place through video conferencing will be recorded, and the audio will be used to create transcripts. In-person interviews will be audio recorded using a smart phone with password protection. No preparation is required for the interview; the questions are shared in advance to improve accessibility in the interview process. You will receive copies of the transcribed interviews, and you will be able to check final transcripts and/or manuscripts for accuracy.

Time and Data Requirements

Your involvement in this project will involve one interview and possible brief follow-up interactions. The interview will last approximately 75 minutes. Interviews will be recorded. The personal information on the recordings will be kept confidential for any publications, presentations or communications emerging form the research project.

You may decline to participate in the interview without any consequence

Your participation in the interview is voluntary, and you have the right to withdraw your consent or discontinue participation at any time. Your choice of whether to participate in the interview will have no bearing on your relationship to the researcher or Vancouver Island University. You have the right to refuse to answer particular questions.


If you consent to participate in the interview, your identity will be kept confidential. Data will be coded with pseudonyms. All data from the individual interviews will be kept digitally, in password protect files, on a VIU employee computer and on VIU’s servers. Zoom interviews will also be recorded, and saved locally on VIU servers. Only members of the study team will have access. All research data arising from the individual interviews will be anonymized. The principal investigator will take all possible measures to keep your identity protected. At the same time, we recognize that the academic community can feel small. There is always a risk that your words paired with discussion of your work at your institution might be identifiable to some people. Your name, institution and city will not appear in any reports on the completed study and to the best of our ability we will mask identifying information.

For more information, or to indicate your desire to participate, please email Kathleen Bortolin.

Contact: Please contact Kathleen Bortolin ( for more information or to express your interest in participating.


Donaghey, J., Cullinane, N., Dundon, T., & Wilkinson, A. (2011). Reconceptualising employee silence: problems and prognosis. Work, Employment and Society, 25(1), 51–67.

Fernando, D., & Prasad, A. (2018). Sex-based harassment and organizational silencing: How women are led to reluctant acquiescence in academia. Human Relations, 72(10), 1–30.

Giroux, D., Karmis, D., & Rouillard, C. (2015). Between the managerial and the democratic university: Governance structure and academic freedom as sites of political struggle. Studies in Social Justice, 9(2), 142-158.

Hollis, L. P. (2022). In the Room, but no Seat at the Table: Mixed Methods Analysis of HBCU Women Faculty and Workplace Bullying. Journal of Education, 0(0).

Matthiesen S. B., Einarsen S. (2010). Bullying in the workplace: Definition, prevalence, antecedents, and consequences. International Journal of Organizational Theory and Behavior, 13(2), 202–248.

Swann, J.M. (2022), Academic bullying and diversity: challenges and solutions. FEBS Lett, 596: 2855-2858.

Wang J. L. (2006). Perceived work stress, imbalance between work and family/personal lives, and mental disorders. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 41(7), 541–548.

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