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Photo: This is Engineering
Photo: This is Engineering

#RatifyC190 "Violence against women: a case study in the French public research", by Dina Bacalexi and Bruno Pouvelle.

published 27 November 2019 updated 11 January 2023
written by:

On 25 November – the International Day for the Elimination of Gender-based Violence - we called on governments to immediately ratify ILO Convention 190 on violence and harassment in the world of work. The Convention is the result of 10 years of mobilisation and activism by the global trade union movement. During the 16 Days of Activism to End Gender-based Violence (25 November – 10 December), we will feature a series of stories written by education unionists who have been involved in eradicating violence in and around education settings. This is one of their stories.


The National Center of Scientific Research (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique; CNRS) is the main public research institution in France. It covers all fields off science and employs more than 30.000 persons, researchers, engineers, technicians and administrative staff. Only 43% of CNRS personnel are women, but 65% of CNRS technicians are female.

Due to their position in the CNRS hierarchy, women run the risk of sexual or moral harassment. For a long time, such issues have not been given priority in trade union reflection and action. Higher education and research are considered rational and egalitarian milieus: yet we are just beginning to realize that extensive damage is caused by the struggle for domination, as well as competition which replaces collegiality and solidarity.

Our story begins in 2006, before the impact of the #MeToo movement. It takes place in a large biomedical research laboratory dealing with infectious and tropical diseases. This laboratory was famous for its quality research; it attracted scientists and students from all over the world [1]. Its head (hereafter “the big boss”) is a renowned, powerful and authoritarian man. Nothing should tarnish the brilliant performance of his laboratory.

Having graduated from the Engineering School in a North African country, Aïda (not her real name) first came to the laboratory as a trainee; she then became a PhD candidate and finally obtains an engineer position. Aïda is a member of a team [2] directed by Professor M. Her direct supervisor is Élie (not his real name), a despotic Senior researcher who is imposing his authority on the newcomer, constantly denigrating her work and cracking racist jokes. Words and gestures with sexual connotations come later, principally in 2013 when Élie is made co-director of the team.

Emma (again not her real name) came to the laboratory in 2015. She reported the same bullying and the same sexual harassment. She is not allowed to work with Aïda, as the harasser wants to isolate each of his victims from the other. However, Professor M., who witnesses a shocking scene, brings Aïda into contact with Emma, obtains their account of the facts and refers the issue to the big boss and the dean of the university’s Faculty of medicine. The latter does nothing. The big boss confines himself to moving the persons involved far from one another’s office and prohibiting Élie from approaching Aïda and Emma!

It is summer of 2016: Bruno, a member of our trade union, SNTRS-CGT [3], who works as a research engineer in the aforementioned laboratory, is briefed about the situation. But, as the victims refuse to go public about their ordeal, Bruno does not know their names and cannot take action in their defense.

2017: Bruno is elected in the National Committee of Scientific Research (CoNRS –Comité National de la Recherche Scientifique), the main evaluation board of French public research. Another member of our trade union was elected to the INSERM Specialized Committee (CSS). CoNRS and CSS are in charge of scientific evaluation of the laboratory, which had previously been evaluated by an “external” committee appointed by Hcéres (High Council for Evaluation of Research and Higher Education). Unfortunately, Hcéres does not welcome trade union participation in its evaluation committees. This may turn into a casus belli, because the Hcéres’ evaluation report is the first one to be issued and its recommendations are almost always followed by the two other boards, CoNRS and CSS, where trade unionists are elected members and involved in evaluations.

Evaluations must take into account working conditions and management: that is why Bruno and some of his colleagues seek to alert the “external” committee about the aggressive management, the injustices (including unfair treatment of engineers, not allowed to sign scientific publications to which they are the main contributors), and the nasty climate. The committee overlooks all of that. Yet Bruno’s and his colleagues’ words are transmitted to the big boss, who publicly reproaches them fortheir “negative and dangerous attitude”.

Determined to take action, our trade unionists, followed by some other trade unionists who were also elected members of the evaluation boards, succeed in obtaining some shocking accounts, on condition of anonymity. Then comes a fairly lukewarm scientific evaluation report: as a result, the laboratory loses the support of CNRS and INSERM. Its reputation and future are thus severely compromised.

However, in order to bring the case before the CNRS disciplinary commission and demand that Élie be evicted, supplementary efforts by the two members of our trade union are necessary combined with action by university trade unionists and finally by the General Secretary of our trade union, who lobbies the cabinet of the Higher Education and Research Minister.

A month after the evaluation, 12 colleagues working in the laboratory send a request for help to the leaders of CNRS, INSERM, IRD and the university. As Aïda is unwilling to mention “sexual harassment”, only “misconduct” and “moral harassment” are finally included. This help request has an explosive effect. It shocks even the President of INSERM, who persuades the President of the French Republic, who is supposed to inaugurate the laboratory’s new building, to cancel his visit. The big boss is furious. He issues articles and holds interviews with the local press: “research is like a horse-race” (Aïda and Emma are apparently “losing” horses?); “research is a high-level sports competition”.

Yet things are moving on: an inspection by the CHST (Commission of Hygiene, Security and Working Conditions) is scheduled. A meeting of trade unionists and signatories of the aforementioned help request is organized: and, for the first time, Aïda has explicitly mentioned sexual harassment. To obtain the victims’ testimony and an official record of the facts, the whistle-blowers have to encounter shameful denigration perpetrated against them by the big boss. During the long three months before the CHSCT inspection, the whistle-blowers, under increasing pressure, resist thanks to trade union support. In retaliation, the big boss throws the more active whistle-blowers, including Bruno, out of the laboratory, but he cannot prevent them meeting the University President [4] and informing him about sexual violence in the laboratory.

When the CHSCT inspection is over, a closed-door meeting takes place. The attendees are: Aïda, Emma, Bruno, another (male) trade unionist, the general administrative director of the university and the university psychologist (both female). A historic moment: the victims testify! “It could have happened to my daughter”, the general administrative director says.

Two months later, Emma fears that her PhD scholarship may be interrupted, because she has been told that the big boss is furious about her testimony. The big boss says “no, nothing will be done before Élie’s faults are acknowledged by the court”. This ambiguous formula implies that Élie is still favored by the big boss. Despite these facts, the victims and their allies must keep up the pace. The trade union is ontheir side. Aïda and Emma ask for special protection from the university. They are also seeking financial support to pay court fees, because they are going to sue the harasser. But this financial support is not adequate to meet their needs.

The special Hygiene and Security committee issues its report, which is leaked to the press. The big boss who covered up the scandal can no longer hide behind “excellence” of his laboratory and his long list of world-renowned publications. Two women and a handful of determined trade unionists have proved themselves to be stronger.

The CNRS disciplinary commission against Élie is finally convened. Aïda and Emma are called to testify. Our trade union asks for a doctor to be present, in case one of the victims felt faint. But the doctor is not there. She actually feels faint and the firefighters provide first aid.

The disciplinary procedure gave our trade union the opportunity to highlight – and denounce - one of the system’s weak points: the harasser being the defendant, he has the right to be assisted by a lawyer; the victims, being the witnesses, have no such right. Aïda and Emma faced the commission on their own. Fortunately, the testimony of  their former supervisor, Professor M, held considerable weight. Élie was fired from CNRS. But he lodged an appeal and the decision was reversed. Our trade union and CNRS lodged a counter-appeal before the State Council, the highest judicial institution in France. The Council’s decision is irrevocable: Élie is indeed fired. During this time, the big boss had been complaining about his laboratory being ill-famed: “people are saying that my lab is a brothel…”

They are coping with depression, looking for professional stability and a balanced family life, continuing to request financial support from the university, and remaining vigilant because of the risk that the case, currently handed over to the criminal justice system, disappear. Such are the challenges Aïda and Emma are facing. They are still supported and monitored by the local members of our trade union and try to be resilient. We hope that their ordeal will not leave an indelible mark on them. Our General Secretary still recalls the day that she was holding the two young researchers’ hands when they were about to enter the commission room…

This was the first case of sexual harassment we had dealt with as trade unionists. Acting, based on our confederation’s, (CGT), approach to this question may inform daily trade union life. In particular in the academic milieu, our members lack specific practical training. This is the reason why we had to adapt ourselves to the situation and engage both our activist experience and our humanity. For the future, we think that field trade union work, as well as training of our members concerning the specificities of gender--based hazards, which must not be included in the general category of “psycho-social hazards”, are absolutely necessary. We also think that it is important to raise awareness that such incidents can occur in the academic milieu, which is not a world apart. We are lucky because our members, men in particular, are willing to tackle this issue. In addition, our confederation organizes campaigns largely based on the private sector, but are useful to those of us in the public sector. Cooperation between trade unions sharing the same values can also be helpful.

The key factors for our success was the perseverance of Bruno and other colleagues as well as mobilization of elected trade union representatives in CNRS, INSERM and university boards. This action has restored the missing link between quality research and healthy working conditions. We are proud of this progress.


November 25th of each year is the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Still today, at the end of the second decade of the 21st Century, the world needs a dedicated day to focus minds on the fact that gender-based violence, especially violence experienced by women and girls, remains highly prevalent in our societies. Global estimates show that as many as 35% of women have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.

In recent years, the scale of the violence, abuse and harassment faced by women in all walks of life, and especially in work environments across different sectors, has been brought into focus through global mobilisations by survivors and activists made visible with campaigns including #MeToo, #YoTambien, أنا_كمان#,#BalanceTonPorc, #Niunamenos and #TimesUp. Until June of this year, there was no existing international instrument that covered the scope of violence, abuse and harassment in the workplace. After 10 years of mobilisation and activism, the global trade union movement celebrated the adoption in June of an historical Convention by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in its centenary year.

Convention 190(C190), and its accompanying Recommendation 206(R206), on violence and harassment in the world of work is a first-of-its-kind global minimum standard on addressing violence and harassment in working life. C190 defines violence and harassment as a range of unacceptable behaviours and practices or threats that can be physical, psychological, sexual or economic (Article 1a). The Convention specifically recognises and defines gender-based violence and harassment (Article 1b), and applies to both the formal and informal sectors, to urban and rural areas and to all sectors. All workers, irrespective of status, are protected by C190: contract workers, job seekers and applicants, apprentices, interns, trainees and volunteers, employers, and workers whose employment has been terminated (Article 2). Significantly, by referring to ‘the world of work’, C190 recognises that ‘work’ does not only happen in a physical ‘work place’; protection, therefore, extends to workers subjected to cyber-bullying and to work-related situations including work-related travel, trips and social activities (Article 3). Violence and harassment by third parties, including clients, customers, patients or members of the public, is also covered by C190 (Article 4). The Convention upholds the principle of ‘leaving no-one behind’ by stating that vulnerable workers who are most likely to be disproportionately subjected to violence and harassment in the world of work, must be protected by laws, regulations and policies ensuring the right to equality and non-discrimination in employment and occupation (Article 6).

The promise of C190 for educators and education support personnel is two-fold: it addresses both the violation of students right to quality education, and education workers’ right to a decent and safe work environment. Education International and its member organisations have been working to eradicate violence in and around education settings, in particular in a number of African countries since 2016.

During the 16 Days of Activism to End Gender-based Violence, which runs until International Human Rights Day on December 10th, we will feature a series of stories written by education unionists who have been involved in this work; their stories poignantly reveal the human face and cost of violence and harassment in educational settings from the perspectives of students and educators alike. The stories also show the positive impact that action by education unions can have in the struggle to end gender-based violence and harassment in and around educational settings.


[1] As a consequence of the facts related in this article, this research unit, under the joint responsibility of CNRS, University, INSERM (Institut national de la santé et de la recherche médicale = National Institute of Health and Medical Research) and IRD (Institut de recherche pour le développement = National Research Institute for Development), was shut down.

[2] A laboratory can include various research teams or groups. Each of them has its own director, but all of them are placed under the hierarchical authority of the general director of the laboratory.

[3] SNTRS-CGT: Syndicat National des Travailleurs de la recherche Scientifique - National Trade Union of Scientific Research Workers, a member of General Confederation of Labor - Confédération Générale du Travail, the largest trade union in the French public sector.

[4] In France, the President is the head of the University. He or she is elected by the university community or, in some cases, by the university administrative board.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.