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Guide: Dealing with discrimination at the University of Göttingen

In accordance with its inclusive and transformative diversity strategy, the University of Göttingen pursues the objective of providing all its members and employees equal opportunities and protection against discrimination. The issue of discrimination is linked to many questions – for those affected, witnesses, counsellors or persons who encounter the issue in everyday life. For this reason, knowledge on the subject of discrimination is provided here on the basis of the guiding questions - What is discrimination? How do I recognise discrimination? What can I do?

This guideline was created by the Anti-Discrimination Counselling for Students, as part of the development of a referral counselling system for dealing with discrimination cases and also lists the university's internal as well as external support and counselling services.

What is discrimination?

People can experience discrimination in all areas of life, regardless of their position, where they live, study or work. However, what counts as discrimination? Where does discrimination begin, where does it end?

In the following, reasons why the University of Göttingen addresses the issue of discrimination are presented. Furthermore, you will find information on definitions, forms and examples of discrimination at the University.

The University strives to enable all its members and employees to achieve very good work and study results. For this purpose, the university developed a comprehensive inclusive and transformative diversity strategy in 2016, which is based on proven policies of gender equality, and the improvement of reconciliation, and inclusion of people with disabilities and impairments. The diversity strategy aims at creating an organisational structure and culture, which offers all members of the University equal opportunities and protection against discrimination as well as an improvement of basic conditions for all.

In addition to various existing offers and contact persons in the field of protection against discrimination, such as the Equal Opportunities Officer or the Representatives for Severely Handicapped Persons, the context of the Diversity Audit was used to create the Anti-Discrimination Counselling for Students and the Counselling support for trans* students, two offers explicitly catering the needs of students.

The University of Göttingen proactively takes on the social task of reducing the risks of discrimination. In its guide "Diskriminierungsschutz an Hochschulen", the Federal Anti-Discrimination Office also emphasises the important role of universities in shaping a society that is more sensitive to discrimination.This is what it says in concrete terms:

"Universities have a responsibility to ensure equal access to studies and academic careers. As a place of research and teaching, universities also have the responsibility of addressing diversity and discrimination and raising awareness in relation to diversity and discrimination. (...) With regard to the way society deals with discrimination, universities are relevant because they train future executives. If it is possible to successfully establish a culture of anti-discrimination at universities, the future executives trained there can act as multipliers for fair treatment in the world of work" (p. 18).

Based on the understanding of discrimination of the Antidiskriminierungsverband Deutschlands (advd) the definition of discrimination presented here is composed of three complementary perspectives. These are essential in order to understand discrimination in its complexity and effectiveness.

Legal definition
According to the General Act on Equal Treatment, discrimination is defined as exclusion and factually unjustifiable discrimination experienced by people on the basis of ascriptions or (alleged) affiliations, e.g. with regard to gender, ethnic or social origin, disability or chronic illness, religion or belief, age or sexual orientation. These can take place directly in contact with others (direct discrimination) or indirectly through supposedly neutral procedures, regulations or criteria (indirect discrimination).

Societal contexts
Discrimination always emerges against the background of socially grown structures and the associated values and norms, which are generally regarded unquestioned as normality. Discrimination should therefore not be described in abbreviated form as the behaviour of individuals, connected with intention or guilt, but rather integrated into historically evolved circumstances. Mechthild Gomolla has coined the term institutional discrimination in this context and writes about it in the Handbook on Discrimination (2016):
"The central theoretical moment lies in the assumption that mechanisms of institutional discrimination can operate and be maintained independently of individual prejudices or negative intentions; nor can they be primarily explained as the sum of discriminatory attitudes and actions of prejudiced individuals. Institutional discrimination can even occur in the actions of well-meaning actors" (p. 134).

Individual experiences
For those affected, discrimination is an individual experience of violence, which is experienced as a violation of one's own dignity and can lead to massive restrictions in social participation. The repeated experience of discrimination can have a lasting effect on one's own development of identity. Very often, those affected are blamed for a discriminatory situation and are made into a "problem" themselves, experience rejection and resistance. This can lead to those affected thinking very carefully about whether, when and to whom they tell about the discrimination.

A few examples of potential forms of discrimination are listed below:
Insults, intimidation, animosity, denial of access to offers of supporting benefits, sexual harassment, mobbing, exclusion and marginalisation, physical violence, instructions to discrimination (e.g. through superiors or fellow students), stalking, less favourable treatment in grading, damage to property or the like.
Note: The following examples are taken from various publications by the Federal Anti-Discrimination Office and from exchanges with anti-discrimination counselling centres throughout Germany. They are intended to give an impression of frequently occurring experiences of discrimination that students at different universities in Germany have experienced or observed..

Direct discrimination

  • A student is rejected for an exchange semester abroad because she is chronically ill.

  • Due to his age, an applicant cannot apply for the Academy of fine arts. The age limit is 30 years.

  • A Muslim student is prohibited from wearing her headscarf at a university.

  • A lecturer prohibits a trans* person to be addressed by the chosen forename. Thereby the person is forcibly outed during seminar.

  • A lecturer makes fun of socially marginalized groups in the seminar. As being confronted, the person only says: Don’t make such a fuss, this is just a joke.

Indirect discrimination:

  • Students with children at a university hospital are faced with the problem that there is no possibility of excused absence due to the child´s illness.

  • A Jewish student cannot write exams on Saturdays because of his active religious practice. He is not offered alternative dates.

  • An international student is excluded from group work because he needs more time capturing tasks due to his language skills, and his fellow students are afraid of not meeting the performance requirements.

  • A student asks for a later examination date, as she is currently still breastfeeding. This is denied her.

  • A student in a wheelchair cannot enter the university’s premises in the evenings and on weekends because the electricity for the elevators is switched off at these times for financial reasons.

How do I identify discrimination?

Is that "already" discrimination? This is a question that is often asked by those affected as well as by involved and uninvolved third parties, but which is not easy to answer.

The description of the understanding of discrimination has already made clear how complex the definition of discrimination alone is. This makes it all the more difficult in everyday life for those affected to assess whether discrimination has taken place or not, just as it is in the professional activities of counsellors, for example. Thus, those affected often have the uncomfortable feeling that they have been treated unfairly but do not have enough evidence to take official action against discrimination.
Similarly, actors who are told about experiences of discrimination feel that they cannot make any assessment and the issue is not dealt with further.

In the following, you can read about the legal basis on the one hand, and on the other hand, the three-step method is presented, which can possibly be helpful in assessing discriminatory situations.

Note: Although the following legal principles are listed as potential aids to the recognition of discrimination, they alone cannot be sufficient for a comprehensive assessment of the situation. The perspective of those affected should always be at the centre when it comes to recognising and naming discrimination and, if necessary, taking further steps.

(1) All persons shall be equal before the law.

(2) Men and women shall have equal rights. The state shall promote the actual implementation of equal rights for women and men and take steps to eliminate disadvantages that now exist.

(3) No person shall be favoured or disfavoured because of sex, parentage, race, language, homeland and origin, faith, or religious or political opinions. No person shall be disfavoured because of disability.

§ 1 Purpose of the act
The purpose of this Act is to prevent or to stop discrimination on the grounds of race or ethnic origin, gender, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation.

§ 2 Scope
(1) For the purposes of this Act, any discrimination within the meaning of Section 1 shall be inadmissible in relation to:

1. conditions for access to dependent employment and self-employment, including selection criteria and recruitment conditions, whatever the branch of activity and at all levels of professional hierarchy, including promotion,
2. employment conditions and working conditions, including pay and reasons for dismissal, in particular in contracts between individuals, collective bargaining agreements and measures to implement and terminate an employment relationship, as well as for promotion,
3. access to all types and to all levels of vocational guidance, vocational training, advanced vocational training and retraining, including practical work experience,,
4. membership of and involvement in an organisation of workers or employers or any organisation whose members carry on a particular profession, including all benefits provided for by such organisations
5. social protection, including social security and health care,
6. social advantages,,
7. education,
8. access to and supply of goods and services which are available to the public, including housing.

§ 3 Definitions
(1) Direct discrimination shall be taken to occur where one person is treated less favourably than another is, has been or would be treated in a comparable situation on any of the grounds referred to under Section 1. Direct discrimination on grounds of sex shall also be taken to occur in relation to Section 2(1) Nos 1 to 4 in the event of the less favourable treatment of a woman on account of pregnancy or maternity.

(2) Indirect discrimination shall be taken to occur where an apparently neutral provision, criterion or practice would put persons at a particular disadvantage compared with other persons on any of the grounds referred to under Section 1, unless that provision, criterion or practice is objectively justified by a legitimate aim and the means of achieving that aim are appropriate and necessary..

(3) Harassment shall be deemed to be discrimination when an unwanted conduct in connection with any of the grounds referred to under Section 1 takes place with the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of the person concerned and of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment..

(4) Sexual harassment shall be deemed to be discrimination in relation to Section 2(1) Nos 1 to 4, when an unwanted conduct of a sexual nature, including unwanted sexual acts and requests to carry out sexual acts, physical contact of a sexual nature, comments of a sexual nature, as well as the unwanted showing or public exhibition of pornographic images, takes place with the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of the person concerned, in particular where it creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.

(5) An instruction to discriminate against a person on any of the grounds referred to under Section 1 shall be deemed as discrimination. Such an instruction shall in particular be taken to occur in relation to Section 2(1) Nos 1 to 4 where a person instructs an employee to conduct which discriminates or can discriminate against another employee on one of the grounds referred to under Section 1.

In the guideline “Diskriminierungsschutz an Hochschulen“ issued by the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency states: “Discrimination is the disadvantage of people (1) on the basis of a characteristic worthy of protection (2) without factual justification” (p. 9). To identify discrimination the following questions arise:

1. Is there a disadvantage?

2. Did this disadvantage occur because of a characteristic worthy of protection?

This follows the logic that every discrimination is a disadvantage, but not every disadvantage is a discrimination.
An example illustrates this: A dog owner is not allowed to take his dog to a café. This may be perceived as disadvantageous, but it does not affect any protected characteristic and therefore does not constitute discrimination.

3. Is there a factual justification for the unequal treatment?

The so-called factual justifications that allow unequal treatment include, for example, compensation for disadvantages, support programmes for women or age restrictions for the protection of minors.

This three-step can help both affected persons and, for example, counsellors to gain an initial assessment of a situation and to decide whether discrimination is involved. In reality, the situations are usually much more complex, since discrimination is often not directly recognisable as such and is therefore difficult to grasp or even prove.

What can I do?

Both those affected and those observing, advising or interested keep asking themselves the question: What can I do concretely in the event of discrimination?

Here you will find tips for those affected, counsellors and supporters on what can be done in the event of discrimination. In addition, you will find a list of potential contact persons who offer counselling for specific target groups and characteristic-specific topics in the column on the right.

  • Talk to friends or, if possible, your family about your experience.
  • Try to collect evidence of discrimination or document the situation you have experienced. Use the template for a memorandum or keep a kind of “diary” to record long-lasting discrimination.
  • In cases of discrimination via electronic media: Save e-mails or take screenshots of discriminatory texts.
  • Talk to people who have observed the incident and ask for their support (directly in the situation or if witness statements are needed).
  • Turn to supervisors or lecturers, if a discrimination has occurred in an educational context.
  • Use the online notification form to report your experience (anonymously).
  • If necessary, turn to the police.
  • Contact a counselling service (a list of support and counselling services can be found in the column on the right).

  • If you have witnessed direct discrimination, talk to the person affected, if assistance or help is needed.
  • First listen and do not judge the reported experience.
  • Take seriously what is reported to you.
  • Enable those concerned to talk about discrimination.
  • Do not question the experience but recognise it as such.
  • Clarify that the focus for you is on the assessment of the situation of those affected.
  • Name the discrimination as such, when it becomes known.
  • Offer information material.
  • If you are at a loss with the situation yourself, research possibilities for support or refer to specialised contact persons.
  • Clarify open questions and possible obstacles concerning referrals to counselling services with those affected.
  • Give those affected orientation in the counselling network of the University or the City of Göttingen (a list of support and counselling services can be found in the column on the right).