WHISPERS pass between women, warning words like a lighthouse beam. Sometimes it’s a word in the ear. An email. Even a look. Other times, it’s an anonymous spreadsheet or a closed chat group, or a list. When women whisper, they do so out of a mutually understood need for safety. A need to maintain vigilance in a way males never do. “Be careful” they’ll say. “He’s bad news”.

Since the Harvey Weinstein story broke, barely a week goes by without another name emerging, another industry being revealed to be harbouring the unsavoury.

It was the story that burst the boil, leeching poison out into the public for all to see. We’ve been bathing in it for months now, and likely will be for years to come. Learning that a workplace is complicit is hard. It makes you feel dirty, part of something tainted. Worse again is learning that someone revered is the source of the infection.

UK academia is sick. In March 2017, The Guardian reported that sexual harassment of students by staff was at “epidemic” levels. But these were the days before stories like this persisted. Before stories like this impacted on the careers of powerful men. Until now, a respectable cover and a tendency to blame victims was enough to convince outsiders that there was no real issue.

The need to safeguard one’s own career and an institution’s reputation discourages insiders from taking action. Inaction and inadequate action work to preserve the veneer of prestige, of universities being above the grime of the outside world. Open secrets haunt hallowed halls, warning those inside to be on their guard.

Previously, when a story worked its way out of the bubble, there was little fanfare. Read: small enough to be forgotten. A student impregnated by a professor. A post-grad sexually assaulted and paid off by the university. A staff member forced to withdraw her grievance against a colleague to keep her position. A post-doc passing up a fellowship to avoid a man with a whispered reputation.

Each incident individualised, belying the endemic nature of the problem. When the institution acted, the punishment would be non-existent or informal. Little more than a slap on the wrist or a spell of gardening leave before taking up post elsewhere.

Female students and academics penalised, while male academics move through institutions like chessmen. For academic men who have used their position as cloak and lure, the weight of being watched is new. It’s overbearing for those who aren’t used to being gazed at; who have to temper their natural behaviour so as not to send the wrong message. With the scale of inappropriate behaviour and sexual harassment freshly evidenced with each news cycle, with the public’s growing confidence with the lingua franca of consent and power dynamics, there’s new scrutiny of male behaviour at work – but without a firm stance from institutions, nothing will change.

The absence of accountability, ineffectual harassment policies, and the reluctance of women to report their superiors or colleagues creates fertile ground for misconduct.

Sometimes he will be charming. Sometimes he will operate with the sophistry of a master gaslighter. Sometimes it’s an ersatz blend of love or attention. In academia, some men believe their own hype and want women to get drunk on it. He might also be kind and helpful, a brilliant academic and a good mentor.

Similarly, he might mentally ill, eccentric, old-fashioned. There are exonerating scripts aplenty where brilliance is revered, institutional reputations are to be safeguarded and the system rewards those willing to sit at the master’s feet.

A name has been whispered in the last week. Initials, ambiguous descriptions, institutions. Checks and balances designed to verify information, protect identities and safeguard reputations.

In the last year, an informal etiquette has arisen organically. Women have learned of the power of whispers, that they can bring abusers out. As this name found its mirror, connections were made, experiences shared, rumours and suspicions confirmed.

Each woman who felt isolated found she was not, and in solidarity they’ve begun speaking up. When women talk to one another, things happen. It’s no wonder men like these lavish each target with such attention as to single her out.

It might make her feel special, loved even, or entirely alone and unable to act. In almost all cases, she pays the price for his behaviour. He creates a cordon sanitaire between her and the institution, insulating himself from consequence.

There is a growing list of names from universities throughout the UK, anonymously reported by men and women, of academics who are targeting and pressuring students and colleagues to form sexual relationships.

As whispers move through a network, they gather form. They gather pace, they gather other names, connecting women and adding to the weight of claims. These whispers corroborate one another, forming a picture that can’t be ignored: sexual harassment and impropriety among male academics is rife.

Academia is by its nature independent of most external scrutiny. Parts move within it that are often invisible to the public.

The machinery is only fully perceived by those who move through it. For too long that machinery has worked in favour of the brilliant man. His career is rarely ruined when he steps over the line, but his behaviour almost always reshapes the lives and careers of the women he preys on.

Shonky harassment policies, the collegiality, and the power dynamic between the learned and the learner all work for him. And when he stands between you and your research ambitions, and you have to cite his work, supporting your abuser becomes unavoidable. He gets promoted. She leaves. The machinery is broken.

For too long, our universities have been used as a hunting ground for powerful men. The names are out there. As open secret bumps against open secret in this new dawn of accountability, universities must act or face the growing storm.

Enough whispers eventually become thunderous. Time’s up, academia.