Fuller Picture

Anjali Rangaswami ’21 noticed some gaps in research on sexual harassment in higher education. So she won a Fulbright to do it herself.

Fuller Picture
Illustration by Ivan Haidutski from Ouch!

Exploring the relationships between one person’s identities—race, class, sexual orientation, for example—and their experience of sexual harassment in higher education has been a rare thing in research. But over the past decade, young social scientists have gravitated toward such intersectional approaches, and are building a deeper understanding of the problem. Add Anjali Rangaswami ’21 to that list.

The sociology major and economics minor is one of several Santa Clara University students to win a prestigious Fulbright Award so far this year. Starting this fall (pandemic willing), Rangaswami will study the interplay between caste and gender on sexual harassment in India’s higher education landscape. She will conduct her research with Professor Shewli Kumar in the School of Social Work at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Mumbai.

“As I was looking at what sorts of research had been done in this sphere already, I found that there was a gap in studies that were intersectional—studies that were predicated on how people’s different identities interacted to shape their experiences with inequality,” she says. “I was able to find studies on gender and sexual harassment or caste and sexual harassment, but I couldn’t find anything that was investigating the overlap or how those factors influence each other.”

A 2020 review of international studies in the European Journal of Higher Education concluded that current “research on sexual harassment in higher education lacks theoretical, longitudinal, qualitative and intersectional approaches and perspectives.” Rangaswami will contribute to a course correction of sorts by collecting personal stories from college students about how one’s gender identity and caste identity both influence and inform their experiences.

The prevalence of sexual harassment in higher education is well-documented. We know, for example, that female college students between 18 and 24 are at an elevated risk of sexual violence—about three times higher than women in general—according to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network.

Anjali Rangaswami Headshot
In addition to serving as the co-president of the student-run Violence Prevention Program at SCU, Anjali Rangaswami ’21 is a peer educator in the Sociology Department and Vice President of Alpha Sigma Nu, the Jesuit honor society.

“Working at this university in India will enable me to suggest potential interventions, or at least give people a broader idea of what the problem actually looks like in a concrete way, because it’s difficult to design effective interventions without really knowing a place or its people,” Rangaswami says.

Like any good researcher, she has a plan

Her focus on intersectionality is something Rangaswami credits to SCU’s Sociology Department, where students achieve greater understanding of the social forces and structures that shape and influence societies, cultures, and individuals. “People have many, many different identities that influence how they see themselves but also how they are treated by others,” she says. “By having this intersectional framework [in the future study], I think we’ll get a more detailed picture of what violence actually looks like.” It’s her hope that this methodology could be picked up and adapted for other institutions of higher learning in the future.

She chose to place her study within a college landscape because of her familiarity with doing violence prevention at Santa Clara. Since starting her freshman year with the Violence Prevention Educators (VPE) group, Rangaswami has become co-president and grown student involvement from two to 20 educators. Operating out of SCU’s Wellness Center, VPE volunteers implement campus programming to educate students about interpersonal and sexual violence and abuse, harassment, stalking, and hazing, and refer people to different resources for help.

In India, Rangaswami says the study will start by asking participants to self-identify their gender and caste status. Once the initial data is collected, individuals will be brought in to share their stories one-on-one or within focus groups to get more personalized, qualitative data. “That allows us to get a better sense of stories and experiences as opposed to just cold hard statistics,” she says. “Something sociology has taught me is that both are really important to get the full picture of a problem.”

It’s Rangaswami’s hope that in giving people a safe space to tell their stories of harassment—stories that are often silenced because of societal shame and cultural taboo—that such violence will be easier for institutions to address and, eventually, shrink. “What can we do to support survivors, what can we do to promote conversations about violence and violence prevention in order to actually change the culture?” she asks. It starts by talking about it. “Silence allows a system to persist. … But if we can start getting comfortable with these conversations, that can open up a world of possibilities.”

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