FEMALE students face an atmosphere of sexism at Scottish universities with claims some departments are "sexual harassment factories".

And academics have told how sexism is rife amongst some staff with a flagship project to boost the profile of women in science and technology courses dubbed the "tampon and sanitary towel" committee.

The claims were made at the annual congress of the UCU union, which represents academics and support staff.

Anni Donaldson, project leader for the Equally Safe in Higher Education project based at Strathclyde University, told the congress her work had unearthed many examples of sexism.

She highlighted a case where the Athena Swann campaign, which supports the work of female academics, was dismissed by male academics as the “tampons and sanitary towels committee”.

She said: “It is quite shocking to talk about the work of women in such a demeaning way, but it didn't surprise me. These attitudes are the water we swim in it because it is so acceptable.

"People think sexism is still ok with throw away remarks, but no one challenges it and the lad culture persists because people dismiss it as banter.

"The impact is very real and very serious and we have students leaving university because of it, or sitting in their university bedrooms not wanting to go out and face it."

Ms Donaldson said in some situations the impact could be very severe and referred to the case of Emily Drouet, 18, who committed suicide while studying law at Aberdeen University after being subjected to a campaign of abuse by a former boyfriend.

And she called on institutions to create national reporting and recording procedures to establish the scale of the issues and how they could be addressed.

The conference also heard concerns from Ross Walker, a chemistry technician at Queen Margaret University, in Edinburgh.

He said: “I’ve been there for four years and I’d honestly describe it as a sexual harassment factory for woman that come into the laboratory.

“The amount of harassment that goes on, to 17, 18-year-old women, often from quite modest backgrounds, often from some of the local mining towns in the Lothians and Fife, They are so vulnerable to male academics, who basically abuse their position.”

Mr Walker said a minority of staff made sexualised comments both to students and behind their backs, sometimes about physical appearance or clothing.

Asked about whether he had reported the incidents he said: “It’s very difficult to find a channel to do it. I’ve raised it with various levels of management before and the answer has been that students need to take it on themselves.”

Janice Aitken, from Dundee University, said a social media poll she had conducted raised similar issues.

She said: “One recurring theme was that many women were either too embarrassed or too frightened to speak out while it was happening to them. They felt they would be stigmatised or not believed.

“In academia this can include everything from the casual sexism of tearoom banter, the appalling examples of sexist culture evident in some student activities right through to the failure of universities to even start to effectively address the gender pay gap.

“All of these behaviours and more contribute to an environment in which women are consistently undervalued and do not feel able to talk about their experiences or seek help when they need it.”

“We need to do everything we can to make the university campus a place where our female members and students can feel safe, valued, supported and crucially, able to speak out if they are suffering from abuse.”