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Sexual Harassment and Assault Prove Common During Scientific Field Studies

A survey reveals that nearly two thirds of young scientists in the field have experienced sexual harassment
sexual harassment among scientists


A survey of 142 men and 516 women across scientific disciplines found that many of them suffered or witnessed sexual harassment or sexual assault while at work in the field.
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She was a young, enthusiastic graduate student when she traveled to her research site outside a rural town in a foreign country. She had spent years immersed in her research and, as is the case with many young scientists, the field study was a vital opportunity to gain experience and advance her career.

The harassment started with intimate questions about her love life and sexualized comments about her body. At first, she even joined in the banter, trading insults with her mostly male colleagues. She was already uncomfortable, then colleagues started joking about selling her into prostitution. Pornographic photos began to appear in her private workspace.

When she walked unaccompanied through the nearby town, catcalls and the groping hands of local men followed. At work, she felt only marginally safer. The joking had spiraled out of control. When she confronted her professor about it, he told her she was being overly sensitive, their relationship deteriorated, and he eventually revoked his promise to fund her through graduate school.

The scientist posted her anonymous story to University of Illinois anthropology professor Kathy Clancy's blog on the Scientific American website in 2012. The story is one of several Clancy has posted on the blog and is also, according to new research led by Clancy, a disturbingly common feature of scientific field research.

A survey of 142 men and 516 women across scientific disciplines found that many of them suffered or witnessed sexual harassment or sexual assault while at work in the field. A report analyzing the data, published yesterday in the journal PLOS ONE, found that 64 percent of survey respondents said they had experienced sexual harassment. More than 20 percent reported that they had been victims of sexual assault.

The survey also found that most of the victims were younger researchers—graduate students or postdocs. Five of the respondents who reported harassment were in high school at the time of the incident. And while men were victimized as well as women, men mostly experienced it from peers, while women mostly experienced it from superiors.

While there is extensive literature on sexual harassment and assault in scientific settings like hospitals and college campuses, this is the first study to examine it on scientific field studies. The trips can last for weeks or months, taking scientists to wild and remote areas, far from home and support systems. And the survey found that out in the field, while many scientists don't experience any form of harassment, some do. And when they do, they often don't know how to address it.

Katie Hinde—a co-author of the study and an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University, who has years of experience in the field—said she was brought to tears as she read through the survey responses.

"I would read just a series of harrowing stories from people who experience unquestionably abusive acts from inside their research team, and the next entry on the survey would be somebody telling me that this survey was stupid and that this doesn't happen," Hinde said in an interview.

"The real takeaway from our study is that this is happening in appreciable numbers and it's happening to trainees, so people who are either students or postdocs, people who are really vulnerable," she added.

A pressing concern for climate scientists—and their sponsors
Climate science is a fieldwork-intensive discipline. Studying climate change—past or present—can send researchers to the Arctic or the Amazon, throwing small research teams into isolated areas.

Yarrow Axford, an earth sciences professor at Northwestern University who wasn't involved in the study, said in an email that the data show "what I think many of us working in field-based science have experienced or at least suspected—that the culture of field work can be hostile to women, in both subtle and more overt ways."

"This study suggests that women have good cause to be very careful about who they work with, and that's a really unfortunate reality to add to the list of barriers that can keep women out of field-based science," Axford said, adding that she has never personally experienced any harassment or assault.

Working in the field, it may be impossible to avoid any kind of uncomfortable situation. A few years ago, Axford was on a field study and catching helicopter flights out of a remote Arctic airport. The only bathroom in the airport was "piled high" with graphic porn.

"Every single time I had to use that darn bathroom, I would have to step out of it into a room full of male pilots and airport employees," Axford said.

"This is not a good thing, but I guess I view a certain amount of social discomfort in the field as the cost of doing what I do for a living."

But while all scientists have to accept a certain amount of discomfort when working in the field, she added that sexual harassment needs to become more of a focal point when planning field studies. Axford is in the process of preparing to leave for a field study in Greenland next week and recently became responsible for field studies involving students. She is now considering speaking more openly to her students—and the rest of her team—about a zero-tolerance policy for harassment in pre-field briefings.

Jeff Altschul, the president of the Society for American Archaeology—which was not involved in the study —told USA Today that sponsors of the field research also need to take more responsibility.

Axford said she hopes the study will "make it into the hands of a lot of principal investigators, and get a lot of people thinking about how to make their field camps safe places for everyone."

"Based on this study, it looks like we have a long way to go to make that a reality," she added.

'What happens in the field, stays in the field'
The researchers recruited survey respondents through email and social networks like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. Preliminary results from the survey were released last year. Of 122 respondents in the biological anthropology field, more than half reported experiencing or witnessing sexual harassment or sexual assault.

Hinde said she expected the results to drop as more scientists responded to the survey—which is usually the case when a sample size grows bigger. In this case, the results actually got worse. Hinde even got emails from scientists who said they had declined to take the survey because revisiting their experiences would be too traumatic.

Surveys are inherently limiting. Clancy, Hinde and their team tried to ensure a balance of respondents who have or haven't experienced harassment, but it can be difficult to control who responds. That said, Hinde said their findings seem consistent with other research on harassment, which has focused more on experiences in other scientific setting like hospitals and college campuses, or in the military.

"Wherever sexual harassment studies have been conducted across medicine, the military, [college] campuses, the numbers are coming back pretty high and consistent with the numbers in our study," Hinde said, "and these are studies that use different kinds of methods to access this information."

The implications for science could be profound. In a profession that is historically dominated by men, sexual harassment or assault during field studies could drive talented young female scientists away before their careers have truly begun.

Compounding the difficulties is the fact that there are rarely mechanisms or procedures in the field that scientists can follow in the event of harassment or assault.

Hinde said that the harassment policies of the institutions funding the field study—for example, a university—would apply to the sites. But many people simply don't know this, according to responses to the survey. While there isn't much data to support it, Hinde said many survey respondents had described a "what happens in the field, stays in the field" attitude.

"I speculate that yes, some academics consider 'the field' as different from other workspaces such as the office, lab, or classroom in such a way that relaxes or suspends workplace norms of behavior," Hinde wrote in a follow-up email.

Such behavior during field studies—a vital period in a young scientist's career development, if not a required component of her or his degree—"has implications for all the sciences," Hinde said.

"What it comes down to is that I strongly suspect these experiences play a role in people leaving science, and that impoverishes us all," Hinde said. "That impoverishes the scientific endeavor."

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500

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