After hearing horror stories from colleagues who’d experienced sexual harassment out in the field, anthropologist Kate Clancy decided to investigate the extent of the problem. With three other researchers, she surveyed 142 men and 516 women, mostly from anthropology and archaeology. She found that 71 percent of the women and 41 percent of the men had experienced sexual harassment during field studies.
26 percent of women and 6 percent of men reported inappropriate touching or other forms of sexual assault.
(Clancy defined harassment as inappropriate sexual remarks, comments about physical beauty or jokes about cognitive sex differences.)
A number of news outlets ran stories summarizing the survey results, which were published in the journal PLOS One.
It’s good to get the issue out in the open. A number of news outlets picked up on the story. Unfortunately, many wrongly stated that 64 percent of women reported sexual harassment. It was 64 percent of the sample, which included both sexes. Most stories merely summarized the report. And only a few emphasized that this survey is not about harassment in the lab or the office but in that unique setting known as the field.
And yet it was the focus on field research that made this an interesting story rather than another sad statistic. Field research can alter social dynamics in ways that just wouldn’t happen in other professions. I’ve tagged along with a number of field teams, sometimes in extremely remote places. Suddenly camping in a tent with no privacy and peeing behind rocks or trees if you’re lucky enough to find them. Without TV or Internet access, people sit around and converse, tell stories and drink.
It can be great fun or not, depending on the people involved. Often there’s only one woman on a team – an especially challenging situation if she’s a student and other people wield power over her future.
Clancy found that in her sample, the situation had led to sexual harassment or assault for most women and a surprising number of men. She found people either didn’t know how to report it or were afraid reporting the problem would harm their careers.
I noticed that most of the bylines were female, which might be random chance, or it might be that men are reluctant to weigh in on this particular subject. They shouldn’t be.
Henry Gass wrote a great story for Climatewire: Sexual Harassment and Assault Prove Common During Scientific Field Studies. The story offers context and interpretation, original interviews and a thoughtful commentary on the lessons the study holds for climatologists.
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.
(How could any non-omniscient being know it doesn’t happen on other people’s expeditions?)
“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.
The above is a key point. We journalists wield a certain amount of power when we drop in on field research. But female graduate students can be outnumbered and stuck in positions where others wield power over them.
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.
This story lays out the issue so concisely and thoughtfully that scientists should print it out and take it on their expeditions.
- Science, Ann Gibbons, Sexual harassment is common in scientific fieldwork
- NPR Shots Blog, Kara Manke, Young Scientists Say They’re Sexually Abused In The Field
- USA Today, Hoai-Tran Bui, Sex assaults, harassment reported in science fieldwork
- Mother Jones, Erika Eichelberger: 64 Percent of Women Scientists Say They’ve Been Sexually Harassed Doing Field Work (oops, see above for problem with this figure).
- Caelaninn Hogan, Washington Post – Study: Young female scientists face sexual harassment, assault while in the field
- Brandy Zadrozny, Daily Beast, Two-Thirds of These Female Scientists Say They’ve Been Sexually Harassed
- Salon, Jenny Kutner: Female researchers commonly face sexual harassment, just like most women
– Faye Flam