A Staggering 70% of Female Scientists Are Sexually Harassed While Doing Fieldwork

feature image via National Cancer Intitute, taken by Rhoda Baer

We talk time and time again about the sexism in STEM that keeps women out of top positions and even push them out of the field altogether, and now we have even more data to back that up. A recently published study reveals another reason why women are continually unrepresented in higher levels of STEM, even if they choose to stay: sexual harassment and sexual assault during fieldwork. The study was conducted by three anthropologists, Kate Clancy, Robin Nelson and Julienne Rutherford, as well as evolutionary biologist Katie Hinde.

Of the people they surveyed, 666 responded, 77.5% of whom were women. 70% of women and 40% of men reported experiencing sexual harassment while conducting field research. 26% of women and 6% of men reported sexual assault (defined as “unwanted physical contact”). What’s more, women were twice as likely to report harassment and assault from superiors, while men were more likely to report harassment and assault from peers.

In other words, the harassment against women also comes with an imbalance and abuse of power. In Clancy’s words, “Not only are women experiencing harassment and assault in greater numbers than men, but the actual nature of the assault can cause greater psychological harm.” In response to criticism that the sample size was self-selecting for scientists with bad experiences (the survey was sent out on social media and on Clancy’s blog at Scientific American), Nelson pointed out that the study received many messages from people who wanted to contribute, but couldn’t because they didn’t want to be triggered, and that in the initial call for responses, they encouraged people with good experiences to take the survey as well. Other demographics for the sample such as race and professional standing corresponded with statistics for the STEM community at large. She felt comfortable with the sampling.

In an interview with Inquiring Minds, Clancy noted that sexual harassment and sexual assault come up often when female scientists get together. “We talk about what [principal investigators] to avoid, which individuals to not go near at conferences, which field sites have good or bad reputations and so on.” But she didn’t explore the deeper implications of those cautionary talks until she ran into an old friend who hadn’t finished her dissertation. When Clancy chastised her for taking so long to write it, her friend revealed that she had been assaulted while doing field research, and that opening her dissertation files was triggering for her. Clancy cites this meeting as an eye-opening example of how experiences in the field “can not only traumatize women, but also explicitly hold them back in their research.”

While most universities have codes of conduct and structures in place to address sexual assault on campus (though their follow-through is disappointing), fieldwork generally has less clear structures. Though the study can’t speak to specific environments, Rutherford theorized that at field sites, “there’s often a certain amount of confusion about who is in charge… some field sites are run by multiple universities and research institutions…the overseeing institution may not be clear to any individual.” Only 1 in 5 of those who responded that they had been assaulted were “aware of a mechanism to readily report” the incidents, and of those who did report an incident, only 1 in 5 were satisfied with the way it was handled. Rutherford also points out that in the field, people are isolated from their usual support networks, so victims might have felt less comfortable filing a report than they would’ve been if they were assaulted on their home campuses.

What impact does this have on women’s careers in STEM? Many universities require a fieldwork module for a graduate degree, and field training is “the backbone of a successful career.” Scientists who do field-based research publish more and receive more grants, which lead to greater professional success. While more women begin and complete Ph.D. programs in biology and anthropology than men, they’re less likely to continue fieldwork throughout their scientific careers. This is true regardless of whether they’re married or have children. Women who do engage in fieldwork are more likely to hire an assistant out of concern for their personal safety.

via ZenScience Ecologist Serena Donadi doing fieldwork in Dutch tidal flats

via ZenScience
Ecologist Serena Donadi doing fieldwork in Dutch tidal flats

There are many reasons for the underrepresentation of women in top STEM positions, including systemic sexism in hiring, promoting and recognizing women, but it’s hard not to see a correlation in this study: female scientists’ careers may be limited because they want to avoid sexual harassment and assault. Fieldwork, along with being a factor in future success, is full of potential for unwanted advances and contact. Many women have to choose between professional success or personal safety. The study’s researchers also point out that sexual harassment and assault aren’t just direct effects; bystanders who witness harassment and feel unable to stop it are also affected, creating a negative environment for scientific research altogether.

“These aren’t just occasional isolated incidences or the rare bad apple, but something that we need to systematically address with culture change,” Hinde said. But, she acknowledged, changing the culture will be difficult. Experiences vary from site to site depending on the universities involved, the country where research takes place and the lead scientists. However, the conversation needs to start somewhere, and she hopes this study will do just that. “There’s not necessarily going to be a checklist of policies that can be one-size fits all. We want to start the conversation with how we can promote inclusivity at our field sites and emphasize a culture where all people are treated with dignity.”

Robin doesn't lean in, she spreads out. Her skills include talking up the movie Spice World to strangers. In any situation, she would prefer to get campy. She's a hedonist, lady dandy, and lazy academic. She has a twitter and a tumblr.

Robin has written 43 articles for us.

5 Comments

  1. I feel so relieved reading this. I mean it’s awful but I was raped in undergrad and research became extremely triggering to me. It’s taken me a few years to get to the place where I can start applying to grad schools again. I feel like I’m so behind, and like I’m really stupid because I can’t tell most people why it’s taken me this long to get back on track. It’s really nice to not be alone.

  2. I work in the field a lot with my work as a geotech engineer, I’ve only been working in my present role less than a year and already have come across numerous men who are fully functioning educated members of society who feel it is still appropriate to make crude, vulgar, offensive comments regularly based on my gender.

    Vile, so I’m definitely not surprised by those stats.

  3. I wish I could say that I find this shocking. But, the amount of misogyny present in the STEM fields is overwhelming. Even in fields like mine (biomedical genetics) where the majority of people entering the field are women, the entrenched sexism really hurts us, and every conference I’ve ever been to was basically a sea of sexual harassment for every young woman who attended.

  4. I recently worked as a field technician for a research project and though I didn’t have any negative experiences it is absolutely unsurprising to me that it happens.

    The job I had didn’t pay much at all but we were compensated with living expenses. This meant that I, two other crew members, and our crew leader (all female) were given two sets of bunkbeds in a single room in a cabin which we shared with two guys and a girl working on other projects through other institutions. We were living on a refuge about 45 minutes by car from the nearest town and where we got cell service occasionally if you put your phone in the kitchen window while holding your breath and standing on one foot. We had four guys working with us also who had separate living quarters but who we were regularly paired up with to hike into remote areas where we lost radio contact with the rest of the crew. Looking back on it and reading a study like this really makes me consider how much trust I was putting in these absolute strangers who I agreed to live with for three months without ever meeting beforehand.

    That job was actually pretty plush. A lot of research takes place in much more isolated areas, living in confinement on ships, across international and cultural boarders where you might not even be able to communicate with people outside of your research crew. It’s in many cases the nature of the work. You have to place trust in your coworkers and in whatever system of protection and reporting is available. That system needs to be much more transparent and advertised. It was never mentioned at all to me.

    I would do it again though, even if I was more immediately aware of the potential for something bad to happen. I loved that work, including the remoteness and the bonding that happens when you’re thrown together with people who are genuinely interested in the research. Working in the field has always been my vision of how science happens and we need women out there doing that work. If women, or anyone, feel like they can’t participate in some parts of research because it is too great a risk then the scientific community is failing and we have to change.

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