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.
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.”