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Big problems at academic field research sites

Since arriving at Harvard I've become close friends with Katie Hinde, who runs the Comparative Lactation Lab, where she uses evolutionary theory, lab studies and field work to study the relationship between mother's milk and child development. Katie is an active blogger and Tweets as @mammals_suck

As a field researcher, she and her collaborators became all too aware of the problem of sexual harassment and assault at distant field sites where ethical standards and reporting protocols are not often made explicit and bad behavior is often rife. To quantify just how prevalent sexual harassment/assault is at scientific field sites, they conducted a scientific survey of their field. Think of it as an anthropological field study of field anthropologists. However, their respondents weren't limited to just field anthropology, and they ended up having respondents across 31 different social, life, and physical sciences. Their refereed journal article was published in PLOS ONE today. 

Here's the press release:

Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE): Trainees Report Harassment and Assault

For many social, life, and earth science disciplines, conducting research in field settings is an integral component of scholarship. However, anecdotes shared via email or whispered in the corners of hotel conference rooms suggested that sexual harassment and assault were common experiences for many young scientists, especially women. Biological anthropologists Kate Clancy (UIUC), Robin Nelson (Skidmore), Julienne Rutherford (UIC), and Katie Hinde (Harvard) set out to explore more deeply the pervasiveness of these experiences and what the results they published on July 16, 2014 in PLOS ONE are a sobering wake-up call.

Image from McGill Africa Field Summer 
Building on a preliminary study conducted in 2013,  the team surveyed 666 respondents, both men and women, and found that not only were codes of conduct or sexual harassment policies largely absent in field settings, but that harassment and assault were not rare occurrences. Nearly three-quarters of respondents were aware that harassment or assault had been committed at field sites where they worked. Even more disturbing, 64% of respondents reported they had personally been a target of sexual harassment; 22% indicated they had been sexually assaulted.  Women were three and a half times more likely than men to be targets of harassment and assault. Further, the targets were overwhelmingly students and postdocs at the earliest stages of their academic careers: over 90% of women and 70% of men were trainees or employees at the time that they were targeted. . Robin Nelson argues, “The suggestion that these are isolated incidents or rare occurrences is not borne out by the data. This is a pervasive phenomenon affecting many researchers, especially those with the most to lose and the least recourse.”

Field settings typically occur at a distance from a researcher’s home institution, and frequently, very far from their home country. This separation from daily norms often leads to a “what happens in the field, stays in the field” attitude. However, Kate Clancy points out,  “The field site is a workplace, and sexual harassment and assault create a hostile work environment. If you are on constant high alert because you have been harassed or you are at a site where you know it happens, it drains your cognitive reserves and makes you less effective at your job. When this happens disproportionately to female trainees, it becomes a potential mechanism driving women from science.”  

Women tended to be targeted by people senior to them in the professional hierarchy, for example, principal investigators and site directors. Men tended to be targeted by peers. Previous work by other researchers has shown that being targeted by one’s superior in the workplace has more severe impact on psychological well-being and job performance than when the perpetrator is a peer, suggesting that women may be even more burdened by the phenomena of workplace sexual aggression. Rutherford said, “Many people in our discipline will be surprised that this kind of abuse is still occurring, thinking it was all in the past. Sadly, that’s not the case. And women are still getting the message that they are not welcome as full members in academic society.”

The authors conclude that clarifying and enforcing codes of conduct, and establishing actionable mechanisms for reporting sexual harassment and assault could go a long way to moving the needle. Katie Hinde says “The discussion that emerges from these results provides an opportunity for our professional communities to come together and effect solutions to improve the experiences of our trainees and colleagues.”

Q: What are the main findings of your research?
A: Sexual harassment and assault are common experiences in fieldwork settings. Nearly 2/3 of respondents reported being harassed; nearly a quarter reported being assaulted.

Q: Who are the targets?
A: Women were 3.5 times more likely than men to be the targets of harassment and assault. Among both men and women,  students and postdoctoral associates were more likely to be targets than were faculty.

Q:  Who are the perpetrators?
A: For women, the perpetrators tended to be people senior to them in the professional hierarchy, people like advisors, principal investigators, or site managers. For men, the perpetrators tended to be peers.

Q: What might be some ways to reduce the number of incidences?
A: Very few respondents indicated the presence of any field site-specific codes of conduct, sexual harassment policies, or means by which to report incidences. The development and enforcement of such policies is critical to shedding light on the issue and reducing its prevalence. Because junior women are the primary targets, the education of senior faculty and other supervisors is also key.


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