64% Of Surveyed Scientists Have Experienced Harassment During Fieldwork

Female trainees are particularly vulnerable

archaeology dig
Scientific fieldwork can be exciting, but can also create an environment where sexual harassment occurs a new study finds Ali Kabas/Corbis

A study released last week in the scientific journal PLOS One provided a horrifying glance behind the curtain of academic fieldwork. In their study, the scientists surveyed others scientists who were involved with in-the-field research about incidents of sexual harassment. They found that 64 percent of those surveyed had been harassed during research outings.

Of the 666 scientists--primarily archaeologists and anthropologists--who took the online survey, 71 percent of female respondents and 41 percent of male respondents said they've experienced harassment. A total of 26 percent of the female respondents and 6 percent of the male respondents further said they had been assaulted.

The study found that female trainees were primary targets, and were typically harassed by senior members of the research team. Male trainees, however, were more often targeted by their peers.  

Astronomer John Johnson of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, told Science: “We are badly in need of change. How can we encourage little girls to study science if their future academic careers will be marked by not only the normal struggles of solving the mysteries of the universe, but also fending off professors who make unwelcome sexual advances?”

By nature, scientific fieldwork tends to take place in areas that aren’t close to the scientist’s home base, which can make sexual harassment hard to report, as USA Today reports

The study brought to attention the lack of support systems or reporting channels for field trainees who have been sexually assaulted. It's the responsibility of the universities to receive and adjudicate sexual assault cases, but trainees don't have easy access to them because they're in a different state or country. It then becomes a case of reporting to the lead researchers or professors — but sometimes these are the perpetrators of the assault, the researchers said.

"We are the first researchers to characterize the experiences of scientists at field sites, and our findings are troubling," said anthropologist Kate Clancy, the lead scientist on the study, in a press release.

If you are on constant high alert because you have been harassed or you are at a site where you know it happens regularly, it drains your cognitive reserves and makes you less effective at your job. No one can work well under those conditions, and we can't ask trainees to keep doing so. Field sciences are intellectually impoverished when hostile field sites drive out underrepresented scientists.

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