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Sexual harassment and scientific fieldwork

Excavating a cemetery in Barrow, AK. One of the best crews I've ever been on.

Excavating a cemetery in Barrow, AK. One of the best crews I’ve ever been on.


My friend and colleague, Julienne Rutherford, and her co-authors Kathryn Clancy, Robin Nelson, and Katie Hinde have just published a groundbreaking study on fieldwork experiences among women in science. Disturbingly (though unsurprisingly for those of us who have done fieldwork), a majority (72.4%) of respondents to their survey “reported that they had directly observed or been told about the occurrence of other field site researchers and/or colleagues making inappropriate or sexual remarks at their most recent or most notable field site.” Further, a majority (64%) reported that they had personally experienced sexual harassment. (It’s important to note that men also responded to this survey to report experiencing and/or witnessing harassment, although at a lower frequency than women.)

This is one of those rare cases where I don’t need to recap the findings of the article, because the authors have published it in an open-access journal (PLOS ONE), and so I encourage you to go read the study itself here, and the Science news report about it by Ann Gibbons here.

Fieldwork is an occasional, but very important part of my job, and from my experiences I can attest that junior people in the field, particularly students, are extremely vulnerable. I applaud these researchers for calling attention to this problem, and I hope that it will be the beginning of a very important conversation about how to make fieldwork safer for everyone.

*** UPDATE: This piece, by Andrew David Thaler, is a must-read. I’d been debating about whether to write about the Richard Feynman controversy going on in the last few days, but instead I’ll just recommend that you check out the links in the first paragraph, particularly to Matthew Francis’ post on the subject.

About Jennifer Raff

Scientist, martial artist, reader. In pursuit of the extraordinary.


7 thoughts on “Sexual harassment and scientific fieldwork

  1. Brilliant, so pleased to see someone shining light upon this issue.
    As a fellow scientist who regularly attends field work, I definitely can agree that we often get dropped into a man’s world. It is interesting to see the results, I will be very mindful in the future field work.
    Stay incredible! x

    Posted by chaannie | July 16, 2014, 7:03 pm
  2. From the study synopsis; “Few respondents were aware of mechanisms to report incidents; most who did report were unsatisfied with the outcome.”

    In some ways I find this worse than the individual incidents of harrassment themselves. It’s one thing for an incident to occur, but for the authority that should be protecting the victims to either fail to act or act ineffectively is tantamount to endorsing the harrassment. This is particularly true given the power imbalance in most of these incidents. Where power is not balanced by accountability for its use, corruption is very likely to follow.

    Posted by The Ethics Of | July 16, 2014, 7:25 pm
  3. I’m glad this conversation is happening, though kind of horrified that this is a problem in 2014. I guess I’m naïf, being a cis-man.

    We’ve been having a similar conversation in the world of software engineering (not just about harassment, but about sexism in general). There’s a long anecdotal record here: http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Timeline_of_incidents ). I don’t know of quantitative research, though. Maybe now that we have a growing number of statisticians in the industry, someone will run a study.

    Posted by quinn@fairpath.com | July 16, 2014, 9:20 pm
  4. I’m glad this light is being shed. Perhaps it is a reason why more young women don’t go in to STEM fields. While enrolling more women in those fields is important (I would hazard that greater gender diversity leads to less harassment), it is so important to make sure that men have the knowledge and vocabulary to step up. I wonder how many of the men who reported witnessing sexual harassment did anything about it….

    Posted by placlair | July 17, 2014, 7:19 am
  5. Anecdote: A graduation requirement at UCSD was an ethics course. One of the topics covered sexual harassment. The professor I had for this course was notorious for regularly slapping the butts of the waitresses (students) at the faculty dining hall and referring to them as sweetheart, honey etc. in his requests for more wine.

    Posted by Carina | July 18, 2014, 6:42 pm
  6. “We conducted an internet-based survey of field scientists” Internet based surveys are not a very reliable form of survey. Besides, I find any study in which all four of the people are women, and at least 3 have the conflicting interests of being either feminist or female-biased should be called into question.

    Besides, how did they know the people they were surveying were even scientists? Oh, that’s easy, they simply asked them to prove it by giving an E-mail address. How did they recruit people to do the survey? They posted it on Facebook, Twitter, and the authors themselves posted it to a few news sites. What link? This link https://illinois.edu/sb/sec/34550 Freely available for anyone in the public to just jump in and use.

    Peer review would have a /field day/ ripping up this poor, pathetic, unprofessional excuse for propaganda. Some of the authors had a notable agenda. The methodology sucks. And it isn’t peer reviewed.

    I call shenanigans.

    Posted by Lucy Walcott | August 1, 2014, 3:30 am
  7. Great post, explaining the potential illegal barriers on fieldwork for women in science. Sadly, this scenario plays out every day in offices, in hospitals, universities and in stores around the world. We need to work more on handling the moral obligations for preventing sexual harassment on workplaces.
    Check this link bellow: http://www.franknicholas.com/sexual-harassment-lawyer-research/

    Posted by Alice | October 15, 2014, 6:04 am

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Jennifer Raff

Jennifer Raff

In pursuit of the extraordinary

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