Female researchers commonly face sexual harassment, just like most women

New data show that threatening comments and high rates of assault by superiors plague scientific field studies

Published July 17, 2014 8:32PM (EDT)

           (Shutterstock / Pressmaster)
(Shutterstock / Pressmaster)

Most women experience some form of sexual harassment throughout their lives, so it's not particularly surprising that the same goes for female academic researchers. What is surprising (and upsetting and unacceptable), though, is the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault in scientific field studies, where women already are seriously underrepresented. According to new data reported in the journal PLOS ONE, a majority of researchers across various disciplines reported having encountered inappropriate sexual remarks, comments about physical beauty or jokes about cognitive sex differences in the field. Most of the time, these comments were made by superiors and directed at young women, but several men also reported facing harassment.

Kate Clancy, the study's lead author and a professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois, conducted an online survey of 142 men and 516 women, all of whom had experience conducting field studies in anthropology, archaeology, geology and other scientific disciplines. Participants ranged in age, level of education and professional status, and overall their experiences in the field offered a single upsetting portrait of widespread unwanted sexual attention. 64 percent of respondents said they had experienced sexual harassment during their time in the field, and more than a fifth reported that they had been victims of sexual assault, which included unwanted touching, physical threats and rape. Of those who reported some sort of abuse, 90 percent were female undergraduates, graduate students or postdoctoral researchers at the time (Clancy calls them "trainees"). 5 of the participants experienced harassment in the field while they were in high school.

Additionally, many of the female respondents reported being targeted by researchers superior to them in rank, which the study points out can have a profound negative impact. "Previous work by other researchers has shown that being targeted by one's superior in the workplace has a more severe impact on psychological well-being and job performance than when the perpetrator is a peer," study c0-author Julienne Rutherford said. "This suggests that women may be even more burdened by the phenomenon of workplace sexual aggression."

And in the case of academic fieldwork, which is often required to complete a degree in a scientific discipline, women might be more likely to deal with that workplace burden by simply removing themselves from the field entirely. As a result, Clancy and her colleagues worry that field harassment effectively drives women out of science by putting them in a toxic environment, with little recourse in instances of abuse. It's understandable that, in the face of unwanted sexual attention, women might choose to pursue other fields -- but it's also a huge loss for them and for science. That's why it's never enough simply to open the doors of historically male-dominated institutions to women and hope for gender equality; women have to actually be treated equally and with respect to achieve substantive change.

"Fieldwork is often what stirs the first interest in science in a young person, and research has shown that scientists who do more fieldwork write more papers and get more grants," Clancy said. "We are the first researchers to characterize the experiences of scientists at field sites, and our findings are troubling ... 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."


By Jenny Kutner

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