Sexual Harassment and Rape in Field Sciences

Kate Clancy and others are doing very important work to bring the problem of sexual harassment and rape while doing fieldwork to people’s attention. The link above gives Clancy’s summary of the work, and this one at ScienceInsider gives another summary. Clancy and colleagues have surveyed bioanthropologists, and, according to Clancy’s blog post, found

59% of our sample reported [sexual harassment], with women having a three times greater risk than men. 19% of our sample reported sexual assault, but while women did again have greater numbers, the male sample size in this group (n = 1) was too small to test this statistically.

Equally disturbing is this quote from Clancy’s post:

For both harassment and assault, we found most of the perpetrators were individuals superior in the hierarchy than the victims– so for instance, a faculty member harassing a graduate student.

Kate’s post is excellent, eye-opening, and disturbing. I think it is something all ecologists should read.

The survey is now open to other disciplines. “Ecology” is not specifically listed, but options include “Biology”, “Zoology”, and “other”. You can find the survey here.

Hopefully this work will open up discussions of the problem of sexual harassment and rape – and ways to address the problem – to fields beyond bioanthropology, including ecology.

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18 thoughts on “Sexual Harassment and Rape in Field Sciences

  1. Yikes! Maybe I’m just naive but I find the second part especially disturbing. But definitely talking about is an important step to prevention. So thank you Meg.

    • Yeah, I think probably many (most?) people don’t think much about this and, if they do, would probably assume that the perpetrator was someone local to the field site. I really do hope this will help open up a conversation about this issue in ecology. Over the years, I have heard enough to think that this is a conversation that really needs to happen.

  2. Meg, what advice would you give to ecology students, and their supervisors, for dealing with the issues you raise in this post? For both male and female students, and male and female supervisors. The issue you raise is a *really* important one, and one that’s hardly ever talked about in ecology in my experience. And there’s a temptation here to focus on what female students can do to avoid being harassed or assaulted, which gives short shrift to the things everyone can and should do to make sure harassment and assault doesn’t happen.

    Also, what instructions and training do you give to your students and postdocs about how to conduct themselves and supervise the undergraduates and others working under their supervision? And what instructions and training do you give to those who will be working under the supervision of members of your lab? Not just about sexual harassment and assault, but more broadly in terms of responsibilities of supervisors and supervised. And how do you provide that training and instruction? I’ve started talking to my grad students, and the undergrads they’ll be supervising, both together and separately. I want to make sure that all concerned know that they can, and should, come directly to me with issues, and that this is not a bother to me and does not represent a failure on their parts to work independently.

    • Excellent questions. I wish I had good answers, especially because, while this survey (and blog post) focus on harassment in field settings, it goes on elsewhere, too (e.g., within labs or departments, at conferences, etc.). I think your idea to meet with both the mentors and mentees separately makes a lot of sense. I usually have weekly meetings with each of my grad students and postdocs, but then usually have meetings with undergrads jointly with their grad student or postdoc mentor. I think it’s a good idea to start having a separate meeting with each undergrad at least a couple of times a semester — and making sure I get across the message that they should not hesitate to come to me with issues.

      Something that has been problematic since moving to Michigan is that the location of my office means I cannot leave my door open and get any work done. It bothers me that my open door policy is now figurative rather than literal. Lab members definitely stop in less often. The good news (for this, at least) is that my lab and office are actually being moved soon, and my new office location will allow me to leave my door open. But I think even just being in my office is still too much of a barrier for some people, especially undergrads who tend to be more hesitant (in my experience). What really helps there is to spend time in the lab or field with those students, but my time to do that is increasingly limited, unfortunately. I should give more thought to how to foster that dynamic more.

      And I realize I haven’t answered your big questions because, unfortunately, I can’t think of good answers right now. Shedding light on the issue is definitely important. But that’s not sufficient. I wish I knew what was. Do you have ideas?

      • Well, I suppose one thing to do would to have one or more group meetings where you talk as as group with everyone who will be on a field crew about the kinds of problems that can arise. Maybe have them read Kate’s post as part of their background reading in preparation for the meeting. If nothing else, that’s one way to let your trainees know that the possibility of harassment and even assault isn’t just some far-fetched hypothetical. It also sends a signal that you as the PI take the issue seriously.

        But I’m not really the best person to make suggestions with regard to the specific issues of sexual harassment and assault, because I admit they’re not ones I’ve ever spoken to my undergraduate or graduate students about. I’ve talked to them a bit about the problems that arise from *consensual* relationships between supervisors and those under their supervision. I’ve talked to them about the responsibilities of supervisors and supervised more broadly, though those talks focus more on things like workload, the need for advance planning of tasks and task allocation, etc. And yeah, probably my best idea is meeting with them individually as well as collectively to emphasize the importance of coming to me with problems (scientific and otherwise), hopefully before they even become problems.

        Surely there is someone else out there who’s written about this online and has suggested advice?

      • Another idea might be to ask if your university has a person or office dedicated to supporting women, or to addressing sexual harassment. See if they have advice, or offer training sessions, or have someone who could meet with your lab group.

  3. This summer will be the first time leading a team in the field as a PI. I have other people on my team, all women. While the community we will be working in is safe, I can’t help but wonder if I am making that assessment from a position of privilege. I never really thought about this aspect of leading a lab, but I find myself increasingly spending time thinking and worrying about ways to keep my team safe.

  4. Hi Jeremy et al. From reviewing the literature, in addition to the excellent things suggested above, that I think may be worth considering. Helpfully, meta-analyses of sexual harassment in the workplace suggest that implementing a “principles of community” or code of conduct can set expectations very well, although personally I like the phrase principles of community better. People are very good at performing to expectations, especially in academia. Plus this way if you see anyone behaving questionably you can gently suggest that they revisit the principles of community and that if they have any questions they can follow-up with you. This affords people the ability to self-regulate more minor behaviors that may lead to chilly climate. I read one prospective study report that showed that explicit sexual harassment training actually can make people trivialize the problem (yikes!). Also along with the principles of community documents (that a lot of universities already have and can be found through their human resources portal) you can also provide multiple pathways for reporting- directly up the hierarchy or obliquely to a home campus omsbuds office. This way if there is the perception that a report up the hierarchy is tricky they is an alternative pathway. Together these things signal importantly that there is vigilance and responsivity to this issues from the PI. I know one PI who keeps an eye on her field dynamic and if she is concerned she assigns weekly seminar readings about the sex-differentiated psychological biases about interpreting signals- that studies have shown men tend to over-interpret and women tend to under-interpret friendliness, which can at times problematically escalate. Just to be clear, these are just ideas, but I think its really important and fantastic that these conversations are happening at all and especially across disciplines!

    • Given how such training tends to be implemented in my experience, I can, unfortunately, see how sexual harassment training can lead to the issue being trivialized. When the training involves making people watch a video of a ridiculously over-the-top scenario, it becomes hard not to laugh at it. The University of Michigan has a theater group that has plays on topics related to diversity, climate, etc. They seem to be very good and effective. I should look to see if they have something along these lines.

      I like the idea to start with principles of community and to assign readings that might help. Providing multiple pathways to report makes sense, too, but I wonder if the fear that comes with the academic hierarchy would make people avoid using that.

      Thanks for your thoughts!

      • I think many people will be scared or reluctant to report., but that the more we talk about it maybe people will become more confident and there will be much less to report. I think making information about pathways for reporting known can very effectively improve the climate and may be a preventative measure. People are exquisitely sensitive to cues of others paying attention http://rsbl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/2/3/412.full and so may be on better behavior if its clear that’s the expectation. I may be overly optimistic at the efficacy, but I think its a relatively low-cost step to implement and has a lot of flexibility so that each team/site can develop their own principles of community. And I think that is good because Elinor Ostrom’s research on local management of resources, rather than edicts from distant institutions, has shown that local solutions produce better results.

      • I am curious on the topic of reporting. My one experience with this is when I advised a friend to report something that had clearly crossed the line (and walked over with her to support her while she did it). The university office dealing with this (it was an office explicitly set up to deal with harassment) was very supportive while she was there and laid out the options. But as things advanced and the home department got involved and asked for advice the same university office started advising the department to maintain a neutral stance to the two parties involved and switched the role it was playing for my friend. I understand innocent until proven guilty and all. But my perspective was there was further victimization that happened from engaging the official university apparatus. If I were ever a university president, I would clearly separate the functions of supporting people and giving legal advice into different departments. Kind of shocks me this isn’t done already.

        I really hate to put this out there because the last thing I want to do is encourage lack of reporting and accountability for those at fault. But I am not sure the first place I would turn the next time something arose would be the heart of the university machine. And I am sure this crosses the mind of many who think about reporting something. I think if I ever had to advise somebody to do this again, I would advise to report it to their immediate superior (or somebody lateral to their superior who they knew personally and thought would be an advocate) to provide a buffer against bureaucratic impartiality. I wonder if anybody else has a suggestion on the best place to go to report?

        It also makes me realize that I’ve never made it clear to my students that they are welcome to come to me with any concerns about this and that I will respect their confidentiality or be their biggest loudest advocate as they wish. I hope they would realize this (and I think they generally see me as on their side and ask them every week if they have any concerns). But its my fault for not making this specific and explicit. Thanks again for bringing this up Meg.

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