Sexual harassment and rape in field sciences, part II

A new paper by Kate Clancy and colleagues came out in PLoS One this week, and it paints an alarming picture regarding field work: 64% of survey respondents had personally experienced sexual harassment and 21.7% had been sexually assaulted while doing field work. Those numbers are horrifying, and make it clear that this is a major problem.* As I said in this news piece on the new study, I’ve heard anecdotal reports of sexual harassment and assault in the field, but there was no way of knowing how big the problem was. I can’t say that I’m completely surprised by the numbers, but they’re still eye-opening and a wakeup call that this is a really important problem that needs to be addressed.

Who is being harassed and assaulted? Women were harassed and assaulted predominantly by superiors, whereas harassment and assault of men tended to be primarily by peers at the field site. There is a clear power hierarchy in academia, and this can make people vulnerable to exploitation, perhaps especially in remote locations. Another important result of the study is that survey respondents were generally unaware of how to report such events, or of codes of conduct. Even when the harassment or assault was reported, <20% were satisfied with the outcome of their reporting.

Reading the Clancy et al. article reminded me of this recent post by Acclimatrix, in which she describes her deliberations about whether to go to a remote field site that would provide her with incredible research opportunities, but about which she had serious safety concerns. Needing to worry about personal safety in the field clearly cuts off research opportunities, especially for women.

What can be done about this? The comments thread on my earlier post on this topic (based on the first phase of the Clancy et al. study) has some good suggestions. This comment by Katie Hinde (one of the authors of the Clancy et al. study) has particularly good suggestions: set expectations by establishing principles of community; revisit these principles if you see questionable behavior; provide multiple pathways of reporting. This last one is very important, especially given that the perpetrators tend to be superiors. If someone’s only option is to report to a superior, that is obviously a problem if that superior is the person who is harassing her.

I am still thinking of exactly what to do in light of the results of this study. The first thing is to work on a Principles of Community statement, though I’m unsure of what scale this should be done at. The lab? The department? Another obvious thing is to make sure that people in my program are aware of how to report harassment. Michigan’s standard practice guide related to sexual harassment is here. That guide includes information on where people can report harassment, as well as information on where to receive confidential counseling. According to that site:

An individual may complain to the University about alleged sexually harassing behavior or retaliation by contacting a University official, such as a supervisor; Dean, Director or department head; the Office of Institutional Equity; the appropriate Human Resources Office; the Dean of Students (for students); the Dean’s Office of the Horace H. Rackham Graduate School (for graduate students); the Center for the Education of Women; and the Department of Public Safety. . . . In addition, any member of the University community may utilize appropriate University resources for guidance and support during the investigation process (e.g., Center for the Education of Women, Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center, etc.).

As I said above, given that women tend to be harassed by superiors, it is important to note that there are multiple paths for reporting. But, as was discussed in the comments of my earlier post, and as is noted in the Clancy et al. study, people are often dissatisfied with the outcomes of reporting. I don’t know what can be done about that. But hopefully having more discussions about this and bringing it out into the open more will both make people feel more comfortable with reporting, and will send a message to the perpetrators that this behavior will not be accepted.

Will all of that help? I don’t think this problem will go away, but I do think we can make progress, and any progress on this issue is valuable.

What are your thoughts on this study? Are you (or your department) doing anything in response to it?

 

*I realize that some people will focus on whether the specific numbers are accurate. The authors go into the limitations of their survey method in the paper, which I encourage you to read in full. But something that is important to note is that the authors of the study were told by colleagues that they did not fill out the survey because reliving those experiences would be too painful. These numbers are not necessarily over-estimates, as many people assume.

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17 thoughts on “Sexual harassment and rape in field sciences, part II

  1. Thank you for sharing this article, it’s key findings, and suggesting some solutions. As a non-field researcher, I have often taken for granted the fact that my ability to pursue the ideas that most interest me and my safety do not tradeoff. It is very unfortunate, and likely a significant drag on scientific progress, that many do not have this luxury. Emphasizing community standards, multiple avenues for reporting, and strengthening support resources for victims/survivors seem like important, uncontroversial steps that departments and labs should be able to implement quickly. However, I don’t think we will get anywhere close to solving the sexual harassment problem in academia (particularly the problem of harassment by superiors) if we don’t have stronger recourses and accountability measures against senior faculty perpetrators.

    There seems to be a culture of impunity in many departments surrounding senior tenured faculty, particularly those with significant international stature, whereby reports of even highly egregious conduct (including sexual harassment) are dealt with by a slap on the wrist from the chair, if that. I suspect this is one of the main reasons students and junior researchers don’t complain, particularly in sexual harassment or assault cases, where reporting comes at a high emotional cost.

    In fact, this culture of impunity may even be a more important catalyst for the high incidence of harassment than underreporting itself. Consider the fact that the fraction of the population that has been victims (64%, though probably a bit lower due to the self-selection bias in respondents) is almost certainly far higher than the fraction of the population that has been a perpetrator. This suggests that the stratospheric incidence of sexual harassment in academia is almost certainly being fueled by a small number of serial offenders. Indeed, it seems that many departments have faculty members that are well-known within the department to be frequent perpetrators of sexual harassment or other highly inappropriate behaviors, yet little action is taken beyond the occasional head shake and finger wag in their direction.

    To be fair to all the well-meaning department chairs out there, the academic system in universities is not particularly well set up for effective self-discipline. For example, with chairs often rotating on a regular basis, a fellow senior faculty being disciplined one year could end up being the current chair’s peer or even boss the next year; and nearly always was a peer for many years prior. This suggests a need for accountability from outside the department, though the idea of outside administrative intervention in intradepartmental affairs is often unpopular, and in many situations (e.g. research) where field-specific expertise is critical to effective decision making, rightfully so.

    To me (and this is just my two cents), it seems like the answer has to involve some kind of written departmental, college, or university policy on discipline and due process for sexual harassment, assault, and other types of inappropriate conduct by senior faculty (and everyone else). Though discretion is often seen as sacrosanct in academia (rightly so in many situations), I think removing some of it from chairs in these types of cases would lessen the awkwardness of peer discipline. For example, one policy that I think might be worth considering is suspending (for a period of time commensurate with the severity of the offense, whether it was a repeat offense, etc.) faculty members’ privileges to supervise or take new students following sexual harassment complaints found (via some kind of appropriate due process) to be genuine. I think this would provide perpetrators incentive to clean up their act by hitting them where it often matters most – research; and it also would do something to address the problem of the damaging effect an unsafe lab has on students’ productivity. Thus, a policy like this might not even be such a radical departure from the ‘research is everything’ culture in much of academia. An extra-departmental investigative body for these complaints seems like a good idea too, for similar reasons.

    I’m sure there are lots of other policies/practices that could work, and I apologize if I am re-hashing ideas that are already out there. I am by no means an expert on sexual harassment in academia, nor do I have any personal experience with it. I am just a concerned peer who would like to see this black mark on our profession lifted, and my fellow researchers feel as safe and free to pursue their interests as I do.

    • This is a really thoughtful comment — thank you! You raise some very good points (including that, based on the numbers, there are surely some serious repeat offenders). This comment made me stop and think: “it seems that many departments have faculty members that are well-known within the department to be frequent perpetrators of sexual harassment or other highly inappropriate behaviors, yet little action is taken beyond the occasional head shake and finger wag in their direction.” It made me stop and think because, while I agree with it, of the 5 programs I’ve been in during my academic career, I don’t know of any person who was well-known as a frequent perpetrator of sexual harassment. Have I been lucky in terms of the departments I’ve been in? Am I just not clued in to departmental gossip?

      I was hoping to find a chance for a longer, more thoughtful response this afternoon, but I’ve run out of time, so this will have to do for now!

      • “of the 5 programs I’ve been in during my academic career, I don’t know of any person who was well-known as a frequent perpetrator of sexual harassment.”

        FWIW, the same is true for me.

      • Thinking about this more: it hasn’t been entirely luck. In discussing options over the years, I know that at least some of the advice I was given about whose labs to consider working in took into account what the climate would be like in those labs.

      • There were well known sexual harassment problems at Caltech both before and during my time there. I’m talking about only 3 specific cases, admittedly, but it took some pretty egregious behavior for it to be noticed officially; because of that I’m sure there were more.

    • Re: the possibility that senior faculty can commit sexual harassment or other sexual offenses without fear of consequence, there’s at least one recent exception, involving a very prominent philosopher. A few randomly-googled news reports and commentary on this case:

      http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/03/arts/colin-mcginn-philosopher-to-leave-his-post.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

      http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/roiphe/2013/10/colin_mcginn_sexual_harassment_case_was_the_philosophy_prof_s_story_that.html

      http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2013/06/colin-mcginn-to-resign-from-the-university-of-miami.html

      http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2013/06/reflections-on-the-mcginn-case-and-sexual-harassment-in-academic-philosophy.html

      http://feministphilosophers.wordpress.com/2013/06/04/mcginn-leaving-miami-due-to-improper-emails/

      Just throwing this out there because it’s the only case involving a senior faculty member that I happen to know of. I certainly wouldn’t claim it’s a typical case in any respect.

      • Interesting case, but one that strikes me as different from the cases that are fueling the really high numbers reported in the PLoS One study for two reasons: 1) the severity: I certainly don’t think too many departments have a culture where you can flat out proposition students and get away with it, but I also don’t think 64% of students (or anywhere close to that) have been propositioned by a superior. My guess is that the types of offenders both fueling the high incidence and getting away with it are the ones who make little inappropriate sexual comments here and there about students’ looks, the way they dress, etc., or behave in a touchy feely way that makes students uncomfortable, but that they can claim was intended as a joke or something if they get a negative response from it. 2) the reciprocity: The case of this philosopher strikes me as more of a two-way romantic relationship (though inappropriate nonetheless) gone wrong than the kind of behavior you’d see from someone who’s a serial offender.

        Anyway, thank you both for starting this important conversation on your blog, and I look forward to hearing what other people think too!

  2. This is a really interesting post, thank you for writing it. Unfortunately, I have seen or heard of sexual harassment/assault happening at every stage of my career, from undergraduate to masters and PhD. Many of the incidents happened at field stations and involved undergraduates, but some involved graduate students or staff at the field stations.

    Fortunately, Washington University has taken some appropriate steps to prevent harassment and assault, including mandatory ethics training, workshops and clear guidelines for reporting any incidents. My undergraduate institution has a long history of sexual harassment from male professors to female undergraduate students. A prominent case that happened when I was an undergraduate was resolved as “consensual” relationships between the chair of the department and at least two female students. However, the official report shows that the professor made numerous sexual remarks to the student prior to their relationship. I think that the atmosphere of the university and attitude of the undergraduate students may have prevented female students from reporting professors for inappropriate comments or behaviors.

    Jeremy pointed out a high-profile case of a professor who was punished for his offenses, but I think there are quite a few more. Unfortunately, universities do their best to keep them quiet.

    One aspect that should be investigated further is same-sex sexual harassment or assault. The authors indicated that a majority of individuals reported to be “heterosexual”, but approximately 13% reported to be one of the other five categories (presumably most of these were LGBTQ, and fewer were asexual). Same-sex harassment, especially among males, happens quite often at field stations. The most common that I’ve witnessed is a heterosexual male (usually a peer) harassing another heterosexual male, which was discussed a bit by the authors. These cases are difficult to report, possibly because many guys don’t want to be embarrassed and be forced to discuss the issue with a supervisor. But same-sex harassment among homosexual individuals happens as well. These cases can be even more difficult, because there tends to be a lack of anonymity, and some homosexual people don’t want to be publicly “outed” in a sexual harassment case. I think universities/field stations need to have an independent and anonymous person who is available for people to report harassment cases, instead of relying on department chairs or professors.

    • Thanks for the comment. I am glad to hear that WashU is doing a good job working to prevent this. And I agree that it would be hard for a relationship between an undergrad and professor to be truly consensual. There’s just too much of a power imbalance.

      I agree that we should not overlook same-sex harassment. I think having someone at field stations who is designated as a person to whom harassment can be reported is a good idea. I also think it could be important to indicate that anyone who witnesses harassment should report it — the onus should not be on the victim. The one reason I hesitate about that idea, though, is that the consequences of the report might fall most heavily on the victim, and not giving that person a say in whether to go through that seems problematic to me. Thoughts?

      (Once again, my reply is shorter than I’d hoped. I am juggling too many things this week!)

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  4. I’ve received a few replies to this post via email, from people who’ve experienced harassment during their careers. One of those emails indicated I could post it without attribution, which is what I’m doing here. But first, I will say that these emails support that 1) harassment occurs regularly in ecology, 2) people either do not feel like they can report the harassment, or reported it and found the response lacking, and 3) harassment can have long-term effects on careers.

    The email:
    My response is that you (and Jeremy) have been really lucky. Perhaps
    this is due to you being younger than me, but I doubt it.

    I have been in six academic departments during my career as a graduate
    student/postdoc/faculty. At least two of them have featured faculty
    members well-known to have engaged in sexual assault (defined as
    unwanted touching). In the most egregious case, the professor was
    eventually censured, but only after many very serious complaints. All
    but one of my departments have/had professors who commonly engaged in
    sexual harassment and the sole exception nonetheless included faculty
    members who openly engaged in gender-discrimination against women. All
    of these situations definitely impacted my career as a scientist, either
    directly or indirectly.

    • I agree with your commenter – Meg and Jeremy are lucky. My experience is in geology, where I doubt things are much different. I’ve been closely associated with three departments. One featured “Dr. Tight Squeeze” – a male prof well known for his tight hugs of female students. Another featured a male prof that slept with female students. The later was eventually let go for sexual harassment, so in some cases the system works. OTOH, he was untenured with maybe 3 years under his belt when he was let go. Suppose he’d been Dr. Big Grant? Then there are the profs that have almost all female grad students. What’s up with that?

      But there’s more to it than a misbehaving grabby prof. The social context of science departments – particularly those with field components – encourages this harassment in many ways.

      It’s common for male profs / grad students to hook up with female grad students / undergrads, sometimes leading to long term successful relationships. On the one hand, that’s fine. But on the other hand, it’s setting up the power dynamic of relationships between men and women in departments. It makes the “Dominant Man” dynamic routine and acceptable. And while consensual relationships are fine, the way they bleed over into the academic situation is often extremely unprofessional and strongly reinforces the “dominant man” dynamic.

      For example, during my undergrad field school, the TA hooked up with one of the female students. He spent the entire six weeks working exclusively with her, with no response whatsoever from the faculty. The same thing happened while I was a graduate student at another institution – another graduate student TA hooked up with an undergrad during field school and spent most of the field school exclusively with her, again without response from the faculty. In the first case, no long term relationship ensued – so was the “hook up” really that mutual? In the second case, I believe a long term relationship did follow, but the behavior during field school was completely unprofessional.

      And of course there’s the Prof / Grad student relationship. Near the end of my masters, one of the female undergrads hooked up with a prof and went on to do her masters with him (I think they’re married now). Was it appropriate for him to be her thesis advisor or even be on her committee, let alone have her in a class? No. But no one even blinked. Later I ran into a horrible break up between prof and grad student-turned-prof. The man had hooked up with a new grad student!!!! He was one of those profs known for taking on exclusively female grad students.

      It’s not just field school. Sexual harassment occurs in an academic context that strongly reinforces the idea that sexual advances by male “bosses” are perfectly normal and to be expected. If these departments want to eliminate sexual harassment, they have to crack down on interdepartmental relationships. While they can’t stop these relationships, they should make it clear that students are never allowed to be supervised in any way by a person with whom they have an intimate relationship – not as a classroom instructor, not as a teaching assistant, not as a research assistant, and most definitely not as a thesis advisor.

      • “While they can’t stop these relationships, they should make it clear that students are never allowed to be supervised in any way by a person with whom they have an intimate relationship – not as a classroom instructor, not as a teaching assistant, not as a research assistant, and most definitely not as a thesis advisor.”

        Absolutely. My impression is that most universities do have policies to that effect, though I’m sure enforcement varies. And probably like most people who’ve been around academia for a while, I’m aware of a number of cases of consensual faculty-student relationships that have violated these policies.

        You make a good point that even such consensual relationships can create an atmosphere in which non-consensual behavior gets condoned.

      • The term ‘consensual’ seems to be slippery, here. It can mean anything from romantic love on both sides to a (tacit) deal to trade sex against career sponsoring. The latter surely is on the verge of fostering non-consensual behavior.

      • I guess I feel like a policiy that is routinely violated is a policy that doesn’t exist. I think this is a pretty strong hint as to why people that report violations are dissatisfied with the results of that reporting: because there are no results.

        At any rate, I doubt much will change because of this study. I’m a man. I’ve never had any problems. But if I was a woman, I sure as hell wouldn’t report them unless they’re very serious and you have a very strong chance of prosecution. My advice to women experiencing “garden variety” harassment (if there is such a thing) from faculty or grad students would be: a) avoid the person if possible; b) if it’s not possible to avoid the person (ie, that person is your thesis supervisor), carefully plan how to have an unexpected change in research interest and switch supervisors or switch schools. It won’t hurt your career. I know several people that switched schools in mid-stream. No problem. OK, so maybe you’ll have to start your thesis over. But your coursework will transfer and you’ll be much happier as a result. And if you’ve had a problem with your first supervisor, choose a female the second time around!

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