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.