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Context and Variation

Context and Variation

Human behavior, evolutionary medicine… and ladybusiness.

I had no power to say that s not okay: Reports of harassment and abuse in the field

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It was getting late, the student center all but deserted. My old friend and I had a table to ourselves, awkwardly wedged among the chairs that had been set in a circle for an invited talk I had just given to some undergraduates about issues for women in science.

My friend alluded to having a challenging field site. Her face, which was usually open and bright, with a smile so infectious and delighted and thoroughly optimistic you couldn’t help but love her, was subdued, careful. She talked around it for a while. Then she told me of her sexual assault in the field.

The table felt too big. I can’t remember if I actually reached across it to take her hand or not, because suddenly the distance between us seemed so great. I was at a loss to know how to help or support my friend.

Another day, another story. Again I’m out of town to give a talk, and an acquaintance and I are borrowing someone’s office for a meeting. This person is eager to meet, bright and interesting and motivated to do her research. There is a shift in her research trajectory, and I ask about it. Without skipping a beat, she explains the systematic sexual harassment she experienced at her field site, and the ways in which her lack of complicity led to her not being welcome there. There were obvious ways in which her departure from this field site has hurt her career. I was struck by her furious, fiery expression.

You know these women, because they have shared their stories on my blog. Since then, my blog comment thread, email inbox, my office and several conferences became spaces where I was bombarded with these stories. These women almost never named names, just rushed through their story as quickly as possible in a torrent of words, each story horrifying in its own way. Some were angry, some were devastated. Some were just numb, not meeting my eyes, telling the story in a monotone. These were fresh encounters from just the last field season, or had happened years ago. Each one felt like a new physical hurt when I heard them.

From there, Heather Shattuck-Heidorn and M. Elle Saine invited me to participate in an American Association of Physical Anthropology symposium on ethics. They wanted me to put together a talk on ethics in field site management, as my blog posts had opened a bit of a can of worms in the field. Yet I struggled to figure out how to speak to my colleagues about the chilly climate at field sites when all I had were confidential anecdotes and two blog posts.

Biological anthropology has a long, feminist tradition of women and men interrogating sexism in the workplace, as well as researching and prioritizing female behaviors and friendships and reproductive strategies in human evolution. If there is any field-based science that has the tools to look at the chilly climate at field sites, it is us.

 

Our project: “I never thought anyone would take this seriously”

This is where my great collaborators come in: Katie Hinde, Robin Nelson, and Julienne Rutherford. Their analytical expertise and passion for improving conditions for women in science, not to mention our deep friendship, made them the natural choices to make sure this project was done to the highest possible technical standard. It also meant none of us would have to hold on to these stories alone. Over the last few months we have supported each other and helped carry the burden of the horrible stories we now know, and made sure our preliminary analyses were performed with rigor.

The surveys we have done so far are quite simple: we collected personal and field demographics to tell us about the research participants and their field sites. We asked some questions about factors found in the literature that correlate with a chilly climate for women (e.g., gender segregation, differences in treatment between men and women, gender ratios), events that the literature characterizes as sexual harassment (e.g., comments about physical appearance, unwanted sexual jokes, comments about gender differences in aptitude), and events the literature characterizes as sexual assault (e.g., physical contact that was unwanted or where the victim felt she could not say no). Thinking leadership and personal relationships might be additional factors that explain the incidence of harassment, we asked about traits that exemplify good and bad field site directors, and in the cases of harassment or assault, the rank of the perpetrator.

The interviews are a chance for research participants to elaborate on their survey answers, share stories from the field, and connect for themselves the proximate and more cultural and structural factors that help explain the good or bad experiences they had in the field.

We have 124 participants so far for the survey, and 16 phone interviews. 79% of the sample is female, 86% white, 85% heterosexual, and 81% from the United States, though 15 countries are represented. Because of the small number of participants from underrepresented groups, we are not breaking down the demographics too much, as a way of protecting participants’ identities. Biological anthropology is, after all, a fairly small discipline.

What I’m sharing today are the very preliminary results from the first wave of recruitment. We have only begun to look at relationships between personal demographics and incidences of abuse for the quantitative work, and some core themes that unite the interviews in the qualitative work.

 

Quantitative analysis: “I had no way to say ‘that’s not okay’”

One of the first questions we had was whether there was a perception bias in the reporting of harassment in our sample – many people often assume women are more sensitive or even overreport harassment. So we looked at how many women and men observed sexual harassment at their field site.

We found no difference in the rate at which women and men reported sexual harassment in our sample.

So then we looked at the rate at which women and men experience sexual harassment and assault. 59% of our sample reported it, 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.

Incidence of sexual harassment in our sample among women and men.

Who perpetrates sexual harassment according to our sample.

But we also wanted to know who perpetrated these acts. In academia, it is normal for there to be a hierarchy from undergraduate, to graduate student, to postdoc, faculty, and tenured faculty. And people above you in the hierarchy can have control over your success in your career. 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.

 

Qualitative analysis: “And I just didn’t know what to do”

The purpose of the interviews was twofold: first, we wanted to give respondents a chance to share their stories, and second, we hoped to identify some themes that seemed to differentiate the good and bad field site experiences. What factors seemed to crop up again and again in the respondents that report harassment? Do respondents frame their experiences and observations in common ways? Are there cultural or structural issues impeding progress on these issues?

How the participant framed her experience. We found that many victims identified themselves as “young,” “naïve,” or “green,” and also questioned or blamed themselves at some point during or after their harassment. Both victims and witnesses to abuse, harassment and assault described themselves as paralyzed or scared. Several female respondents described feeling targeted or under scrutiny due to their gender. And sadly, many respondents expressed frustration that issues of abuse, harassment and assault interfered with their work, expressing different refrains of “I just wanted to do my science!”

One male participant detailed systemic, institutional abuse that happened at his site, with too many graphic, potentially identifying stories to impart here. But again and again, he came back to the awful helplessness he felt at having to bear witness to constant attacks on his colleagues, and his understandable fear of the consequences:

“As a man who was ambitious at the time and didn't know how to intervene, it was a weird place to be because these are my friends. We spent time in the field so you can't build friendships anywhere else and I was unable to, or paralyzed for fear that my dissertation would be shut down. I relied on the site and access would be shut down, my career would have been shut down, if I was going to stand up to this guy.”

In fact, fear of retribution, and in some cases, stories of retribution for speaking up, were common among witnesses and victims.

Characterization of interpersonal relationships. Many respondents observed that there were gender disparities in the assignment of tasks, like cooking, cleaning and shopping, but also that there were disparities in terms of access to resources. In some cases only men were allowed the more enjoyable or lucrative assignments, or only men had access to certain specimens.

Another observation that was common was that having women in power helped reduce inappropriate or sexist comments, unfair conditions, and harassment. This wasn’t a universal, because women were perpetrators too, but when men were the perpetrators, the presence of women in leadership positions changed their behavior.

Sometimes field site directors want to be supportive, but privilege the data being collected over the safety of their students. One female respondent described an assault and attempted rape by a fellow field site worker that she fought off and reported to her field site director.

“So I talked to the director that night and he was asking me what I should do… because he has known this guy for ten years… He was like, ‘in different cultures that's not abnormal.’ But I was like this is a violation….

“He did talk to the guy he just said that he needed to stay away from me and… I don't know how much it worked…. Because at night we'd have a fire… and he'd still find his way to come and sit next to me and sit there and try to pet my arm and I'd have to tell him to stop, but I think I put the director in a weird position… especially since this was sort of our liaison to this community… if you piss him off and he stopped cooperating, then we could have real problems with what we were doing.”

Even as this respondent identifies her assault and attempted rape as a “violation,” she places blame on herself for putting her director in the position of having to decide what to do and risk the research project.

Overall climate. This quote also identifies a broad issue that cuts across many field sites, related to how one adapts to or handles cultural differences. Male and female respondents noticed how men often benefitted from being at a field site in a culture more patriarchal than the one where they had grown up, and that some men gladly adopted those cultural norms while in the field. Others described the constant tension of dealing with these cultural differences in what they perceived was their professional space. Several respondents also noted explicit, sometimes constant, comments about different capabilities of women and men in the field.

Finally, a number of female respondents articulated a real sadness for the way they felt they were being, or in some cases had already been, pushed out of biological anthropology. Perhaps the most poignant response came from the interview of a current female graduate student:

“It’s not like someone specifically says, ‘You’re not welcome here anymore.’ It’s just a constant, subtle attitude that makes you feel like you don’t want to be there anymore. And that made me really mad, too, that the idea that someone could take something that I thought would be great, and sort of take it away from me and say, ‘Yeah, this isn’t for you. You’re not welcome here.’”

The question is: do we want to impoverish our discipline and push out bright, motivated young students, by continuing to allow abuse and harassment?

Conclusions: “It’s all about who’s watching”

We heard many reports of women not being allowed to do certain kinds of field work, being driven or warned away from particular field sites, and being denied access to research materials that were freely given to men (and men who were given access were the ones telling us these things). Ultimately, not being able to go to certain field sites, having to change field sites, or not being able to access research materials means women are denied the opportunity to ask certain research questions in our field. This has the potential to limit the CVs of women and given them permanently lesser research trajectories. This can lead to not getting jobs, or getting lower-tier jobs. It also means certain research questions may get primarily asked by one gender, and reducing the diversity of people doing research has been shown to reduce the diversity and quality of the work.

The culture at these problematic field sites isn’t going to change just because we will it. Those of us in power need to implement policies that will protect individuals most at risk, and help create field site conditions that minimize risk altogether. We need human subjects approval, animal research approval, data management plans, lab safety plans, postdoc mentoring plans in order to conduct research. It’s time to require some sort of code of conduct for researchers at field sites, with clear mechanisms to make it easy for people to report harassment.

Too many of us, the authors of this study included, have told ourselves and others that we just need to “suck it up,” just endure one more day, to keep our heads down and power through. Survival in field-based academic science can’t just be about who can put up with or witness abuse the longest – that is not an appropriate metric to measure who is the best at their science. From here on out, let’s commit to opening up conversations about these issues, rather than avoiding or talking around them. Let’s continue to be the progressive field that interrogates gender disparities, and lead the way for the rest of the field-based sciences.

 

Next steps

Fill out the survey, it doesn’t matter if you experiences were good or bad, we want them all! Share far and wide: http://bit.ly/fieldexp13

Follow #safe13 on Twitter!

 

A few quick answers for those with questions…

Q: How can you tell the prevalence of harassment and assault from these data?

A: We can’t. This survey wasn’t intended to assess prevalence, and we don’t believe there is a feasible study design that would make this possible. However we are renewing our recruitment efforts to try and get a more diverse, even larger sample over the next month for our more thorough analysis for the paper.

Q: Isn’t there selection bias in a study of this kind?

A: Probably yes. We are guessing that it is more likely that people with strong or especially notable experiences would take a survey like this. This is why we cannot say that our statistics match some kind of overall prevalence in the field of harassment or assault. Instead, this project allows us to get at least some sense of the scope of the problem.

And to our mind, one single case of harassment or assault is too many, because as a feminist science we think anthropology should be intolerant of that kind of behavior. It impoverishes the field because it reduces the diversity of the sample of people who could ask exciting questions and do groundbreaking research.

Q: Didn’t you hear about any good field experiences?

A: Absolutely! We heard many accounts of respectful, engaging, fun field experiences that made people happy and made them decide to be anthropologists. For the preliminary results and only a 15 minute talk, we focused on the bad experiences because these are the ones we urgently need to change. But in our paper we hope to more thoroughly analyze good and bad experiences to determine what factors seem to lead more to one type or the other at a given field site.

Q: What are your future directions with this research?

A: In addition to upping our sample and rerunning existing analyses, we have question types in our survey we were unable to analyze for our preliminary results. We still have a number of field site demographics that need to be analyzed: group size and composition, leadership gender, as well as participant-reported traits for good and bad field site directors. We also plan even more rigorous thematic analyses with non-anthropologist auditors for the existing and second-round interviews.

 

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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