University of Illinois anthropology professor Kate Clancy led a study of sexual harassment and assault on researchers involved in scientific field studies. / L. Brian Stauffer, UI News Bureau
At first it started out with a few jokes - about her breast size, her sexual history. Then pornographic photos started appearing in her private work space, and constant harassment from her professor and her peers started to have an effect on her work.
She was a graduate student who was part of a research group in a foreign country - far from home and far from any support. When she asked the professor to stop the harassment, he put an end to the funds he provided for her graduate school.
Her anonymous story, which University of Illinois professor Kate Clancy reported in a Scientific American blog in 2012, was one of many stories of sexual harassment and sexual violence that took place during the fieldwork typical of research-heavy scientific areas.
Sixty-four percent of researchers, most often women, in anthropology, archaeology, geology and other scientific disciplines have experienced sexual harassment during field research, according to a survey of about 600 men and women published in the journal PLOS ONE. Twenty percent reported they were victims of sexual assault in the field. Trainees - a blanket term for undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral researchers - were more likely to report they had been sexually assaulted or harassed.
The study was conducted over the course of 2013, through an online survey of respondents across the USA and from almost 30 countries. One hundred forty-two men and 516 women responded to the survey, which was distributed through e-mails and online social networks, as well as circulated by anthropological and scientific research associations. The study was led by Clancy, an anthropology professor at the University of Illinois.
"What we found was that the majority â?¦ of people who reported harassment or assault were trainees at the time - in fact, four or five were actually in high school," Clancy said. "A disproportionate amount were women."
Forty-one percent of the men surveyed reported being harassed, and 71% of women reported sexual harassment in the field. Clancy said the perpetrators were different, depending on gender. Male trainees tended to get harassed or abused by peers, while women were targeted by their superiors.
Having a person in a position of power sexually abuse or harass them has a much bigger impact on impressionable trainees, said Julienne Rutherford, an anthropologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a co-author of the study.
"Being targeted for aggression by your boss has much more negative impact on psychological well-being," Rutherford said. "So if you are part of a group suffering from this, your ambition to be part of that field is eroded. It's really detrimental to a successful career."
The number of women in science is increasing, Rutherford said, but they often don't advance to leadership positions, or they leave the scientific field altogether. The climate of sexual harassment and non-inclusive workplaces may drive women from science, Clancy said.
"With field work being so primary in our training, if you experience harassment or assault or witness it or are privy to a hostile work environment, fieldwork is something you're not going to want to engage in," said Robin Nelson, an anthropology professor at Skidmore College and a co-author of the study. "We don't know how many people we lose because they experience this chilly climate."
The study brought to attention the lack of support systems or reporting channels for field trainees who have been sexually assaulted. It's the responsibility of the universities to receive and adjudicate sexual assault cases, but trainees don't have easy access to them because they're in a different state or country. It then becomes a case of reporting to the lead researchers or professors - but sometimes these are the perpetrators of the assault, the researchers said.
"It's unclear what chain of command is," Nelson said. "I think that's a real problem, that it's not made explicitly clear what (a sexual assault victim) is supposed to do."
Even when a victim does report sexual assault, she's at risk of losing her job, not getting a raise or losing a recommendation, Clancy said. Sensitivity training for the lead researchers could help, but what the field needs is a cultural shift, Clancy said.
In response to the study, Jeff Altschul, the president of the Society for American Archaeology - which did not have a role in the study - said the responsibility for reporting harassment or assault should fall on the sponsors of field research schools.
"The authors' claims that principal (researchers) running the field schools need to be better informed is absolutely true, but you also need guidance from universities' legal departments," Altschul said.
The researchers hope the study will open discussion for inclusive environments in the field and encourage women to continue their careers in scientific research.
"I hope it validates a lot of women who have been talking about this for a long time and not being heard," Clancy said. "We're standing on a lot of shoulders of women who have been talking about this for a long time."
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