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On Sexual Harassment and Fieldwork: Being an Ally

On a new study on sexual harassment in STEM fieldwork sites and suggestions for how to be an ally to those who have experienced sexual harassment or assault in the field.

August 21, 2014
 

Michelle Lavery is a Masters student in Biology at the Canadian Rivers Institute and the University of New Brunswick. She studies Atlantic salmon egg survival through the winter and consequently spends a lot of time fighting off hypothermia. You can find her on Twitter @JMichelleLavery.

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*This post deals with material that could be triggering for victims of sexual harassment or assault.

Summer’s end is nearing, signaling the conclusion of another fieldwork season. While some of us may conceptualize the end of fieldwork as simply collecting our equipment, peeling off the GoreTex®, and closing the waterproof notebooks, the experience of fieldwork is often not so simple. For many field crews, it can be quite challenging and scary. Far worse, however, it may be dangerous in more insidious and targeted ways. According to a recent study by Kate Clancy et al. titled “Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE): Trainees Report Harassment and Assault,” the danger may come from within the team itself, in the form of sexual harassment or assault.

We spend enough time reading academic papers, so I’ll briefly run you through their main points. Clancy and her co-authors tried to answer three questions about STEM researchers who perform fieldwork: 1) do researchers experience sexual harassment and/or assault in the field? If so, 2) who are the targets and who are the perpetrators? And 3) do field sites and field labs have codes of conduct and reporting methods available to victims of this kind of abuse? (In this study, sexual harassment was defined as unwanted sexual advances as well as offensive remarks about a person’s sex, and sexual assault as any unwanted sexual contact up to and including rape.)

The results are nauseating. Over 70% of the female respondents and 40% of the male respondents reported that they had experienced sexual harassment, while 26% of females and 6% of males experienced sexual assault while in the field. Disturbingly, the majority of female respondents were considered “trainees” (undergraduate, graduate, or post-doctoral students) when they were targeted by perpetrators they considered “supervisors” (anyone in a perceived position of authority). These staggering findings are underpinned by a flawed and almost non-existent infrastructure for reporting abuse in the field. Less than a quarter of Clancy et al.’s respondents worked at a field site with a known sexual harassment policy, and even fewer knew about mechanisms for reporting these incidents. Out of the few respondents who did make reports, only 18% were satisfied with the outcomes. It’s clear that the targets of abuse not only experience the horror of the abuse itself, but also the struggle of entering a career field where “paying your dues” often trumps personal safety and mental health.

After considering the risks to personal safety as well as the immeasurable costs to science itself, it is imperative that the fieldwork environment needs to change. So how can we make it safer and more supportive? How, in other words, can we be not just helpful field crew members, but also allies to our colleagues for whom fieldwork has become a mentally and physically unsafe environment?

Find and read your university/field lab/research group’s sexual harassment policy.

Learn it, circulate it, and behave accordingly. Do some critical thinking and make sure that you are not a perpetrator. Reflect on the way you interact with your colleagues, supervisors, and students, and the way they interact with you. If you are aware of anyone who has violated your university/field lab/research group’s sexual harassment policy, report them to the appropriate authority (your supervisor, the department head, the university administration, the police, etc.). Not only is this behavior unprofessional, it’s illegal.

If you see something, say something.

If you see or hear something that feels wrong, say something about it. It can be difficult for the target of harassment to speak up at the best of times, so it is especially important for researchers to be allies to their field crew colleagues. By uttering four simple words—“Hey, that’s not cool”—you might be able to shift the target’s experience from feelings of powerlessness and isolation to those of support and justification. Or, at the very least, you can make it seem normal and acceptable to speak against harassment in a space that seems to otherwise endorse or allow it. Furthermore, you might be able to put the brakes on what could have escalated into a much more serious situation.

Listen empathetically.

If someone confides in you, be aware of how your own experiences influence your point of view when conversing with your colleagues and try not to let them impact your ability to empathize. Ask your colleague what happened and listen carefully. Avoid questioning their judgement, and catch yourself before you brush their concerns aside. Be an ally, not an adversary.

Offer to help, and be genuine.

If a colleague comes to you with concerns, ask how you can help. Offer to help them report the incident. Encourage them to seek counseling, the police, and/or medical attention. Most importantly, be genuine about the help that you offer—it is vital that you follow through.

Avoid condescension.

Don’t mistake over-protectiveness or chivalry for respect, especially in the high-stress and isolating situations you can encounter in the field. Treat your colleagues like the equally capable and intelligent humans that they are, regardless of their experiences and what they may have confided in you.

Seek more information.

The internet has some great resources about how to be an ally. My favorites are from The Healing Center and The University of Michigan’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center. You should also be aware of any local support hotlines or crisis centers, your police department’s reporting center, and your campus/workplace’s counseling services. Organizing sexual harassment prevention and safe-space training for your field crew wouldn’t hurt either.

A lot of our graduate research involves fieldwork of some kind. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone felt comfortable and supported while doing that fieldwork? Let’s work to make that a reality.

Got some more suggestions for creating an inclusive fieldwork experience? Please share them in the comments.

[Image by the author and used under the Creative Commons license]

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