Sexual harassment of scientists by scientists draws media attention

A new study reports serious problems among some who conduct field research.

Journalists at USA Today, Nature, the Daily Beast, the Washington Post, and other publications are reporting on the new PLOS ONE paper “Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE): Trainees report harassment and assault." The coverage includes a compelling backstory: female scientists’ anguished informal testimony about sexual harassment, and worse, when pursuing research with colleagues away from campus or laboratory.

The opening paragraphs of a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign press release summarize the news:

A survey of 142 men and 516 women with experience in field studies in anthropology, archaeology, geology and other scientific disciplines reveals that many of them—particularly the younger ones—suffered or witnessed sexual harassment or sexual assault while at work in the field.

A majority of the survey respondents (64 percent) said they had experienced sexual harassment (inappropriate sexual remarks, comments about physical beauty or jokes about cognitive sex differences, for example). And more than 20 percent reported they had been the victims of sexual assault (unwanted physical contact of a sexual nature, including touching, physical threats, or rape).

The survey and analysis, reported in the journal PLOS ONE, comes after a preliminary survey offered evidence that many of those engaged in biological anthropology field research—most of them younger women, but also men—were sexually harassed and/or assaulted while conducting field research far from home.

“Our main findings—that women trainees were disproportionately targeted for abuse and felt they had few avenues to report or resolve these problems—suggest that at least some field sites are not safe, nor inclusive,” said University of Illinois anthropology professor Kate Clancy, who led the new analysis. “We worry this is at least one mechanism driving women from science.”

The earlier, preliminary survey figured centrally in the opening of a Science magazine news article from 15 months ago that contributes to the telling of the backstory:

It was standing room only at 8:15 a.m. last Saturday in a session on ethics at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA) in Knoxville, Tennessee. The talk had nothing to do with traditional problems facing anthropology, such as respecting cultures or sharing data. Instead, it focused on how researchers treat each other. The speaker, Kathryn Clancy, a bioanthropologist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, had troubling data to share: A survey of her colleagues’ fieldwork experiences revealed a high incidence of sexual harassment. The abuses ranged from subtle gender exclusion to sexual assault. The victims were mostly female, and the perpetrators were mostly senior researchers, sometimes the victim’s own fieldwork mentor.

“I am shocked, angry, disillusioned, and sad,” outgoing AAPA President Lorena Madrigal wrote to Science in an e-mail. “I just thought this did not happen anymore, and I am still in shock to hear that it does.”

The idea for the survey took shape in 2011, Clancy says, when she learned that a friend had been raped in the field by a colleague and that a mentor convinced the victim to keep quiet for the sake of her career. “It was like a slap in the face,” Clancy says. It was unlike her own Ph.D. fieldwork, which she describes as “paradise.”

Her friend had opted for silence, but not Clancy, who has a powerful megaphone—she writes a blog for Scientific American. Starting in January of last year, she started posting anonymized sexual harassment horror stories that female colleagues shared with her. Anonymous comments started rolling in from fellow scientists. Clancy then teamed up with three of her bioanthropology colleagues—Katie Hinde of Harvard University; Robin Nelson of the University of California, Riverside; and Julienne Rutherford of the University of Illinois, Chicago—and launched an online survey asking colleagues to share their fieldwork experiences.

And as reflected in the media coverage, Clancy’s January 2012 Scientific American blog posting—“From the field: ‘Hazed’ tells her story of harassment”—also figures centrally in the telling of the backstory. It does so by conveying one victim’s anguish extensively and concretely. Here’s a sample passage:

I have read about sexual harassment lawsuits underway at Yale University. Some of the stories are eerily similar to mine. We start with a young, enthusiastic, intelligent woman. A male professor takes an intellectual interest in her, takes her under his wing, gives her a job and training.  When the inappropriate comments start, she feels uncomfortable, but says nothing. She feels indebted to the professor, and he has promised to guide her to a successful career. She becomes deeply engaged in and committed to the research, but the professor continues to pester and demean her. She feels increasingly insecure, and she must decide whether to confront her harasser or leave the research she loves. She has to pay a price, simply for being a woman.

Someone always asks, “Why didn’t she just leave?” Well, she might not leave because she is funded, and there aren’t many other opportunities. She may be too committed to the research. She could be years into a graduate program, and changing professors would slow her progress to graduation substantially. Potential new professors will want to know why she left, and it will be difficult to answer.  Others in her field will think she is an unreliable scholar for switching horses midstream. Her professor may refuse to give her a recommendation, limiting her options. She knows her life and her choices will become subject to public scrutiny. She knows that some would say that she was “asking for it.” Finally, she knows that there is a lot to be lost from standing up to an abusive professor.

Over a year later, and over a year ago, Clancy reported in another Scientific American blog posting on the ubiquity of the anguish:

[M]y 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.

This backstory has now led past the preliminary survey to the one that has just been reported in PLOS ONE and that is drawing media attention, including from Ann Gibbons, a contributing correspondent at Science. Her 16 July posting begins by asking a question:

Universities and other workplaces have codes of conduct guarding against sexual harassment. But what about the more casual venue of scientific fieldwork—which is also a workplace? A new survey finds that sexual harassment and assaults occur frequently in the field, with little consequence for the perpetrators or explicit prohibitions against such conduct.

Maybe it should be noted that the thorough news report at Nature closes with two paragraphs quoting female scientists who express mild reservations about going too far with alarm over this issue. But Gibbons closes her Science commentary by quoting astronomer John Johnson of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics: “We are badly in need of change. How can we encourage little girls to study science if their future academic careers will be marked by not only the normal struggles of solving the mysteries of the universe, but also fending off professors who make unwelcome sexual advances?”


Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.


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Scitation: Sexual harassment of scientists by scientists draws media attention