Women, don’t avoid field work for fear!

I’ve been seeing a lot of stuff lately on women who were sexually harassed while doing field work. There was a study published in  PLoS ONE by Clancy et al. that went into some details on inappropriate comments and unwelcome advances in a variety of field settings. This is both dangerous and infuriating. It should absolutely not be tolerated by anyone.

I have only two things to add. The first is that field work is a wonderful thing. In the field you can focus on your research in ways impossible elsewhere. In the field you not only learn about your study system, you expand your natural horizons in glorious ways. Why I am a biologist comes from field work. I’ve worked alone and in groups, formally and informally, in the US, Europe, and the tropics. I’ve slept in waspy meadows. I’ve marched through Brazilian Atlantic forests looking for bees. I’ve crossed picket lines in Venezuela to get at wasp nests. I’ve snorkeled in Belize. I’ve dug for Dicty at Mountain Lake Biological Station. You get the idea, that field work is wonderful.

Field work at Mountain Lake Biological Station

Field work at Mountain Lake Biological Station

My second point is that field workers are generally great people, men and women. So when you experience or witness annoyances, hostile climate, or real dangers, expose them and their perpetrators.  You don’t only have to turn to women either, for men do not like this kind of issue either. So speak up! Remember that field sites are usually safe in all ways, though they will reflect the community they are in. Turn to the community to shame and control the creeps and jerks. The power of support is profound.

Just please don’t forgo the field trips!

About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Field work, Gender bias, Natural areas and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Women, don’t avoid field work for fear!

  1. µ says:

    Re: “So when you experience or witness annoyances, hostile climate, or real dangers, expose them and their perpetrators. … So speak up! ”

    I am glad you are writing about this. There seems to be a general reluctance to speak up about such wrongdoing (or any other wrongdoing in science). I think people fear that repeated “annoyances” are not sufficient evidence, or that noone would listen, or that they would be perceived as troublemakers, or that the perpetrators would retaliate. Such fears are because speaking-up can have negative consequences, and because others choose to remain in a safety zone as innocent blind-eye bystanders. It seems that people would be less reluctant to speak up if there was more support for voicing concern, if fewer would choose to remain blind as innocent bystanders.

    I am sure all of this must have been said before. We as bystanders choosing to remain uninvolved are actually not that innocent.

  2. Yes, we are all involved with what we witness. I should also have said that if anything illegal happens, turn it over to the legal system. Do not keep it in house, at lease if you are in the US. Elsewhere might be more complicated. The really fantastic men and women so outnumber the creepy ones, it is easy to get support. I do also always try to follow the common safety for all situations of working in pairs, for so many reasons.

  3. µ says:

    Not sure “it is easy to get support”. It is easy to get support if something is unambiguously illegal, and if you can document it (your word alone often is insufficient). Too much of “inappropriate comments and unwelcome advances” is in a grey zone, and is easily denied or trivialized. That is part of the problem why bystanders are reluctant to get involved.

  4. FishGypsy says:

    I love field work, I take students into the field, and I would never want to forgo the field, but this reads bit tone deaf to the scope and severity of the issues facing women in field disciplines. One of the most important points of the Clancy et al. paper is that virtually no one who experienced harassment or assault had any idea WHERE to turn or even that it should be reported. This was especially true when the vast majority of harassers were actually superiors (at least of the women respondents, men experienced harassment more often from peers). Senior biologists can do several things to make harassment and assault far less likely to occur in their labs (and field sites). Having an explicit set of expectations and reporting information available for graduate students and post-docs is vital. Asking granting agencies to include safety and work environment concerns in grant applications (like a post-doctoral mentoring plan or data management plan) so that funding is tied at least in part to adequately considering the safety of early-stage scientists is one powerful way to emphasize the scope of the problem and put responsibility where it belongs.

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