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Sexual Harassment in Science, Replicated


As an undergraduate student in biology, I spent several weeks in Costa Rica one summer with an older graduate student on a research project deep in the cloud forest. It was just the two of us, and upon arriving at our site, I discovered that he had arranged a single room for us, one bed.

Mortified but afraid of being labeled prudish or difficult, I made no fuss. I took the lodge owner aside the next day and requested my own bed. The problem ended there, and my graduate student boss never made any physical advances.

Reflecting back, I’m struck by how ill equipped I was to deal with this kind of situation, especially at 19. My university undoubtedly had a harassment policy, but such resources were thousands of miles away. I was alone in a foreign country and had never received any training on my rights and resources in the field.

I’d forgotten about this experience from two decades ago until I read a report published July 16 in the journal PLOS One. Kathryn Clancy, an anthropologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and three colleagues used email and social media to invite scientists to fill out an online questionnaire about their experiences with harassment and assault at field sites; they received 666 responses, three quarters of them from women, from 32 disciplines, including anthropology, archaeology, biology and geology.

Almost two-thirds of the respondents said they had been sexually harassed in the field. More than 20 percent reported being sexually assaulted. Students or postdoctoral scholars, and women were most likely to report being victimized by superiors. Very few respondents said their field site had a code of conduct or sexual harassment policy, and of the 78 who had dared to report incidents, fewer than 20 percent were satisfied with the outcome.

The findings are depressingly similar to the data some colleagues and I collected this year from an online questionnaire sent to science writers. We received responses from 502 writers, mostly women, and presented our results at M.I.T. in June during Solutions Summit 2014: Women in Science Writing, a conference funded by the National Association of Science Writers.

More than half of the female respondents said they weren’t taken seriously because of their gender, one in three had experienced delayed career advancement, and nearly half said they had not received credit for their ideas. Almost half said they had encountered flirtatious or sexual remarks, and one in five had experienced uninvited physical contact.

Frightening study that quantifies sexual harassment and assault across the sciences. The journalist also notes there’s significant gender discrimination.

I haven’t personally witnessed or heard of harassment in any of the fields I’ve worked in (e.g, international development, city planning offices, or climate adaptation implementation or policy making). And over the years, I guesstimate working with at least 50% women, possibly more. There are some countries that I work in that will not accept women in a decision making role, but that is a cultural difference that takes time to collapse. We’re actually quite prepared for this type of systemic discrimination.

But, internally, on any team I’ve worked on, this is unheard of. I also work with one research institute (USC’s HURDL) that focuses on gender and vulnerable populations in climate impact contexts - but again, haven’t heard anything like this.

Are you a rising researcher? Have you been harassed while conducting your field work? Have you heard stories or rumors of harassment? Send me a note if you like, I’ll keep your replies private. Thanks, Michael

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