By Paul Smaglik
The belief that rules of workplace conduct don’t apply away from a university setting helps to perpetuate a culture that gives rise to sexual assault and harassment of female scientists conducting field research, says a co-author of a report published this month in American Anthropologist.
The attitude means that workplace regulations around assault or harassment either don’t exist in the field or aren’t enforced, says Robin Nelson, an anthropologist at Santa Clara University in California. The study follows on from one conducted in 2013 that found that about two-thirds of the 666 women who were surveyed experienced some sort of assault or harassment in the field during their career.
The new report features interviews with 26 of those respondents and finds some “disheartening” trends, says Nelson.
Respondents said that some field directors—typically principal investigators who lead offsite data collection–seem to ignore the traditional rules of conduct that apply on campus. “I feel like they just see this divide between the field and at home. What happens to you in the field — it’s just like a different world,” said one respondent. Others who experienced such settings reported feeling “vulnerable,” “powerless,” “not in control,” “isolated,” or like “prey.”
Nelson sees analogies between sexual assault and harassment in the field and the recent sexual-abuse allegations faced by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and others in the United States. Field site directors can deeply affect careers by granting or denying researchers access to data that they can get only offsite. “You have to go through them,” says Nelson of field directors. “They can make or break you if you don’t want to play by the rules that they’ve established.”
Several respondents said that going to a different research team can stall a career because such lateral moves often appear to be demotions.
So how to combat this problem? It starts with having clear rules of conduct about what sort of behaviour is appropriate at field sites. But “just having rules isn’t enough,” says Nelson, who says that universities need to clarify how to report problems. This can be complicated, she adds, because researchers in the field may not know whether to report to law enforcement at the field site, law enforcement in their home state or area or officials at their home university.
Nelson suggests that researchers who are planning field work evaluate the safety of a site by first asking whether rules are in place and what sort of follow-though and accountability exists for those rules. Universities also need to step up and make sure the standards for assault and abuse they enforce on campus are also in place in the field, she adds. She also believes that the culture of fieldwork needs to change, where the experience is valued as much for the training opportunities it gives the participants as for the data such activities produce.
In any event, she says, change needs to happen at many levels—from university sponsor to field site director to participant. ”It can no longer just be business as usual,” Nelson says.
Paul Smaglik is a freelance writer in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.