Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Field of view. Young researchers, especially women, are more likely to be sexually harassed or assaulted when they are doing fieldwork than in the office.

Field of view. Young researchers, especially women, are more likely to be sexually harassed or assaulted when they are doing fieldwork than in the office.

Ben Salter/Flickr/Creative Commons

Sexual harassment is common in scientific fieldwork

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. The study reveals that the primary targets were young women who were harassed, assaulted, and even raped by people who were usually senior to them in rank, although men also reported harassment.

“We’ve got lots and lots and lots of people having very bad experiences in the field,” says evolutionary biologist Katie Hinde of Harvard University, a co-author of the survey.

The idea for the survey arose in 2011 when biological anthropologist Kathryn Clancy of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, learned that a friend had been assaulted in the field by a colleague, and a mentor had convinced her to keep quiet for the sake of his career. Clancy started posting sexual harassment reports, without identifying details, in a blog she wrote for Scientific American, and was quickly deluged with accounts of harassment from fellow researchers.

So Clancy teamed with three of her colleagues, including Hinde, to survey anthropologists on their fieldwork experiences. In 2013, they reported a high incidence of sexual harassment in biological anthropology. “It became really clear that this … wasn’t just an issue that occurred in the past that had been taken care of,” says biological anthropologist Julienne Rutherford of the University of Illinois, Chicago, another co-author. They decided to expand the survey to additional fields.

The team distributed the new survey, which was designed like other surveys of sexual harassment in the workplace, via e-mail and online social networks, including Facebook group pages for professional societies. Responses came in from 666 scientists in 30 nations. About 75% were from the United States and about 75% were anthropologists and archaeologists, with the rest being biologists, geologists, and other specialists. The team validated e-mail addresses to make sure no one submitted a survey twice, and did follow-up interviews with respondents who indicated a willingness to do so.

In a report today in PLOS ONE, the researchers found that 64% of the survey respondents had personally experienced sexual harassment, inappropriate or sexual remarks, or jokes about physical beauty and cognitive sex differences. More seriously, more than 20% of respondents reported that they had personally experienced sexual assault, including unwanted physical contact, sexual advances, or sexual contact. About 22% of that group felt it would be unsafe to fight back or not give consent when they were sexually assaulted. Victims were overwhelmingly young: More than 90% of women and 70% of men who had been harassed or assaulted were students, postdocs, or employees of lower rank than their assailants. Women were 3.5 times more likely to report sexual harassment than men and significantly more likely to have experienced sexual assault. “This is about power dynamics in a permissive environment,” Clancy says.

Particularly disturbing to the authors was that fewer than half of the respondents recalled a code of conduct or posted set of rules for behavior at a field site where they worked. Of those who did report being harassed or assaulted to their institution (including 36 women and one man), only about 19% said they were satisfied by the outcome of their reporting.

This frequency of harassment is consistent with other studies in the workplace, including one of medical trainees that found 22% of males and 73% of females had experienced workplace sexual harassment during medical school residency. Clancy and her co-authors acknowledge that their sample might be biased because victims of harassment and assault may be more likely to respond. But she also notes that some victims told her personally that it was too difficult emotionally to participate in the survey. “It’s devastating,” says Clancy, who interviewed 26 respondents in depth. “Some people were too scared to relive the emotional experience.”

She urges team leaders to recognize that the field is an important place where scientists can shape the culture of their project and their discipline. “Scientists are taught about how to do science in terms of research methodology but they are not taught how to be managers in the field.”  

Other senior researchers say the study is a wake-up call. “I’ve heard anecdotal reports … but there was no way of knowing just how big the problem is,” says ecologist Meghan Duffy of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. “This study suggests it’s a big problem.”

“This is such a serious issue that it’s really important to bring it out,” says archaeologist John Yellen, archaeology program director at the National Science Foundation. Astronomer John Johnson of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, agrees: “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?”

*Correction, 17 July, 12:22 p.m.: The story was changed to reflect the fact that the study didn't identify the perpetrators' gender.