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Science in Mind

Scientists report sexual harassment at field sites

courtesy of Brooke Scelza

Katie Hinde, an assistant professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University on a September 2013 trip to Namibia to conduct research among the Himba people.

When Katie Hinde was a young scientist in training, she began working at a field site in Indonesia. She made close observations of interactions between mother and infant long-tailed macaques, and she was quickly hooked. In the years since, Hinde -- now an assistant professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University -- has done field work in Puerto Rico and Namibia and those experiences have been “exclusively wonderful.”

But the atmosphere at a field site where scientists often live and work in close proximity, far from the normal structure of their lives, can also have a darker side. A few years ago, Kathryn Clancy, a colleague at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, posted the anonymous reports of a few anthropologists who said they had been sexually harassed and assaulted at field sites on her blog, Context and Variation.

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“It has to do with the culture at field sites -- and the context at field sites. These are often-times remote locations; you are away from your social support network; the line between work and play becomes very blurred, and your career absolutely hinges on it,” Hinde said. “Those features, together, have the potential to create a lot of vulnerabilities.”

She, Clancy, and two other women scientists from Skidmore College and the University of Illinois, Chicago, decided it was time to stop discussing the traumatic experiences young scientists were dealing with in hushed voices, in the corners of conferences. They wanted to gather data and find out how common those disturbing experiences were.

In a stark paper published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE, the team reports the results of a survey of 666 scientists of both sexes -- 78 percent women. Most respondents reported they had personally experienced sexual harassment, which could include anything from inappropriate remarks to demeaning jokes about cognitive abilities of people based on gender. A quarter of the women reported they had been sexually assaulted at field sites. It was a finding that, more than anything, made Hinde feel sad.

Although this study was not a randomized sample and therefore can’t quantify how common such behavior is overall, the numbers are nonetheless depressing. The researchers began by posing the questions to anthropologists, but they later expanded their work to include a wide breadth of disciplines, from geologists and atmospheric scientists, to social scientists.

Perhaps even more worrisome, they found that while people of both genders reported harassment, men were more likely to be harassed by peers while women were more likely to be harassed by superiors.

Studies on workplace aggression have found that who the perpetrator is matters critically: when people are being targeted by bosses, it tends to have a more powerful impact on psychological well-being, job performance, and motivation.

Hinde said that she and her coauthors have received tremendous support for the work and are currently working on a follow-up study in which they analyze interviews with the respondents in depth, to see if common patterns emerge. Already, she said, colleagues have told her they will make the new study required reading in the fall.

She added that the four coauthors were hesitant about whether to launch the study in the first place. None of them have tenure, and all are working feverishly to establish their research careers. Other colleagues expressed concern that studying the provocative question might be risky to do at such an early stage.

“We discussed this, and it was like -- we can’t wait. ... We know that this is going on, and we are not comfortable staying silent,” Hinde said. “I stridently believe this will do good in the world and will help make field sites and other professional academic spaces safer.”

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.
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