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Categories:  Research

Sexual harassment prevalent in field research, study finds

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“Many people in the sciences will be surprised that these kinds of abuses are still so common,” says study coauthor Julienne Rutherford, a faculty member in the College of Nursing. Photo: Mark Mershon/UIC College of Nursing

A survey of male and female researchers in scientific disciplines such as anthropology, archeology and geology found that a majority have experienced sexual harassment at field sites.

“Many people in the sciences will be surprised that these kinds of abuses are still so common, thinking it was all in the past,” said Julienne Rutherford, study co-author and faculty member in the College of Nursing.

“Sadly, that’s not the case. And despite outnumbering men in many doctoral programs, women are still getting the message that they are not welcome as full members in academic society.”

Undergraduate students, graduate students and postdoctoral researchers reported more unwanted sexual attention than did faculty researchers, the survey found.

The study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, found 64 percent of respondents, which included 142 men and 516 women in anthropology, archeology, geology and other scientific specialties, reported they had experienced sexual harassment such as inappropriate sexual remarks, comments about physical appearance or jokes about cognitive sex differences. More than 20 percent said they had been victims of sexual assault, including unwanted physical contact of a sexual nature, physical threats or rape.

Respondents were recruited through social media and websites serving scientific disciplines known for field research. An online survey asked about their educational and professional status, gender, age and experiences during field studies.

More than 90 percent of the women and 70 percent of the men who experienced sexual harassment said it occurred when they were trainees or employees. Five of the trainees who reported being harassed were in high school at the time of the incident, researchers said.

 

“Despite outnumbering men in many doctoral programs, women are still getting the message that they are not welcome as full members in academic society.”

 

“Our main findings — that women trainees were disproportionately targeted for abuse and felt they had few avenues to report or resolve these problems — suggest that at least some field sites were not safe, nor inclusive,” said Kate Clancy, professor of anthropology at Urbana-Champaign who was first author of the study. “We worry this is at least one mechanism driving women from science.”

Female researchers reported most often that they were the targets of researchers who were superior to them in rank. Males reported being harassed or abused mostly by their peers.

“Previous work by other researchers has shown that being targeted by one’s superior in the workplace has a more severe impact on psychological well-being and job performance than when the perpetrator is a peer,” said Rutherford, assistant professor of women, children and health science in the College of Nursing.

Field research is an integral part of scholarship in many social science, life science and earth science disciplines, conducted in locations away from campus that are often far from the researcher’s home country.

Rutherford said the study may “open a new window” as to why women outnumber men in these fields during the training stage, yet continue to be underrepresented as professionals.

“Fieldwork is often what stirs the first interest in science in a young person, and research has shown that scientists who do more fieldwork write more papers and get more grants,” said Clancy. “We have to pay attention to how people are treated there.”

Many of the researchers who participated in the study said they didn’t know their institution’s policy on sexual harassment or how to report misconduct, said Robin Nelson, assistant professor of anthropology at Skidmore College and study coauthor.

“These findings suggest that, in effect, many researchers were ill-equipped to advocate for themselves or others in cases of harassment or assault,” Nelson said.