This week, an anonymous contributor shares their experience with a horribly all-too-common problem with remote field research: sexual harassment. And unfortunately, survivors of harassment and assalt can be victim-blamed and shamed for the behavior of another. The author of this submission further provides advice to ‘take care’ in the field: understanding the resources available to you, documenting the event, and reporting it.
We urge readers to proceed with caution as this experience briefly details a situation involving intimidation and harassment.
Field work is undeniably one of the best parts of science. Nothing beats going out to your study site, collecting data, and truly seeing and doing science. But, for as wonderful as “the field” is—and for as meaningful and important as our research is—there’s also darker sides to our work. And while these shadowy parts of science tend to get ignored, it’s important for us to share. That means, sharing all of it. With this blog post, I seek to shed light on the unfortunately rampant issue of sexual harassment in the field. Yes, rampant. Not a word that I would normally employ, but after working in a variety of field settings, from backcountry camps to urban field sites, harassment is ubiquitous. There’s even research to back up that fact (more here).
Figure 1. Visual representation of respondents to the survey, their experiences, and who were aware of, made use of, and were satisfied by mechanisms to report unwanted physical contact. Figure from “Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE): Trainees Report Harassment and Assault” by Clancy et al. (2014).
Let’s unpack this. In 2014, a study of 666 field scientists by Clancy et al. (2014) found that 64% of participants experienced sexual harassment (defined as inappropriate or sexual remarks). Moreover, most of these victims are young; in fact, over 90% of women and 70% of men who had been harassed or assaulted were students, postdocs, or employees of lower rank than their assailants. Given the nature of field work, it can greatly amplify the damaged of harassment (especially at small, isolated field sites) when communication to the outside world is limited. When you are far away from others, from friends, from loved ones, from a safe place, any kind of harassment, bullying, or abuse becomes all the more consuming. And when you’re in a really remote field site, it feels like you can’t escape or that you have no where to go. Or, if we do think about reporting problems or addressing harassment, we may fear for our current job security as well as diminished future opportunities. So, it’s no surprise that harassment is often under-reported or not at all. Just look at the response to Trump’s recent musings about Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and questioning why she didn’t report the sexual assault allegations concerning SCOTUS nominee Brett Kavanaugh 36 years ago—there’s now a widespread Twitter response to this irreverent trump tweet with the hashtag #WhyIDidntReport.
Figure 2. Examples of #WhyIDidntReport tweets from Twitter.
It wasn’t until recently that I started to realize that my field experiences have deviated significantly from normal field work conditions and experiences. After I started to share some of my field stories with women, it hit me that what had occurred to me, what had been done to me, wasn’t ok. Granted, nothing ever truly terrible has happened—I haven’t been sexually assaulted, or raped, or a host of other awful and sickening attacks that I have heard from other folks in the field. But, I am here to share one short story. And, more importantly, what I wish I had known and what I what I would have done differently. In short, I wish I had taken care of myself.
In the not too distant past, I was working at a remote field site managed by a federal agency that also housed a small community. During my time at the field site, the agency was tasked with hosting a large event, which brought in a slew of VIPs. It was one of the bigger events that had taken place at the field site in a long time, so the community as well as all of the employees and technicians were excited to see some new faces and also network a bit in the process. Prior to this large event, there was a small get-together for the community and VIPs. I got to the get-together/party a little late though; I was at the gym, working out, and came in later than most folks. By the time I showed up, folks had already consumed a drink of two (or more); one of the VIPs, Paul, called to me as I walked in and pointed to chair by him. I sat down, awkwardly on the edge of the chair, and he immediately inquired about my whereabouts:
“Where you been honey? Everyone else got here ages ago.”
“I was at the gym, working out.”
“Ah well dang girl. Working out. What you working out?”
“Uhm. Leg day.”
And before I knew it, Paul had his hand on my thigh and was working his hand up my leg. I was shocked. I didn’t know what to say or what to do—just completely shocked at the audacity of the moment. Paul laughed.
“Ooooh-wee! Feel that leg. Feels good. Mmmmhmmm. Well, you are a mighty fine girl. Very fine. Very beautiful girl. Whassa girl like you doing out here? Don’t you get lonely?”
He inched his chair closer and I just continued to freeze. Why couldn’t I do anything? Why didn’t I say anything? A fellow colleague, one of the agency employees, is watching this all happen—but she doesn’t say anything. In fact she laughs, and seems to think that it’s a cute, comical situation. Poor girl—just getting hit on by a man three times her age and is groping up her leg—he’s just being silly, right? I try to my inch chair away, but Paul has me in a weird position, between a table and his chair. It’s evident that he is drunk and I just want to leave. But for the same token, I didn’t feel comfortable walking back on my own, to my bedroom. I had the feeling he would follow so I tried to get the attention of a fellow colleague, but she was deep in conversation and also several drinks in. The evening seemed to last forever, with Paul continually leaning in closer (and me trying to worm out of my corner by the table), Paul still gushing about my physical appearance, asking about my relationship status, etc. It’s gross and I want it to stop but somehow can’t find the courage to say, “That’s enough, Paul. This is inappropriate.” Finally, after almost two hours, the party is over and folks start to leave in one big group—safety in numbers, right? I try to get out in front of the crowd but Paul has literally locked on to me, wrapping himself around my arm, pulling me in close.
“Ah well, my lovely gal, what a night… Awww, you know you made me so happy. I mean, I am married and all… but what’s wrong with a little flirting, you know? Will you walk me back? Maybe… escort me back to my room?”
“No. You can walk back to your own room.”
“Well… you know where you can find me. Right there, ya see? See my room? I’ll leave the light on…”
“Good night, Paul.” And finally, finally, I got out of that, got out of his tight grip. Why couldn’t I get out hours ago?
The following day, I felt sick and shaky. Whatever had happened the previous evening did not sit well with me. But where to go? Who to talk to? And should I even raise my voice? The last thing I want to do in a small community is rock the boat of harmonious social order. Nonetheless, I brought up the incident with Paul from the night before, casually over lunch, with some of my fellow colleagues (most of whom were men). I recounted my story. But in the process, though, I caught myself trying to brush it off, like it wasn’t a “big deal.” There were awkward laughs exchanged throughout my story and when I finished, one colleague, Jeremiah (who is about twice my age and additionally has a son my age), merely shrugged his shoulders and said to me, “Well…that’s just how it is.” Another male colleague looked visibly uncomfortable and could only give me—as what can best be described as—a cringing smile. But that was it. And so, based on their (limited) feedback, I let it go, too.
That is, until my direct supervisor Ruth spoke to me. A few days after the incident with Paul, Ruth sat down next to me during my lunch break and quietly said, “I know that I shouldn’t be sharing this… but someone reported an act of sexual harassment from Paul the other night. Apparently, he pinched the ass of a fellow employee during a get-together. Several people saw it happen and reported it. There have been some concerns about Paul’s behavior and actions to other women… So, I’m wondering…” And here she paused and then turned to look at me, “…if anything happened to you, too. I just felt that I had to check in.” I couldn’t avoid Ruth’s stare, nor her question, and then proceeded to tell her what had happened. Immediately, she told me to speak to our supervisor at large, Ronald. I agonized about having to tell Ronald, as did Ruth, because I had no idea how he would receive such a complaint or if it would backfire. Ronald was a capricious supervisor, to say the least. He could be quite explosive and would regularly berate and even scream at his employees—right in the workplace. I didn’t know how he would handle this kind of complaint, if he would even care. But, I knew I had to do something—even if not for myself, I at least, at the very least, had to do it for other women. If Paul’s actions had been repeated and other women had been subjected to that kind of behavior, how could I let that go?
So, I approached our supervisor Ronald and told him the entire store, frame by frame. As I was recounting the actions taken by Paul, I noticed something unnerving from Ronald. Not only did he seem completely unfazed, but he was not writing down anything that I said (note to readers: if you report harassment, your supervisor better be documenting what you say—it’s their legal responsibility to do so). When I finished, it was quiet for a moment and then Ronald said, quite severely, “I don’t want that kind of thing associated with my reputation.” That’s it. Not, “I’m sorry,” or “Are you OK?” or “That kind of behavior is completely inappropriate and will not be tolerated.” No, that came later after I was a bit outraged and asked, “What do you mean ‘that thing’? Sexual harassment? You need to address this. The agency has a clear policy on zero-tolerance for harassment.” We went back and forth for a bit, and finally Ronald said, “I will look into this.” That was the end of the conversation. I walked away, falsely assuming that he would follow the proper procedures for reporting sexual harassment claims. That was a mistake.
Fast forward…months went by, and nothing happened. Never heard a peep. Then, Ruth called me and said that Ronald was speaking openly to his employees about a federal investigation going on in relation to the complaints made about Paul’s behavior and actions toward women. The investigation as well as the complaints were supposed to be completely confidential, but Ronald went on to say—to his employees—that I was being “uncooperative” with the investigation and would not share my contact information (which was not true—I was not even aware that an investigation was happening). I was completely shocked and bewildered—and pissed off. I immediately contacted Ronald’s supervisor’s supervisor and asked her why I had not been included in the investigation regarding Paul—and then demanded that I be included, as apparently my complaint had not been shared by Ronald. Within 48 hours, I received an email from a third-party HR firm conducting the independent investigation to set up a time for my interview and to document my statement. In a week, I had signed my affidavit. I was incredibly relieved that Ruth had alerted me to the investigation but also infuriated that my complaint had been ignored and discarded by Ronald. The investigation took some time and several months passed, again, before I heard anything. But, surprisingly enough, I did receive a phone call one day and a profound apology from the agency that I was working for. And that, surprisingly enough, brought a certain amount of closure to the situation. Now, I should mention that this investigation (despite it being a federal investigation) did not result in any kind of reprimand for Paul; it was merely an inquiry into the veracity of the sexual harassment claims. Despite that, it was still a very important process to be a part of. And, more importantly, it shed light on a dangerous situation in the remote location where I was working; not only were there multiple incidents of harassment but the bigger problem was that some of these complaints had been selectively dropped and ignored. Maybe Paul didn’t get reprimanded, but in the bigger picture, this investigation revealed a darker side to where I was working and forced the agency to take a hard look at this remote field site’s operation. And perhaps, that is justice in a way.
Figure 3. Art by Erin Wilson, featured in Outside Magazine article “The Harassment Problem in Scientific Dream JobsThe Harassment Problem in Scientific Dream JobsThe Harassment Problem in Scientific Dream Jobs” by Scoles (2018).
Looking back on this experience, there’s much wisdom to be gained and shared. I wish I had known these things in the past, and I implore you to take note:
- When taking on a new job, know what policies, processes, and protections are in place regarding sexual harassment. Get copies of these materials; these are just as important as a copy of your contract, so hold on to these and make sure that you have them handy. Request that your supervisor goes specifically over information related to Human Resources (HR) and what resources and services are available. Sometimes, you might work with a university research lab or a small non-profit organization, and there may not be an on-site HR department or contact person. In that case, what’s the chain of command? What happens if there’s an incident in the workplace? What happens if there’s inappropriate behavior going on, like harassment or bullying? Who do you report to? What is required on your part when filing a complaint? What is required on the supervisor’s end? What is their responsibility? What happens once a complaint is filed—who’s responsible for following-up? Are there other folks to report to if you don’t feel comfortable approaching your supervisor? As a note, there must be other folks that you can report to, always; you should not be forced to file complaints to only one person. Responsible HR requires redundancy. In the case of harassment, what is the policy of the research lab, non-profit organization, agency, etc. that you are working for? All of this information should be provided. But more often that not, it’s usually skimmed over or ignored altogether. Either way, request all of this information and ensure that all of your questions are answered. You have a right to this information.
- If someone harasses you, you must respond. Granted, we all have different ways of responding to sexual harassment—some of us freeze up, some of us “roll with it,” and some of us don’t tolerate than kind of experience at all. In any case, make sure that you say something. If anything, commit these lines to memory: “Do not talk to me like that; your language is inappropriate” and “Do not touch me; your touch is unwanted.” Simple as that (well, I wish). In the case of an investigation or other inquiry pursuant to harassment, you will be asked if you made it known to the perpetrator that you were not comfortable or that the perpetrator knew that what they did was inappropriate. Confrontation is difficult for anyone—but your safety is more important than trying to be polite or nice. If you are uncomfortable or if you feel harassed, speak up.
- When harassment occurs, document it. Document everything. You might think that you’ll be able to recall all the specific details of sexual harassment incidents, but facts like dates and time can fade. You can probably remember the event in of itself in extreme detail, but those pivotal facts of who, where, when are worth noting. In the event that an investigation arises in association with a sexual harassment claim, you will absolutely need evidence—otherwise it boils down to he-said versus she-said (or whatever the case may be) situation. And quite often, no action is taken in those instances. So, if something happens, write it down immediately. Jot it down in an email to yourself and note the date, time, exact quotes (if possible), and the names of any other people that were present during the incident (you might need to contact them in the future to corroborate your own claim). Or, if you receive an email, text, phone voicemail, or other communication from the perpetrator, keep it. As much as you may want to delete or throw away those kinds of degrading and insulting materials, keep them. Moreover, if you have repeat incidents of sexual harassment (e.g. a colleague continually makes inappropriate, sexual comments to you) from a specific person, record these conversations and comments. Yes, that means carrying your phone on you and recording conversations. It sounds drastic, but this is becoming increasingly commonplace in the workplace (if you don’t believe me, read this recent article from NPR). Although you may feel guilty about recording conversations, it is a very important tool to keep in mind. Granted, recording conversations should happen only if you are unable to resolve issues or incidents with a given person; but, it’s not a bad idea to be proactive. Better safe than sorry. Again, if an investigation occurs (whether it is an informal, internal inquiry or a serious examination), evidence is everything.
- Stick with it. Not all of us will be lucky to have a supervisor like Ruth to check in on us. Not all of us will have a supervisor like Ruth to give us the boost we need to take action and report harassment. So, find the courage and bravery within yourself to face these uncomfortable situations (and I hope they never arise for you!) and stick with it. It’s unfortunately not enough to simply report harassment, bullying, or intimidation. It’s one step—and often the most difficult—but it’s critical to see your complaint from start to finish. Ensure that your complaint has been heard, reported, and documented; follow-up throughout the process and check progress; and in the end, make sure that there is some kind of closure. Sometimes, only an investigation (without any kind of reprimand for the perpetrator will occur); sometimes, you won’t get the justice of any sort of an inquiry and only an apology. But demand what is yours: closure, safety, justice. You name it. It’s yours—claim it.
One Final Thought: “Take care”
As I was nearing the end of my job at this remote field site, Ruth ended up having to leave suddenly. We had worked together previous to this field season and I admired her deeply, as a mindful ecologist and as a wise mentor. After this field season, though, she had become like a sister to me—so our goodbye was just as tough as bidding adieu to family. When she was preparing to leave, we spoke and she offered me words of encouragement—and, as we were about to part ways, she gave me a tight hug and said, “Take care.” To some, those words might come across as trite or given in a sheepish effort to substitute the many feelings that we experience in those especially tough moments—when we have to let go. As Ruth left, those words hung in the air and took on a new meaning. “Take care,” as beguiling simple as it seems, became both a reminder and a promise. A reminder to me that, indeed, I must speak up for myself to take care of myself; as much as I dream of working in a compassionate community where we look out for one another, field work can be a lonely world at times, especially when troubles and pain arise. “Take care” is also a promise to myself that to create the world that I wish for, it starts with me in that I must take time and empathy to care for others, or at least give others the space to be taken care of—or put another way, to foster equality and equity and in turn, safety.
So, on that note, I leave you with these two words: “Take care.”
Figure 4. “Peace, Pink, Power” by Cheryl Braganza.
Clancy, K. B. H., Nelson, R. G., Rutherford, J. N., and Hinde, K. (2014). Survey of academic field experiences (SAFE): trainees report harassment and assault. PLOS ONE 9(7):e102172. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0102172
Gibbons, A. (2014). “Sexual harassment is common in scientific fieldwork.” Science Magazine. http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2014/07/sexual-harassment-common-scientific-fieldwork
“Harassment, a field study.” Nature 1(2):1787-1788. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-017-0404-3
Koren, M. (2017). “When scientists are sexually harrased in the field.” The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/10/sexual-harassment-fieldwork-science/542559/
Noguchi, Y. (2018). “Bugged at work : how secret recordings are changing the workplace.” NPR. https://www.npr.org/2018/08/29/641744076/bugged-at-work-how-secret-recordings-are-changing-the-workplace
Peck, P. (2018). “People are using #WhyIDidntReport to tell Trump why they didn’t report sexual assault” BuzzFeed. https://www.buzzfeed.com/patricepeck/whyididntreport-hashtag-rape-donald-trump-brett-kavanaugh?origin=thum&utm_term=.aveqdOP2r#.mlJbYdpwR
Scoles, S. (2018). “The harassment problem in scientific dream jobs.” Outside Magazine. https://www.outsideonline.com/2300656/harassment-problem-scientific-dream-jobshttps://www.outsideonline.com/2300656/harassment-problem-scientific-dream-jobs
Wadman, M. (2017). “Disturbing allegations of sexual harassment in Antarctica leveled at noted scientist.” Science Magazine. http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/10/disturbing-allegations-sexual-harassment-antarctica-leveled-noted-scientist
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