Toxic Masculinity

Content warning: Sexual harassment

We’ve all experienced it to some degree.  You’re in the field, in teams often dominated by men, most of whom are great.  But there’s sometimes that one. That guy.  He says misogynistic things. Belittles women. Talks over you.  Mansplains. Assumes you can’t hold your weight in the field. Is quick to anger and may even display full on aggression or violence.  You’re in a remote field setting. You have to keep the peace, but at the same time, this environment is toxic. What can you do?

I’d like to say that I had a great ally on my field team, but we either had people who didn’t seem to mind…or we were young and vulnerable.

I experienced this right out of undergrad in a remote field camp in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska.  This guy was a bully. He was psychologically abusive to researchers who weren’t part of our team and withheld things like boat support for them. He brought a shotgun and seemed to enjoy the idea (and act) of killing ravens who were tampering with our science.  He even talked about “donkey punching” women – punching them in the back of their heads during sex – in casual conversation amongst the field team. This guy was a douche canoe of the highest order. He was also 20 years my senior and my supervisor. And in some sort of a romantic relationship with the field leader, who I therefore did not feel comfortable talking to about my discomfort.   

I’d like to say that I had a great ally on my field team, but we either had people (field leader + one other older guy) who didn’t seem to mind this behavior or we were young and vulnerable, given this guy’s power over us. We basically tried to stick together and provide comfort to each other when we could.  Once the field job was over, I contacted the level above my supervisor and shared my concerns. There was no formal HR process (even though I worked for the US government) and I never received follow up. I was no longer an employee, since I was hired as a seasonal technician. I do know he eventually transferred to a different job, probably terrorizing some other field teams.

Looking back on this experience, I could see how it could have caused me to leave field ecology completely, but I’ve always been a bit too stubborn for my own good. We have lost too many incredible scientists because they were more traumatized, less stubborn, and/or smarter than I am and left. Luckily, I went on to have amazingly positive field experiences and I work hard to cultivate them now for my own students.  But I also know that 71% of women experienced harassment in the field according to this study, so this is still very much a problem.  No one blog post can solve that sort of systemic problem, but here are a few ideas.

  1. Set the tone from the top. If you are leading a field crew, talk about how such behavior will not be tolerated and provide repercussions for toxic behavior.
  2. Vet your people.  Make sure you check references, interview candidates, and look out for potential red flags in field workers.
  3. Train your people. Even if you are a graduate student running a field project, it is your responsibility to ensure proper training for field technicians.  Training isn’t just about how to take the data, it’s also about how to be a good field citizen. Talk about potential bad behavior. Train field workers to recognize, report, and if the situation allows, stand up to it.
  4. Be an ally. Learn how to be an active bystander to head situations off when they happen rather than standing by impotently. 
  5. Raise better boys.  This is really on our whole society (though I’m not saying toxic men aren’t responsible for their behavior).  We need to raise boys in a way that invites vulnerability, ensures respect for everyone, and discourages violence, misogyny, and toxic behavior.  This will reduce the number of men who feel entitled to women’s bodies, treat us as inferior, and feel like violence and aggression are appropriate emotional outlets.

It’s important to share our collective knowledge, and to hold people accountable for irresponsible conduct. I don’t think we’re even close to where we need to be, but I hope to be part of the solution. What have you done to curb or address this behavior in the field? Were you able to successfully find a resolution? What tips would you give to field scientists? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter (#FemFieldSecrets and @FemFieldSecrets).

Interested in telling your whole tale? We would love to hear from you!  We are very interested in interviewing women of color who have published cool field science.  If that’s you, or someone you know, please tweet at us or email us and point us to the paper.

4 thoughts on “Toxic Masculinity

  1. Yikes! That sounds so miserable! And donkey punching… totally forgot that was a thing! Probably because for the most part I’ve managed to get away from such toxic behavior. But I recall jokes about crap like that being made when I was a teenager and pre-teen. It’s sad to think how at the time I didn’t realize how terribly sexist and degrading some of those things were back then. They were just commonplace. So thank you for opening up the conversation and giving advice that can extend beyond the field to all facets of life. All women desire to know that even men making sexist and degrading jokes are not okay. My son will sure as hell know this.


    • I know it was like second nature not so long ago and was never really addressed to me, even by other women, as being something we should stand against. I think the #MeToo movement has pushed us to understand that we don’t have to put up with this stuff and certainly shouldn’t be raising our kids to put up with it/perpetuate it.


  2. Thanks for sharing this important story. Do you think this person still supervises and manages young women? Would it protect others to name this person? I may have a similar story.


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