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Study: Young female scientists face sexual harassment, assault while in the field

Kate Clancy, the University of Illinois anthropologist who led the study. (Photo by L. Brian Stauffer)


As government initiatives push women to enter careers in science, a new study reveals that young female scientists are getting sexually harassed and even assaulted while conducting field work crucial to their success — mostly by their supervisors.

The study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, claims to be the first to investigate experiences of scientists at field sites, surveying 142 men and 516 women with experience working in anthropology, archaeology, geology and other scientific disciplines.

Of those surveyed, 64 percent said they had experienced sexual harassment and 20 percent said they had been victims of sexual assault. Researchers found troubling evidence that younger women were particularly at risk while working in the field.

Researchers conducted an online survey with respondents recruited through social media, e-mail and links on Web sites of major anthropological organizations as well as other scientific disciplines that require fieldwork. The study’s authors note several limitations to their findings, including the possibility that knowledge of the survey topic could have made the sample unrepresentative, attracting people because they had had negative or positive experiences.

“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 are not safe, nor inclusive,” Kate Clancy, professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois and lead author of the study, said in a press release. “We worry this is at least one mechanism driving women from science.” Study co-authors are Robin Nelson of Skidmore College; Julienne Rutherford of the University of Illinois at Chicago; and Katie Hinde of Harvard University.

Two years ago, a young woman identified as “Hazed” spoke out about her experience of sexual harassment in the field and her professor who joked that only “pretty women” were allowed work for him, confiding in Clancy who made the story public in a blog post on Scientific American in 2012.

“There were jokes about selling me as a prostitute on the local market,” the young woman wrote. The size of her breasts and her sexual history were openly discussed by her professor and her male peers, and daily pornographic photos appeared in her private workspace.

“What started out as seemingly harmless joking spiraled out of control, I felt marginalized and under attack, and my work performance suffered as a result,” she wrote.

A year after Clancy’s blog post, Bora Zivkovic, the editor of the Scientific American blog, resigned after public allegations of sexual harassment were made against him by a young science writer, Monica Byrne. She claimed during a meeting with Zivkovic that he made her uncomfortable by discussing the sexual history of his wife and describing nearly having a sexual affair with a younger woman, repeatedly telling her he was a “very sexual person.”

Young women like “Hazed” are put in a vulnerable position, afraid that reporting harassment or abuse will risk their research and a professional relationship often critical to their academic funding or career.

Nearly half of those surveyed in Clancy’s study identified themselves as anthropologists. For them and others in similar disciplines, the desire to conduct research in the field is what draws them and is also the key to success, said Clancy.

Many university science programs require fieldwork for both undergraduate and graduate degree completion. Research shows that those who do more fieldwork are more productive in writing papers and are able to secure more grants.

The report found more than 90 percent of women and 70 percent of men were “trainees” — undergraduates, post-graduates or post-doctoral students — at the time they were targets of sexual harassment and/or assault and that women were significantly more likely to have experienced sexual assault. Five of those who reported harassment were in high school at the time of the incidents.

U.S. colleges have come under fire for their failure to effectively report and address sexual harassment and assault of students on campus, with a survey conducted by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) finding that 40 percent of colleges and universities have not conducted a single sexual assault investigation in the past five years.

Clancy’s survey showed very little awareness among respondents of how to report an incidence of sexual harassment or assault if it did happen. Fewer than half of survey respondents recalled ever encountering a code of conduct at field sites where they worked and less than one-fourth of respondents recalled a field site having a sexual harassment policy.

In a rallying call to young women across America three years ago, Michelle Obama pressed the need to clear hurdles preventing women and girls from entering or succeeding in careers in the male-dominated field of science, technology, engineering and math.

“If we’re going to out-innovate and out-educate the rest of the world, we’ve got to open doors for everyone,” she said.

Correction: This story has been corrected. The original version mischaracterized a blog post by Monica Byrne. She wrote that Bora Zivkovic told her of nearly having an affair, not of having an affair.