Female Anthropologists Harassed

A new survey finds a high incidence of sexual harassment and rape among women doing anthropological field work.

By Jef Akst | April 15, 2013

The Maasai tribe in Kenya WIKIMEDIA, MATT CRYPTOMore than 20 percent of female bioanthropologists who took part in a new survey are victims of “physical sexual harassment or unwanted sexual contact” in the course of their scientific research, primarily at the hand of superior professional colleagues, even their own mentors.

After talking to a friend that had been raped by a colleague, anthropologist Kathryn Clancy of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign decided to look into the matter further.  “It was like a slap in the face to learn that this was happening to my friends,” Clancy told ScienceInsider.

She began posting anonymous stories of sexual harassment, shared with her by her female colleagues, on the Scientific American blog Context and Variation. The stories began to draw comments of other researchers’ harassment stories. “This is definitely not limited to just my discipline,” Clancy told ScienceInsider—nor is it limited to females, she found.

To get a better handle on the frequency with which such harassment occurs, Clancy and colleagues conducted a (still ongoing) online survey, asking scientists to report on their field-work experiences. Preliminary results, presented Saturday (April 13) at the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA) annual meeting in Knoxville, Tennessee, indicated that about 30 percent of both men and women reported the occurrence of verbal abuse “regularly” or “frequently” at field sites. And 21 percent of women reported having experienced physical sexual harassment or unwanted sexual contact; one out of 23 men also reported such abuse. 

Notably, fewer than 20 percent of the reported cases of harassment involved the local community; rather, most of the abuse came from other researchers, primarily those further along in their careers. But why are such experiences so rarely reported?

“Quitting a field site, not completing and publishing research, and/or loss of letters of recommendation can have potent consequences for academic careers,” collaborator Katie Hinde of Harvard University told ScienceInsider. “Taken together, these factors result in a particularly vulnerable population of victims and witnesses powerless to intervene. As a discipline, we need to recognize and remedy that an appreciable non-zero number of our junior colleagues, particularly women, are having to endure harassment and a hostile work environment in order to be scientists.”

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Avatar of: MonZop


Posts: 9

April 15, 2013

I suspect that the percent of women scientist that were victim of harassment in all disciplines might be even higher than the reported 21%.

However, my note here is related to the image: it is misleading to show an image of a population (subject of study) when the article celarly states that the majority of harassers are senior colleagues: why don't place the (symbolic) image of, for example, A. Einstein, or J. Watson, or another famous scientist?



Avatar of: BobD


Posts: 20

April 15, 2013

This is criminal and unforgivable behavior.  That said, wouldn't you expect anthropologists of all people to understand that hierarchies can lead to abuse of power, and that the thin veneer of civilization can be scant protection outside of your "normal" social structure?  To repeat, I in no way whatsoever condone this behavior, and would be interested to learn what preventative measures people have taken that find themselves in this vulnerable situation.

Avatar of: David Bird

David Bird

Posts: 3

April 15, 2013

To BobD:

So you aren't condoning the behaviours of sexual harrassment and rape.  What a relief! 

But what are you asking about?  and what is implied by your question? 

The responsibility for this criminal behaviour lies with the perpetrator.  The question of "preventative measures" people take when in vulnerable situations is completely and utterly irrelevant.   Irrelevant!

I would argue that this kind of thinking is what leads citizens to blame the victim and accept that rape is an inextractable part of our society.  The victim is not to blame and we must not accept rape culture.


Avatar of: Ed M.

Ed M.

Posts: 45

April 15, 2013

Learn judo, carry pepper spray, and teach the abusers a lesson.

Avatar of: UK


Posts: 1

April 15, 2013

I think human resources personnel should be pro-active in assuring the vulnerable employees that nobody is above law and that no one can bully them. Unfortunately that is not the case in theacademic institution I am working. Our bosses routinely threaten us regarding rec letters. I filed an anonymous  complaint with mycomplianceReport.com more than  6 weeks ago. When I called them to find out the status of the complaint they told me that I need to wait for 4 more weeks. If this can happen in US.....

Avatar of: Kathy Barker

Kathy Barker

Posts: 44

April 15, 2013

MonZop, you captured well a really important point! Yes, it would be just as valid to show an image of a male scientist as members of the Maasai tribe, from the point of view of general topics of the article (anthropology, sexual harassment). It would also be more relevant to the point of the article. This picture gives the immediate impression that women are being harassed by Maasai men.

I can't help but wonder if the societal prohibition against picturing any science males in this way is the same one that protects males with power  involved in sexual harassment.

Good article- but take down the picture!

Avatar of: kienhoa68


Posts: 37

April 25, 2013

There is such a thing as going on  the offensive as a group. Name names. Once it's out there, and it should be, then some rational debate as to solutions to being human can commence.

No one should have to put up with poorly socialized or psychopathic behavior. No amount of accomplishment will ever excuse such acts.  If you know someone is bothering you make it known. 

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