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Study Digs into Sexual Harassment During Fieldwork

Ambiguous rules and absent consequences are linked to harassment.

Oct 17, 2017
Ashley P. Taylor

ISTOCK, MARQUESPHOTOGRAPHYThe disgrace of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein after reports of allegations that he sexually harassed and assaulted women throughout his career has prompted social-media choruses of #metoo by women who have experienced similar mistreatment. And the “me toos” extend to academic fieldwork.

A study published last week (October 11) in American Anthropologist, based on interviews with 26 researchers in the physical, social, and life sciences who had done fieldwork, sought to determine the factors associated with harassment at fieldwork sites. Ambiguity about the rules of appropriate behavior and what the study authors describe as “denial of access or entrée to professional opportunities” were the major themes of the interviews, as Inside Higher Ed reports.

The present study follows up on a 2014 PLOS ONE report that surveyed social, physical, and life scientists who had done fieldwork and revealed widespread sexual harassment in the field.

The study analyzed interviews conducted as part of the 2014 survey. The 26 interviewees were selected non-randomly from among the survey respondents willing to be interviewed in order to reflect diverse experiences. The interviewees were “mostly anthropologists and archaeologists, and the group was overwhelmingly female,” Inside Higher Ed reports. Although experiences varied, “the authors found that field experiences tended to differ in nature—good or bad—based on the presence or absence of rules and consequences for any violations of the rules,” the news report continues.

Interviewees described feeling that their skills and expertise were undervalued and they felt alienated after being asked to follow gendered divisions of labor—asking women to do the cooking, for example—and subjected to grueling and sometimes extraneous “tests of physical prowess,” as the study authors write. One interviewee described the way her senior collaborators repeatedly diminished the value of the work she’d done in the field. In the study, these reports all fell under the category of “restrictions to access” to opportunities.

Study participants also reported a wide range of harassment—from inappropriate jokes to having to conduct meetings naked—and assault, including rape.

The study authors describe field sites using a traffic light metaphor. A “green” site has both clear rules and consequences for violating those rules. A yellow site has rules but no consequences, and a red site has neither rules nor consequences. “Those workplaces that are tolerant of alienating or harassing behavior, consistent with ‘red’ and ‘yellow’ contexts as described here, silence those targeted, while those with rules, enforcement and leadership, as in ‘green’ contexts, are expected to enhance productivity and innovation” write the authors of the study.

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