Survey Finds Sexual Harassment in Anthropology

13 April 2013 9:00 am

Fieldwork is a rite of passage for anthropologists. It gives the initiate firsthand knowledge of a culture, along with a feeling of camaraderie with colleagues, often in remote and rugged locations. But for women there is also a dark side—a risk of sexual harassment and rape, according to a survey of fieldwork experiences released today. Anthropologist Kathryn Clancy, who authored the study, found a disturbingly high incidence of physical sexual harassment among respondents: More than 20% of female bioanthropologists who took part said that they had experienced "physical sexual harassment or unwanted sexual contact." Most of these victims are female, and most of the perpetrators were colleagues of superior professional status, sometimes the victim's own fieldwork mentor.

The idea for the survey took shape in 2011 when Clancy, a professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, was talking to a friend, a female bioanthropologist like herself. The friend was traumatized, Clancy says: She had been raped in the field by a colleague, and her mentor convinced her to keep quiet for the sake of her career.

"It was like a slap in the face to learn that this was happening to my friends," Clancy says. In contrast, she describes her own Ph.D. fieldwork as "paradise." It took place in Poland and, just by chance, all the anthropologists at the site were female.

Clancy writes the Context and Variation blog for Scientific American. Starting in January of last year, she started posting anonymized sexual harassment horror stories that female colleagues shared with her. Anonymous comments started rolling in from fellow scientists, describing nasty experiences that they had never shared. "I have had people from nonbioanthro field sites contact me since I started writing about this," Clancy says. "This is definitely not limited to just my discipline."

Clancy decided to get a more rigorous assessment of the problem. She pulled in three of her bioanthropology colleagues as collaborators, Katie Hinde (Harvard University), Robin Nelson (University of California, Riverside), and Julienne Rutherford (University of Illinois, Chicago).

In February, they launched an online survey of fieldwork experiences, polling colleagues via e-mail, Facebook, and blogs. Clancy presented early results of the survey today at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA) in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Within the first month, 98 women and 23 men responded. Here are some of the troubling results:

At your field site how frequently have you observed or heard about other researchers and colleagues making inappropriate or sexual remarks?

The frequencies reported by men and women were nearly identical, with about 30% reporting that verbal abuse occurred "regularly" or "frequently" at field sites.

Have you ever personally experienced inappropriate or sexual remarks, comments about physical beauty, cognitive sex differences, or other jokes, at an anthropological field site?

Here the difference between men and women's experiences diverged. Sixty-three percent of women said that they had been the targets of these comments, compared with 39% of men.

Have you ever experienced physical sexual harassment or unwanted sexual contact?

Twenty-one percent of women said yes, as well as one out of the 23 men.

The survey included a section where respondents could freely describe their field site experiences. The reported abuses included subtle gender exclusion, inappropriate comments about a woman's body, groping, and sexual assault.

Less than 20% of abuses involved people from the community around a field site. Instead, most of the abuse happened within the team of researchers, usually perpetrated by someone higher in the professional hierarchy. Perhaps most troubling, some said that they had been victimized by their own fieldwork mentors.

Although the problem of sexual harassment and assault of women in the military is widely known, it's not openly discussed in bioanthropology. Hinde, who has been doing the analysis of the survey data, is not surprised that female scientists keep quiet. "Quitting a field site, not completing and publishing research, and/or loss of letters of recommendation can have potent consequences for academic careers," she says. "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."

The president of AAPA, Lorena Madrigal, provided Science with an official statement in reaction to the survey results. "I am shocked, angry, disillusioned, and sad about the events these women recount. … I just thought this did not happen anymore, and I am still in shock to hear that it does."

The survey is ongoing and has expanded to other areas of science that involve fieldwork. If you are a field scientist, you can take the survey yourself.