Women in fields of science experience an alarmingly high amount of sexual harassment and assault while at work. Researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign surveyed men and women in anthropology, archaeology, geology, and other scientific fields. The study appears in the journal PLOS ONE.

"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," said the study’s lead researcher, Kate Clancy, a University of Illinois anthropology professor, who led the new analysis, in a press release. "We worry this is at least one mechanism driving women from science."

Considering 64 percent of survey respondents reported experiencing sexual harassment in the form of inappropriate sexual remarks, jokes, and cognitive sex differences, it is no surprise this behavior may serve as a deterrent for young women. In addition, 20 percent reported they had been victims of sexual assault, primarily defined as unwanted physical contact in a sexual manner of touching, physical threats, or rape. Men were not excluded from the survey, which included 142 and 516 women.

More than 90 percent of women and 70 percent of men were trainees or employees at the time they experienced the sexual abuse. Even worse, five of the trainees who reported sexual harassment were high school students. Field research, which is work performed outside of the classroom to gain hands-on professional experience, is a degree requirement in most scientific disciplines.

"Fieldwork is often what stirs the first interest in science in a young person, and research has shown that scientists who do more fieldwork write more papers and get more grants," Clancy said. "We have to pay attention to how people are treated there."

Trainees in the field, which are considered undergraduate, graduate students, and postdoctoral researchers, reported they had experienced the highest number of sexual harassment or assault while they were in the field far away from home, which was significantly more than faculty members had reported. Female researchers reported the sexual abuse typically came from a researcher in a superior ranking than them, or from scientists working on the same site. Males were more likely to be targeted by their peers.

"Previous work by other researchers has shown that being targeted by one's superior in the workplace has a more severe impact on psychological well-being and job performance than when the perpetrator is a peer," the study’s co-author, Julienne Rutherford, said in the press release. "This suggests that women may be even more burdened by the phenomenon of workplace sexual aggression."

Opening dialogue by conducting this survey may encourage professional communities to brainstorm solutions and effective channels of help for field researchers of all ages in order to better the learning experience and encourage a safe environment for women, and even men in the field. According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Crime Victimization Survey, every two minutes someone in the United States is sexually assaulted.

"We are the first researchers to characterize the experiences of scientists at field sites, and our findings are troubling," Clancy said. "If you are on constant high alert because you have been harassed or you are at a site where you know it happens regularly, it drains your cognitive reserves and makes you less effective at your job. No one can work well under those conditions, and we can't ask trainees to keep doing so. Field sciences are intellectually impoverished when hostile field sites drive out underrepresented scientists."

Source: Clancy KBH, Nelson RG, Rutherford JN, Hinde K. Survey of academic field experiences (SAFE): Trainees report harassment and assault. PLOS ONE. 2014.