The Harassment Problem in Scientific Dream Jobs

Fieldwork in far-flung places is exciting and rewarding—until it's not. Only recently have insiders—mostly women—been able to start changing the culture.


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When geologist Jane Willenbring was a 22-year-old graduate student, in 1999, she got to live what should have been a geologist’s masochistic dream: working from Antarctica’s Beacon Valley, one of the places on Earth that’s most like Mars. In that otherworldly landscape, Willenbring, another graduate student, their adviser David Marchant, and Marchant’s brother camped out in temperatures as low as minus 40 degrees. There were no other options that far from the civilized McMurdo Station. So they slept cold, hiked cold, and dug cold, unearthing ancient ice and volcanic ash. They were in it for the science.

Science wrote about this trip in October 2017—not because of the geochemical conclusions from the fieldwork, but instead because of the allegations that Willenbring brought forward. Seventeen years after the expedition was over, when she was senior enough that she was no longer worried it would ruin her career to do so, Willenbring accused Marchant of harassment and assault, in a location where she could do little but endure.

In a complaint filed with Boston University, Science reported, Willenbring alleges that Marchant had “repeatedly shoved her down a steep slope, pelted her with rocks while she was urinating in the field, called her a ‘slut’ and a ‘whore,’ and urged her to have sex with his brother, who was also on the trip.” Boston University, Science later said, did not find credible evidence to conclude that Marchant had physically assaulted Willenbring. But the investigation did conclude that he harassed her and created a hostile work and living environment with “sex-based slurs and sexual comments.” After denying his appeal this past February, the university is continuing to take steps to fire Marchant, who has undertaken more than 25 Antarctic expeditions over the course of his career.

The science world was horrified—but not necessarily surprised—by the extremity of the allegations. Fieldwork is often isolated, dangerous, and exposed. And when you’re living in your research tent, there is no separation between work and life. The only way out of the situation, sometimes, is a helicopter you may not be able to call, depending on who has the satellite phone and whether they’re the problem in the first place.

“I think potential harassers will use that [isolated] situation to their advantage,” says Anne Kelly, an ecohydrologist who directs the UC Merced Yosemite and Sequoia Field Stations, “because they know they can get away with stuff they may not be able to get away with in normal circumstances.”

Recent surveys have shown just how often scientists in the field do get away with things they might not in the lab, and why. Other research has revealed that a solution is, if not simple, at least available: clear guidelines that are actually enforced. A growing group, mostly of women scientists and the organizations they’re part of, is spearheading efforts to finally hold institutions accountable.

The harassment Willenbring describes happened nearly 20 years ago. And while she filed her complaint in 2016, Science’s article landed on October 6, 2017—one day after New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey published their first Harvey Weinstein investigation, ushering in the #MeToo movement.

By that point, though, science had already been embroiled in its own sort of #MeToo movement for a couple years. It began with a 2015 BuzzFeed story about astronomer Geoff Marcy, the patriarch of planets beyond our solar system, and his alleged harassment of four women over more than a decade. (Marcy has since apologized.) After that, more new stories explored just how the dynamics of academia abetted harassment. Caltech astrophysicist Christian Ott fell in love with his graduate student, told her so (a lot), and then fired her when she didn’t reciprocate his feelings. An investigation that finished in September 2016, first reported at BuzzFeed, found that Ott violated school harassment policies with that student and with another, in whom he’d confided about the first student. The university placed Ott on nine months of unpaid leave and prescribed “rehabilitative” training, although he later resigned. At the American Museum of Natural History, paleoanthropologist Brian Richmond resigned after a research assistant accused him of assaulting her in a hotel room at a conference in Italy—an allegation that was followed by accounts from three other students who said he groped them during field school.

Although Richmond’s assistant provided her account to HR, the three students didn’t initially file paperwork, although they have since provided written testimony to AMNH. Most students don’t report infractions (which professors know) in part because their careers can be made or broken by their supervisors. Universities also depend on the federal grant money that professors siphon in and are therefore disincentivized from punishing them. Perhaps as a result, investigations can be at once protracted and perfunctory. And whatever the results of those investigations, allegations and conclusions are usually confidential, so there is no permanent record. That, in part, prompted California representative Jackie Speier to introduce a bill that would require colleges and universities to disclose substantiated and alleged sex-based discrimination to federal funding agencies. As Marjorie Kirk of the Student Press Law Center noted in 2017, after the National Women’s Law Center filed a Freedom of Information Act complaint against the Department of Education for failing to provide records, “administrators refuse to release important records to the public…Without access to the records produced by universities, schools, and the Department of Education, there is little journalists, much less the public, can do to make sure that these public institutions are doing everything they should to make campuses safe.”

72 percent of the surveyed scientists had seen or heard about verbal harassment at their most recent or most notable field site.

Most of science’s #MeToo stories have been confined to campus, the ivory tower, and raucous conferences at bland hotels. But a 2014 survey by anthropologist Kate Clancy, published in the journal PLOS One, showed that the problem also contaminates the hills, fields, mountains, and glaciers where scientists conduct research. In scientific disciplines where fieldwork may be the norm (biological sciences, geosciences, and environmental sciences), women make up about 45 percent of the researchers, and people of color—also likely targets of harassment—comprise just 14 percent of workers, according to 2017 numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In 2011, a bioanthropologist friend of Clancy’s said a colleague had sexually assaulted her while they were doing fieldwork. The bioanthropologist’s mentor had advised her to keep the incident quiet so that it didn’t alter her professional path. Soon after, in January 2012, Clancy began posting women’s fieldwork accounts to her Scientific American blog. “I have heard enough of these by now, stories of harassment and assault, of belittling and being passed over, of subtle and overt sexism, that I feel it’s time to share some of them,” she wrote.

After that, even more people contacted Clancy with their own stories. Ever the scientist, Clancy decided it was time to quantify the problem. So, in 2013, she conducted a survey of 666 field scientists, male and female. The results were disturbing: 72 percent of the scientists had seen or heard about verbal harassment at their most recent or most notable field site, 64 percent had experienced sexual harassment in the field, and more than 20 percent had experienced assault. Men were usually harassed by their peers; women by their superiors. Less than a quarter of the respondents had worked at a field site with any kind of sexual harassment policy.

Clancy followed up with 26 of the respondents who agreed to one-on-one interviews about their experiences. The researchers chose people at different stages in their careers and made sure to broaden the pool beyond people who self-identified as straight and white.

After speaking with them, Clancy and and her colleague Robin Nelson could generally sort those scientists’ experiences into broad categories of what harassment often looks like in the field: alienation, unnecessary tests of physical prowess, gendered divisions of labor, and sexual harassment and assault. One woman, for instance, described an expedition on which the researchers would set off from base camp on long, hard days with no warning or advance preparation. “I would try to vocalize, ‘I am tired. I can’t go any further. I need to eat,’” she says. The second time she spoke up, two other female researchers agreed it was time to refuel. “We started getting snide comments like, ‘Oh, well the ladies are hungry, so I guess we have to leave,’” she says.

And when it came time to work rather than trek, the tasks tended to fall along gender lines. “The men actually get to do the discovery,” Clancy says. “They get to twiddle the knobs on the equipment or do the actual digging.” The women get to write down what’s happening or clean the samples. Then, when it’s time to publish the results, the men tend to get more credit—which can have a cumulative negative effect on women’s careers.

In trying to understand what the interviews revealed in aggregate, Clancy and her colleagues categorized the respondents’ field experiences. “Norms of conduct fell along a continuum that we categorize from Red to Yellow to Green contexts,” they wrote in the resulting paper. Red (bad, always) meant no professional rules existed and no consequences for violating social norms. People experienced more harassment, assault, and career consequences. In “yellow” contexts, some rules were in place, but perpetrators suffered either no or uneven consequences. Perhaps unsurprisingly, people broke the yellow rules. The only good contexts were the “green” ones: Rules were clear and communicated, and people were punished for breaking them.

While it’s clear from the numbers that red and yellow experiences, and consequent bad behavior, have proliferated in the past, many organizations overseeing scientific fields are attempting to ameliorate that. In 2017, the American Geophysical Union reclassified harassment not just as regular old misconduct but as scientific misconduct, in the same category as infractions like plagiarism and data fabrication. And at other scientific organizations, like the American Astronomical Society, harassment and bullying are listed on equally bad footing as unethical research practices and can result in a private reprimand, a denial of membership privileges (or of membership), public censure, and/or a note about sanctions sent to the harasser’s institution. If would-be National Science Foundation grantees want money, their institution will have to disclose the results of any harassment cases filed against them.

In other words, violators won’t just get wrist-slapped: They’ll get their grants taken away, their membership in the scientific societies revoked, and their presence at conferences banned. They’ll be alienated from the scientific community, just as they alienated others.

Clancy’s group isn’t the only one to try to quantify field-specific harassment, though it is the largest. With funding from the NSF, the Earth Science Women’s Network (ESWN) found in a 2010 survey of scientists that 51 percent of its 498 female respondents and 6 percent of its 72 male respondents had experienced harassment during their careers. Now, through another NSF grant, the ESWN, the American Geophysical Union, and the Association of Women Geoscientists have teamed up with university researchers to get even more statistics. “I feel that one data point is too many people who are being harassed,” says Erika Marín-Spiotta, the grant’s lead. “But people respond to numbers. Especially scientists.”

Marín-Spiotta and her colleagues don’t plan to stop at getting more data points, though they plan to do that as well. But most of their efforts will be proactive, like developing tools to recolor field experiences—that is, to make them greener.

They will, for example, train people about what to do if they see a bad situation forming. “When these situations are unfolding in the field, a lot of times there’s actually somebody there,” says Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, one of the grant’s co-investigators. “But people are either afraid of the consequences for themselves, or they might just feel like, ‘It’s none of my business.’” The group is planning to develop trainings that teach scientists to recognize harassment as it’s happening and to know what to do about it.

One person who was assaulted couldn’t confront her data when she got home. It wasn’t just scientific fodder anymore: It had become a reminder of the trauma.

Normally, says co-investigator Meredith Hastings, the kinds of case studies people encounter in HR workshops are black and white. In real life, says Hastings, “almost every situation you encounter is gray.” The group plans to create trainings—in person, online—to help people differentiate those shades.

Of course, real life isn’t always subtle. Hastings hears people talk, on every expedition, about fieldwork as if it’s a free-for-all where bad behavior is expected—where it doesn’t even “count,” as if Antarctica is Las Vegas. “Literally every time I have gone into the field, I have heard that kind of comment,” Hastings says. While at her career level, the comments come from colleagues, those same colleagues are students’ superiors.

No one, Hastings says, should have that extra boulder placed in front of them. “Imagine that you’re someone who loves spending time outdoors, and you decide to make a career of it,” she says. “That might be a field geologist. And then to have that essentially ruined for you.”

Harassment can have career-altering effects on women scientists. One person who was assaulted couldn’t confront her data when she got home. It wasn’t just scientific fodder anymore: It had become a reminder of the trauma. “Any time I tried to think about [my project], it put me back in that field and back in that incident,” the respondent told Clancy.

Another, who left a field site because of a hostile environment, had to suppress thoughts, feelings, and accusations about her harasser if she wanted to keep studying the same topic. “Because I work in this area of the world and work at certain sites where he is pretty well-known, it kind of became clear that I was going to have to play along a little bit of the political game,” the respondent told Clancy. “Because my research was now starting to be centered around this area, and he had this reputation and everyone knew him.”

Anne Kelly, director of Yosemite and Sequoia Field Stations, sees all of this play out, because she works full-time at a remote field station. Much of her day-to-day involves making sure researchers, with their varying levels of backcountry experience, are safe and prepared: that they know how to deal with broken femurs, grizzly bears, and topo maps. But Kelly, who started at Yosemite in 2016, has also added harassment and assault safety to her agenda. Kelly has been working against sexual assault at universities for about ten years, and she’s been developing field harassment and bullying policy for about three years.

Kelly’s big on having a clear way for people to report harassment problems and sending them to remote ridges only when they have a clear understanding of what “problems” look like. She wants rules, reporting, and repercussions all laid out like a route plan. Kelly says that currently, at the level of a field station like hers, “the rules are only enforced to the extent that the field station manager enforces them.” One of her next big initiatives is to get scientists’ home institutions “to develop methods and meaningful support” for more universal implementation of those policies. For now, “just having those in place and visible go a long way for changing the culture and letting people know what behavioral expectations are,” Kelly says. Even if some scientists don’t think there’s anything wrong with assaulting a student beneath starlight when she has nowhere but a cliff to run to and also needs to keep gathering data on alkaliphiles, they can still feel the fear of getting caught. This, absent actual morals, can go a long way.

Getting out in front of the problem is especially important for scientists, who come from a world that’s imbalanced even in the office. “Academia itself has a really unhealthy power dynamic between supervisors and students,” Kelly says. People usually work in a small subfield for their whole career, so the person supervising their studies will likely show up at the same conferences and in the same collaborations—forever. The need to keep someone in your life and happy, when they’re being destructive toward you, can be an anvil to the psyche. “We see it play out on campus in really unhealthy ways,” Kelly says. “Then, if power dynamics are already toxic, I think that kind of stuff gets worse when you’re in a remote location.”

Up until recently, people didn’t really talk about how much worse it got, or how often. “If you didn’t see it, it was easy to pretend it wasn’t real or was rare,” Kelly says. Word spread in so-called whisper networks, in which women warn each other about who to avoid and why.

Then came a 2016 report from the Interior Department’s inspector general: Park Service employees had perpetrated “a long-term pattern of sexual harassment and hostile work environment” on Grand Canyon river trips. Some of the affected rafters were scientists, just trying to do geology. Some were conservationists, just trying to restore the waterway. There was no ignoring it at that point: The call was coming from inside the house, and it was loud.

Since then, Kelly’s efforts have been a bit more appreciated. And she’s been actively improving Yosemite, leading workshops for other sites, and implementing preemptive policies—policies a stratum deeper than “don’t get drunk and assault people,” and more like “the supervisor shouldn’t be the only one with car keys.”

Still, some colleagues have questioned the utility of her crusade, saying harassment isn’t that frequent, so do we really need to have such official protocols? “Lighting strikes aren’t that common either, but we have lightning-safety field protocols,” Kelly says. “And people get struck by lightning way less than they get assaulted.”