Surviving the Trenches

By Leila A. McNeill

Working in the field is a necessity in all areas of the applied earth sciences, like geology, paleontology, and archaeology. Aside from necessity, fieldwork can be one of the most exciting and attractive parts of pursuing a career in the earth sciences. However, the field can also be a dangerous place, not just from injury or illness, but because people can’t keep their hands off of each other. In July of 2014, PLOS ONE published a study about sexual assault and harassment among scientists out in the field. Unsurprisingly, sexual violence is prevalent, but this study provided much needed data on the issue. The authors found that of 666 scientists, 64% reported personally experiencing sexual harassment, and a staggering 22% reported actual sexual assault, with women disproportionately targeted. Female respondents were 3.5 times more likely to report sexual harassment than male respondents. Women were also more likely to have been victims of sexual assault--26% of women and 6% of men,--and women were more likely to be targeted by a superior rather than a peer. 

In addition to reporting various forms of sexual violence, respondents also answered questions about harassment policy. While universities themselves have a code of conduct, people seem to think that those don’t apply outside of university walls. The study found that less than 50% of all respondents reported ever having encountered a code of conduct or sexual harassment policy at field sites; only 18% of victims had knowledge of recourse for reporting the assault. The authors suggest that improved policies that clearly outline the procedures for reporting sexual violence would help improve the hostile environment and perhaps even keep women from leaving their chosen field. This suggestion, however, places the onus of changing the mentality and behavior that sustains sexual violence entirely on victims instead of on the perpetrators and the culture of academic science that normalizes gender discrimination and gender-based violence.

The culture of gender discrimination toward women in the field has a long and persistent history. Like labs, which have their own set of gender-based problems, the field has been predominantly a white male space. According to the male establishment, the sciences required a certain amount of mental rigor that women supposedly couldn’t possess. Moreover, education and science was something that women shouldn’t pursue because intelligence, as a male trait, would masculinize women by shifting reproductive energy away from the uterus to the brain. And what is a woman really without her reproductive powers?

Unlike the other sciences, applied field work also required a physical prowess of which women were incapable anatomically. Making an argument from medical ‘science,’ male physicians and many men of science held that women should only expend enough energy to conceive and bear children; anything beyond that would lead to masculinization (gross!). Therefore, physically demanding occupations and other physical activities, such as sports and exercise, were off limits to middle and upper class women-- working class women were not part of this because they had been working labor intensive jobs outside the home for sometime to provide for their families.

This repeated and sustained assault against women’s minds and bodies curtailed women’s mobility, relegated them to the home,and kept them away from the field. In the 19th century, some European universities opened their doors to women; though oftentimes they still weren’t allowed to receive degrees. In many British universities, laboratories were open to women before the field was, but women in geoscience programs found their behavior restricted. In many instances, women weren’t allowed to leave university grounds without a chaperone, which had to be a married woman or a university don, and they were often required to abide by a dress code. With these restrictions in place, women in the field usually served as partners, wives, or assistants to ‘proper’ scientists. Even though there were several exceptions, women on their own in the field were not particularly common. Through explicit exclusion from the earth sciences and insane regulations on women’s behaviors and bodies, men of science made it clear that the field was a male space.

Over the decades, university policies have obviously changed dramatically. Universities accept women, confer degrees in all the sciences to women, and earth science departments allow women to enter the field without the company of a man while also wearing pants. However, none of these policy changes are without continued gender, racial, and ability based bias--policy change rarely ever equals change in culture. 

According to a 2011 Geoscience Workforce Report conducted by the American Geologic Institute, the geosciences had the lowest number of women compared to other scientific disciplines, and within the geosciences itself, fieldwork heavy occupations, like mining and geological engineering, had the least women at only 2%. This seems in part due to the fact that women don't go on to pursue academic careers or high level positions in geosciences even though 40% of earth science degrees are earned by women. Without women pursuing careers that are fieldwork intensive, which is in large part due to gender discrimination and lack of female role models in senior positions, the earth sciences remains a boys club and the field continues to be seen as male space. Women still primarily occupy junior level positions at field sites as students, while men maintain a hold on the majority of senior level positions as supervisors and professors. It is then not surprising that most female victims in the 2014 study reported being harassed or assaulted by a superior. 

The gendering of these work spaces not only dissuades women from pursuing careers in the earth sciences but also might force them to change their research priorities. Geobiologist A. Hope Jahren did just that after she was sexually assaulted during fieldwork in Turkey. She wasn’t assaulted by someone on her team, rather a local, but without another woman authority on her team and no known university support, Jahren had no recourse available to her. She now works in a lab where she feels that she has more control over her space. Jahren’s case doesn't seem to be an anomaly as she says she knows many women who choose to conduct fieldwork in countries that are ‘safer’ for women, even if it is just an illusion of safety. Women are more likely to choose fieldwork closer to home if given the choice, and with fear of sexual assault from inside and outside the institution and with very few means to protect themselves or pursue justice if victimized, one can hardly blame them. 

Outlining and enforcing codes of conduct at sites is absolutely necessary to decrease sexual harassment and assault in the field. Making procedures for reporting visible and available to all victims will surely help some victims find justice and maybe even keep women from leaving the earth sciences. But none of these will enact lasting change for women or guarantee their safety when they enter male spaces. The rules of the past that governed women’s behavior and bodies in the field may no longer exist in the books, but continued violence against their bodies that the culture of academic science perpetuates still keeps them out of the field and close to the home. 

Further Reading
A. Hope Jahren, “Science’s Sexual Assault Problem,” The New York Times, September 2014.

C.V. Burek and B. Higgs, eds., The Role of Women in the History of Geology (Bath, UK: The Geological Society Publishing House, 2007).