Working in the field sounds like a scientist's dream, but how scared should you be of your colleagues when you are working outside of the lab? The largest survey yet to tackle this question, published today, suggests that sexual harassment and assault is a problem among scientists carrying out fieldwork - and that women trainees are disproportionately vulnerable.

The authors, led by anthropologist Kathryn Clancy of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says that fieldwork harassment could even be contributing to the broader problem of a lack of women in science. “We worry this is at least one mechanisms driving women from science,” said Clancy in a statement.

The new work builds on a smaller study presented in April 2013 at the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in Knoxville, Tennessee. Back then, Clancy's team surveyed 122 researchers conducting fieldwork in biological anthropology, either by telephone or online: 59% reported experiencing inappropriate sexual comments while working in the field, and 18% reported physical harassment or assault. In response to the presentation, the American Anthropological Association issued a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment.

Now Clancy's team has followed the initial work up with a bigger, broader internet-only survey. This time, over 600 field scientists -142 men, 516 women - filled out the survey, the respondents came from a range of scientific disciplines including anthropology, archaeology and geology and the questions covered a broader scope.

Trainees vulnerable

The team report in PLOS One that sixty four per cent of respondents said they had experienced sexual harassment and more than 20 per cent reported that they had experienced sexual assault. The majority of those reporting harassment were trainees, which was defined in the study as undergraduate or postgraduate students and postdoctoral researchers, while five of them were in high school at the time of the incident.

The primary targets were women trainees, and the perpetrators were predominantly in more senior positions. In many instances, the victims did not report the abuse at the time. Respondents rarely reported being given codes of conduct and sexual harassment policies before the fieldwork was undertaken, so many victims were unaware of the process for dealing with incidents of abuse.

Of those who did file formal complaints, few were satisfied with the outcome. As a result, the negative effects of the abuse lasted to such an extent that some researchers left science altogether.

The authors acknowledge that there data has some limitations. The sample was potentially biased by self-selection, as people may have been more likely to respond if they had negative experiences to report or to forward the survey link to people who they thought might have something negative to report. Equally though, knowing the theme of the survey may have led some people being less likely to participate, if they were reluctant to share difficult personal stories.

The authors also tackle the potential criticism that people with negative experiences may have taken the survey multiple times, leading to disproportionate representation of their views in the dataset, by explaining that the majority of respondents provided an email address as a unique identifier.

Lessons from animals

The team suggest that the field experiences of researchers, particularly those in the early stages, could be improved by clear policies stating the mechanisms for reporting of harassment and assault, and for responding to such reports.

Clancy also points out that the lack of training in protecting researchers carrying out fieldwork is at odds with the training required for hiring staff, working with blood and working with animals, for example. As she explains, “We have to go through Institutional Review Boards to protect our research subjects. We have to go through animal protocols to protect our animals. But we don’t have to protect our researchers in the field.”

Kate Hendry, an Earth scientist at the University of Bristol has extensive experience in field-based science, particularly in situations with a huge gender imbalance. “I’ve always had a very positive experience during my career as a field scientist,” she says. “Attitudes towards women in fieldwork are changing and policies are being put in place to actually make things better.”

However, while less positive situations are still occurring for some fieldworkers, male or female, there is a clear need for more of these improving policies, as well as training to prepare researchers and stronger regulations for dealing with those unacceptable situations if they do arise.

This neglect in fieldwork could even be driving women from science, adds Clancy. Perversely, rather than fieldwork inspiring excitement about the research and encouraging researchers to pursue a scientific career, it could end up being the very thing that puts them off.