Vulnerable in the Field: Sexual Assault Is Common Among Scientists

How are universities working to curb the prevalence of harassment against researchers?


When she was a graduate student, geobiologist A. Hope Jahren planned to study a little-understood body of water under southwestern Turkey. “I dreamed of an ocean of hot water underneath Denizli Province, an ocean that occasionally sloshes out onto the surface to form ice-blue thermal springs,” she wrote in a September op-ed published in the New York Times. Jahren was a promising graduate student, she noted, and diligently went to scope out the region before committing completely to a life of researching it.

But then she was sexually assaulted. “It was broad daylight when I began walking back to the hotel, and a stranger pulled me into a stairwell—and then did some other things. Perhaps an hour later I staggered out with his blood under my fingernails,” she wrote. She still doesn’t know exactly what happened, but she knows she will never return to that region of Turkey. Instead, she now studies plants in a lab in Hawaii. “I still love rocks and I still dream of the ancient Aegean seas, but for the better part of my career I’ve sealed myself into a locked laboratory, a small well-lit world that I can control.”

Sexual misconduct at universities has emerged front and center in national news. Most of this discussion about the epidemic has centered around undergraduates on campus. But a study published in July indicates that sexual misconduct happens at the same rates—about one in five people—to scientists working in the field, oftentimes when they're conducting research away from their home institution. They rarely know where or how to report these cases. Most disturbingly, in the majority of incidents involving women, the perpetrators were the victims' superiors and supervisors.

Sometimes, as in Jahren’s case, the victims end up switching subjects within the science field; in other cases, the victims quit science altogether. But little consensus exists about the solution to the problem—and whether the onus is on universities to update their misconduct policies or on society as a whole, which some argue perpetuates a culture of sexual violence.

The July study involved an online survey of more than 650 male and female scientists who do research. The study's authors found that nearly two out of every three respondents had experienced verbal sexual harassment while doing fieldwork and that more than 20 percent of them had been sexually assaulted (for context, the Centers for Disease Control estimates that a similar percentage of undergraduate women experienced sexual assault in college). Female respondents to the survey were much more likely than males to report having experienced sexual harassment and assault. Men, however, were more likely than women to be targeted by their peers—while females were more likely than males to experience misconduct from their supervisors.

Fieldwork is a critical part of science. Some researchers can restrict their work to a lab, synthesizing chemicals or running analyses. But scientists in disciplines that are more applied, such as anthropology and geology, often take their research out of the lab and into the real world. They go out and collect samples, take measurements, and gather data to analyze later.

This fieldwork can make researchers more vulnerable to the dangers of that real world. Young scientists collaborate with people from other institutions doing similar work, which is as competitive as it is exhilarating. They’re far from their homes, their advisors, their communities. So if something traumatic happens, the impact can be more dramatic than it would be if such an incident happened at home. “When students go into the field, they have been dreaming their whole lives to be like Jane Goodall—they’re realizing their life’s dream in an intense environment,” said Michelle Bezanson, an anthropology professor at California's Santa Clara University. “Everything that happens can make you question your place, if you’re any good at this.”

Most universities have policies to comply with Title IX, a federal law that in part requires schools to address complaints of sexual misconduct that may interfere with the educational experience, said Kathryn Clancy, an anthropology professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the lead author of the July study. “What gets interesting is that there is likely huge variation in the experience of these policies, and cultural conditions around the safety of reporting likely vary as well.”

When sexual misconduct happens in the field, victims may feel that reporting the misconduct would create unwanted tensions and rifts in small academic communities. “I think it’s possible that one might be less likely to report misconduct from a person in power because they’re trying to meet their academic goals,” Bezanson said. Indeed, researchers often have a range objectives in mind when it comes to their relationships with their supervisors, from job recommendations to collaboration on a dissertation. Victims—understandably—may not want to ruffle feathers when their reputations are at stake.

Even if they decide to report the misconduct, victims rarely know where to turn. Clancy cited one occasion in which she talked to a female student who was dawdling on her dissertation. The student revealed that she had been sexually assaulted a few years ago in the field and that she got flashbacks every time she sat down to write her dissertation. What made the whole situation worse was that when the student tried to report the incident to her advisor, “her supervisor laughed in her face," Clancy said.

Universities’ sexual misconduct policies generally cover students even when they’re not on campus. Schools often have resources for students to report incidents while abroad, said Bryan Endres, Associate Provost of International Affairs at the University of Illinois.

“It is critical that women in the field who are at heightened risk of sexual harassment and violence be aware of the policy and confident that they can report violations in a way that will not harm their careers,” said Suzanne B. Goldberg, a law professor and special advisor on sexual assault prevention and response at Columbia University in New York City.

Columbia, along with other institutions such as Ohio State University, recently updated its sexual misconduct policy. But of the nine universities that I called for this story, those were the only two institutions that mentioned any updates at all. Some universities couldn’t even direct me to the right person to ask. I questioned Judy Asbury, interim director of media relations at California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California, about what it would take to change these policies—if a study like Clancy’s doesn’t inspire change, what would? “There are a host of activities that inform policies at Caltech, including legal cases and new legislation of course, but also engagement with peer institutions and other organizations as well as our own community.” It seems that change only happens when universities are pushed into it.

But Clancy doesn’t think that university policies necessarily need to change. “If we can’t trust universities to meet the needs of our students, we need to identify the core values of our university and how [we can] be intentional in creating a system consistent with the kinds of things we think are important,” she said. “I don’t trust administrators to make a change. The community has to push the administration.”

Santa Clara’s Bezanson has found a policy that she thinks has been more effective. Every summer she runs field workshops in Costa Rica for undergraduate anthropology students. It’s a different cultural context and an intense experience, she said, so she makes her students sign a contract about sexual misconduct that builds on the university’s policy. At the beginning of the workshop, they all sit down and go over the contract, clearing up any doubts about resources or whom to turn to. “It’s important for students to know it does happen, this is supposed to be a safe environment,” she said. In the contract she lists specific phone numbers for students to call to report misconduct to the university, giving them some distance from the people immediately around them if they need it. By giving her students these resources and talking about sexual misconduct up front, Bezanson hopes that these students will help create a cultural shift where sexual misconduct is not permissible. “I’m hopeful that culture change will happen. It doesn’t appear that having policies written down makes a difference,” she said.

Other academics are catching on, reaching out to Bezanson to request a copy of her policy to use in their own workshops. “I see the document as a place to begin the discussion, allow students to discuss sexual misconduct and know that there are people that care about the issue,” Bezanson said. “We need to better educate our students about what harassment and misconduct are in general so they feel safe to report it. That’s the dialogue we need to have.”