When Scientists Are Sexually Harassed in the Field

“It could be traumatizing to even look at the data” from a research expedition.

A signpost with the distances to various destinations against a snowy background
Natacha Pisarenk / AP

Last week, a day after The New York Times reported many years’ worth of sexual-harassment allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein, another alarming report appeared, this one in Science magazine. The setting was different—Antarctic research expeditions, not Hollywood—but the narrative was the same. A man, well aware of his position of power, had preyed on women in his field, and his behavior had gone unchecked for years.

According to Science, Boston University is investigating sexual-harassment allegations against David Marchant, an Antarctic geologist and now department chair at the school, brought by two women, his former graduate students. The women say Marchant verbally and physically harassed them during research expeditions in Antarctica two decades ago. Science writer Meredith Wadman reported that documents related to the case suggest Marchant denies the allegations.

For young scientists, research expeditions are important experiences and career builders. They are, in some ways, workplaces like any other in a male-dominated industry, which means they are not immune to sexual harassment. In a 2014 survey of field scientists, 64 percent of respondents said they had personally experienced sexual harassment during their work, and 20 percent reported they were sexually assaulted. But the nature of field work can amplify the damaging effects of sexual harassment, particularly at very remote sites, where there’s little to no communication to the outside world. The distance from reality can become both physical and emotional. The feeling of helplessness that comes with abuse is magnified. In the moment, victims may, quite literally, have nowhere to turn.

One set of allegations against Marchant came from a small expedition in Antarctica’s Beacon Valley, where people slept in unheated tents, traversed rugged terrain, and received supplies by helicopter, Science reported. For weeks, their only contact with others was a radio connection to a base station. Jane Willenbring, now an associate professor at the University of California, San Diego, alleges that during this trip Marchant, then her thesis adviser, called her a “slut” and a “whore” and urged her to have sex with his brother, who was with them. Willenbring said Marchant told her each day, “Today I’m going to make you cry.”

Another woman, whom Science does not name, alleges that during a different expedition in Antarctica, Marchant belittled her and called her a “bitch” repeatedly. “I began to believe the things he told me,” she wrote in a formal complaint.

In some cases, Marchant’s harassment was violent, Willenbring said. She alleges Marchant shoved her, threw rocks at her when she urinated in the field, and:

In another instance, Willenbring alleges in the complaint, Marchant declared it was “training time.” Excited that he might be about to teach her something, Willenbring allowed him to pour volcanic ash, which includes tiny shards of glass, into her hand. She had been troubled by ice blindness, caused by excessive ultraviolet light exposure, which sensitizes the eyes. She says she leaned in to observe, and Marchant blew the ash into her eyes. “He knew that glass shards hitting my already sensitive eyes would be really painful—and it was,” she writes.

The details of these allegations are shocking in their vulgarity. But the fact that they exist isn’t surprising at all, said Julienne Rutherford, a biological anthropologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago and one of the authors of the 2014 survey. Rutherford said the accounts of sexual harassment, in both the Weinstein and Marchant reports, read like a script, carefully constructed from similar stories over the years. She described it from the perspective of the alleged perpetrator.

“You identify the target as wanting something you control. You break them down to the point that they don’t trust themselves. You break them down to the point where their work suffers. And you isolate them to the point that they either don’t report, or when they do report, they’re told, wouldn’t it be better if you kept this to yourself?” Rutherford said. “It’s the same story over and over again, and it’s devastating every time.”

On a remote research expedition, there may be no option to report the harassment immediately. The person in charge might be the abuser. Witnesses to the abuse may feel powerless in the moment, perhaps fearful of making themselves targets.

The trauma of the harassment follows victims from the field to their homes and institutions. Avoiding their harassers may be difficult. According to a followup report from Rutherford and her 2014 coauthors on victims, published online Wednesday, “these interactions occurred on their university campuses, at conferences, or online, and a few targets of harassment received love letters even after repeatedly rebuffing the advances of their colleagues.”

Some victims fear career-ending retribution if they report the abuse. The anonymous woman in Science alleges Marchant threatened to keep her from getting research funding. Willenbring said she waited to file her complaint against Marchant until after she received tenure last year, fearing reprisal for describing the events of the field work. “It could be traumatizing to even look at the data” from a trip, said Robin Nelson, a biological anthropologist at Santa Clara University and Rutherford’s coauthor. Entire careers can be abandoned.

Then there are the fears of not being believed. “There still seems to be a fair amount of questioning of these victims, unless the cases are really egregious,” said Meredith Hastings, an associate professor at Brown University who is part of a national project to prevent sexual harassment in earth-sciences fields.

Reports of sexual harassment by male scientists, well-known and respected in their fields, have emerged in recent years in several areas of research, from astronomy to infectious disease, with many instances going unchecked for decades. The bad behavior is discussed quietly and discreetly in a whisper network, where women trade anecdotes and warnings about male advisers or professors or researchers. They exchange stories, advising their colleagues about who’s inappropriate, who’s handsy, and who should be avoided at all costs.

The recent spate of sexual-harassment stories will not be the last, in science and in Hollywood. Similar abuses have happened before, whether in a hotel room or a research camp, and they will happen again. The ones yet to come will prompt outrage, as these have, but they shouldn’t come as a surprise.

“This is common. This is not isolated behavior,” Rutherford said. “These are not a few bad apples. These are examples of systematic campaigns of abuse against junior people.”