Now it’s anthropology

I’m beginning to feel like an anomaly, because somehow I’ve gotten through 30+ years of teaching without ever groping a student. Harassing students seems to be a common thing. Now Science reports on a big case of sexual misconduct in the field of anthropology, a field that has had reports of problems before.

Although the most recent high-profile cases of sexual harassment in science have arisen in astronomy and biology, many researchers say paleoanthropology also has been rife with sexual misconduct for decades. Fieldwork, often in remote places, can throw senior male faculty and young female students together in situations where the rules about appropriate behavior can be stretched to the breaking point. Senior women report years of unwanted sexual attention in the field, at meetings, and on campus. A widely cited anonymous survey of anthropologists and other field scientists, called the SAFE study and published in July 2014 in PLOS ONE, reported that 64% of the 666 respondents had experienced some sort of sexual harassment, from comments to physical contact, while doing fieldwork.

Even a few years ago, the research assistant might not even have aired her complaint, as few women—or men—felt emboldened to speak out about harassment. Of the 139 respondents in the SAFE study who said they experienced unwanted physical contact, only 37 had reported it. Those who remained silent may have feared retaliation. Senior paleoanthropologists control access to field sites and fossils, write letters of recommendation, and might end up as reviewers on papers or grant proposals. “The potential for [senior scientists] to make a phone call and kill a careermaking paper feels very real,” says Leslea Hlusko, a paleontologist at the University of California (UC), Berkeley.

You should also read Rebecca Ackermann’s personal account of what it’s like to be targeted for harassment.

This is a gigantic problem for science. It’s not just a few people here and there — it’s pervasive across all disciplines, and it means we’ve lost an unknown number of excellent researchers over the years for an arbitrary reason that only benefits abusers.


  1. numerobis says

    Clearly it’s just a few bad apples. You only need one bad apple to spoil the whole bunch, so there’s a lot of work to do.

  2. tulse says

    When I was a grad student in psychology, there were several male professors in the department who were well known to take liberties. That included my supervisor, who I later found out had groped one of his other students.

    This is not a new problem, or a confined one.

  3. iknklast says

    It’s not just science. It’s everywhere. My husband is a librarian, and apparently they have a problem there, as well. Yes, librarians, a field dominated by women, still have problems with males who can’t keep their hands to themselves. Maybe it’s even worse, since they may be the sole male in a field of women, like being a little kid left alone with the cookie jar.

    Theatre has the same problem. Education has the same problem. It’s not science, it’s the whole society, and it sometimes feels like it will never stop.

    I experienced the problem when I was in Political Science. I experienced it when I was working as a Social Worker. I have experienced it less as a scientist, but that might be the result of the fact that I am now older and less likely to be groped. I do still experience the issues of sexism, just not the groping anymore.

  4. screechymonkey says

    As a non-scientist, this may be a naive question, but is there anything that can be done structurally to reduce the dependence of grad students on a single professor’s approval/recommendation/goodwill? Or is it just sort of the nature of the beast that once you’re at that level, there may only be one faculty member at your institution who has the requisite expertise in your sub-sub-sub-field to evaluate and supervise you?

  5. brett says

    You definitely need some stronger safeguards and outside accountability that’s not under the discretionary control of the harassing scientists’ bosses, because otherwise the temptation is there for them to throw the victims under the bus in order to preserve the reputation of said harassing scientists (as well as the grant money they can bring in). Even then you’re putting bandaids on the situation, because the hierarchical system gives senior scientists a ton of power over younger, female ones that this won’t truly ameliorate or eliminate. The hierarchy itself may need to go.

  6. themadtapper says

    But it’s nothing to ruin a man’s career over. Why, think of how trivial it is compared to how Muslim women have it. These “harassment” witch hunts led by feminists are having a chilling effect on free speech, all in the name of political correctness. And if you accuse me of misogyny, you’re just click-baiting for cash!

  7. numerobis says


    is there anything that can be done structurally to reduce the dependence of grad students on a single professor’s approval/recommendation/goodwill?

    I think the main thing is to avoid being vindictive assholes. Students need to have an enforceable right to switch.

    Having a large department helps, because then you can find someone else who’s related to your field of study. Working in a city with multiple universities can get you the same advantage as having a big department: you can switch institutions. Worst case, you can switch cities (and countries) as well.

    Working on stuff with lower capital requirements is another big help: if you just need a pen and paper you’re very mobile — but on the flip side, if you need a big lab, there’s probably several profs in the group that you could work with, so you’re not entirely stuck with Prof Handwander to do the work you want to do.

    But really it’s the culture that matters the most. A large fraction, something like 40%, of students in my program (myself included) switched advisors once. Switching twice was rarer but not unheard of. Switching within the same research area was itself common. If a prof had a lot of students leave, it was seen by fellow faculty as a problem with *them* — not so much with their students. Switching tended to mean you lost some time, maybe a semester or a year, but you didn’t have to start from scratch and you didn’t have a black mark on your record from it.

  8. numerobis says

    Note: 40% of students in my program didn’t switch away from Prof Handwanders. The likeliest reason was difference of research interest, second-likeliest was personality conflicts.

  9. rabbitbrush says

    What iknklast @4 said, eleventy ga-billion times. Absolutely true. That shit is everywhere, not just in the perfect snowflake sciences. Everywhere. Ask any woman. In any field of endeavor.

  10. themadtapper says

    Ask any woman. In any field of endeavor.

    Unfortunately that requires admitting that there are underlying cultural flaws in our society that need active addressing, flaws that many people have benefited greatly from. And it’s easier to simply pretend everything is fine and accuse the other side of complaining about “trivialities” than admit to having benefited from a shitty system. Also far easier to dismiss harassment as trivialities when you never experience it and are personally in no danger of it. Fucking privilege, how does it work?

  11. says

    “iknklast #4: It’s not just science. It’s everywhere.

    Correct, it’s pervasive throughout human society. And it’s about F-ing time we get our shit together.

  12. F.O. says

    It seems pervasive of ANY group. A friend of mine was telling me of vegan groups going through the same.

  13. iknklast says

    F.O. – I also read about it years ago in Earth First! Women were supposed to make coffee, do dishes, and clean the campground…oh, and of course, have sexton with the men. Being liberal doesn’t seem to make much difference.

  14. brideofeisenstein says

    I’m beginning to feel like an anomaly, because somehow I’ve gotten through 30+ years of teaching without ever groping a student.

    I almost started sobbing reading that, because honestly you’re probably right. And if anyone thinks I don’t know what I’m talking about, I was sexually assaulted by a professor in college. The disgusting piece of slime got his buddies in the administration to hush the whole thing up and make sure there wouldn’t be an investigation. Must be nice to be white and male. *shudders*

  15. DanDare says

    But think of the Menz! If we take away their female reward items then “Great Minds of Science” will be lost to other vocations like porn star or something!!!! (SORRY FORGOT TO USE ALL CAPS!!!!!!!!)

  16. llamaherder says

    You know, I’m beginning to think this sexual harassment thing is a problem in a lot of fields.

  17. lb says

    I was in undergraduate school for art 30+ years ago and it was common knowledge and totally accepted by the administration that the male professors–there were only two female professors at the time–preyed on the pretty female undergrads. In 1982, I was helping one of my professors with a project when he said with anticipation that he couldn’t wait for the next class of freshmen to begin classes so he could take his pick from the new students. When I expressed surprise and shock at his statement, he backed down, but this was a teacher who had divorced his first wife to marry one of his students and then began dating a different student practically every week when his second wife left him. I saw sexual harassment over and over in every department, even in graduate school. Unfortunately, this behavior appears to be endemic to academia no matter where you go. :-(

  18. says


    Is it just a few bad apples, though? This is way more systemic then that, I think. PZ may very well be an anomaly, and that’s what’s so f’ing scary. Now I go through my head and think of all the male professors I had and know, even the famous ones past and present.

    More people are talking about it (nearly all of the science podcasts/shows I listen to/watch are now devoting segments to it, if not whole episodes), more stories are coming out… the whole thing seems infected to me.

    It looks to me like the whole field of apple trees is spoiled rotten…

  19. cactusren says

    A little extra information that wasn’t addressed in the Science piece: I was a grad student at GW (though in a different department) while Richmond was there. And while I don’t know of any official allegations or investigations, there were certainly rumors floating around about his behavior with students. I’ll take Bernard’s word that he had no idea what was happening, but I suspect it was more a case of willful ignorance than of having no way of knowing.

    And that’s the difficulty with privilege: it’s easy to overlook things that aren’t adversely affecting you. Now, I don’t mean to beat up on Bernard: since realizing what was happening he’s publicly stepped up in support of protecting students and rooting out bad behavior among faculty. He’s doing exactly what we need senior faculty members to do. It just took him a while to see that the problem existed in the first place.

    Which brings us to the fact that when Richmond left for his fancy new job at the AMNH, his problems with harassment were already known (at least among graduate students at GW). It seems to be a similar situation to that with Jason Lieb–a known harasser simply moving on to a new job before there’s any sort of paper trail.

    I absolutely agree with all the above commenters that this problem is everywhere, not just in the sciences. I think the difference is that scientists tend to think of themselves as an enlightened group, and that they’re therefore immune to these sorts of banal problems. We need to get over that sort of thinking.

  20. says

    NateHevens @20,
    I read numerobis’ comment as sarcasm – playing up the widespread misunderstanding of the ‘bad apples’ saying. The full saying being, of course, “A few bad apples spoil the bunch” i.e. saying that it’s only a few bad apples doesn’t excuse anything at all – if we’ve found a few rotten apples, then there are probably a whole lot more that we haven’t.

  21. Intaglio says

    What really scares me is the high probability that harassment in the pure sciences is just more easily uncovered than similar events in the humanities, the arts and the applied sciences. Medicine and engineering are infamous for the primitive social views of their practitioners whilst I’ve know several musicians, literary academics and artists who have told me to unwanted sexual overtures by their teachers.

    In what was told to me by the arts and humanities students, there seemed to be an underlying assumption that such libertinism from teachers and colleagues was an expected process and part of their education.

    I repeat, this is scary.

  22. ronaldraygunz says

    Is it just me or is there is an incongruity that the end of an article that decries sexual harassment of women is followed by an ad that is sexually exploitative?

  23. says

    gondwanarama #22
    Indeed. For some reason, people take that proverb to mean literally the exact opposite of what it’s supposed to mean.

  24. Moggie says

    As disgusted as I am by these predators, I think I’m more disgusted by the faculty and administrators who give them cover. The colleagues who know that this is going on, and allow it to continue. And after Prof Badapple is finally exposed, and faces some negative consequences? The colleagues who let it continue get to keep their jobs, and continue ignoring the other predatory behaviour in their departments. Burn them all down.

  25. numerobis says

    gondwanarama@22, NateHevens@20: gondwanarama got my sentiment right, somehow.

    Reading what I wrote again, I’m not sure how exactly you got the sentiment, but good job there :)

  26. qwertysapiens says

    I’m a graduate student in biological anthropology, and I know that the SAFE paper (rightly!) made a lot of noise when it hit. I’m gratified to say that my department (Penn State) was very proactive in tackling the issues it brought up. We convened a meeting of all the grad students and faculty to go over the paper, journal club style, and to discuss potential organizational and cultural changes that could be made to prevent sexual assault and misconduct in field school and other non-campus contexts, as well as provide resources for those who have been victimized to report and seek help. A subcommittee of graduate students then created a protocol for field schools (ratified in another meeting) that requires at least two meetings between the faculty member accompanying the school and the students and staff to go over university and departmental policies on sexual assault/misconduct, one before leaving and one meeting upon arriving in the country. While in country, one of the faculty (inclusive of graduate students involved in course instruction) was designated as the on-site field safety coordinator, acting as a liaison between students and the school in case of any incidents. Two permanent independent positions were also created, Department Field Safety Coordinator (faculty) and Student Resources Officer (Graduate student), to act as points of contact outside the field school who can provide an independent reporting mechanism outside the on-site field safety coordinator for any reason, and can initiate/coordinate efforts to resolve the situation with campus and police authorities. Anthropology is sadly not unique in dealing with these issues; field-based disciplines in general provide more opportunities for perpetrators of sexual misconduct to exploit power imbalances and structural coercion. The documents that we drafted for that process are posted at, and we encourage anyone out there who is grappling with the same issues to adopt any parts of them to suit the policy needs of their discipline/department/institution. Field science should be one of the highlights of a students academic career, not a Hobbesian free-for-all, and certainly not a traumatic experience enabled – directly or indirectly – by institutional oversight.