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.