Ecology has a harassment problem

john_waller_in_pillory

Hurling rotten vegetables at a perpetrator in the stocks might make everyone else feel better, but it’s not enough on its own. Image source, original credit unknown.

The #MeToo storm has yet to fully strike in ecology, but it’s coming, and we should welcome it. There will be allegations, likely against some of the leading and pivotal figures in our field. We will have to work hard to protect and support those who come forward, while ensuring that our standards and practices change to reduce the chances of anyone else being forced to endure the same experiences. We will also need to learn as a community, and guard against the assumption that recriminations are the conclusion of the process. Calling out bad behaviour is essential, and often cathartic, but ultimately we should be judged on how we make ecology better for those who come after us.

I’m writing this in response to a recent post on the Methods in Ecology and Evolution blog, in which Bob O’Hara ponders whether ecology has a problem. This was in turn triggered by allegations made by a statistics researcher about two prominent people in her field, who were subsequently named by others, and which come at the end of a year in which many brave women have stepped forwards to speak out against the way they have been treated.* This article in Marie Claire is also essential reading, and includes comments on ecology in particular.

That it has taken an international movement to trigger recent introspection is not to our collective credit. Many of us knew about the problem earlier, and did not act. We bear responsibility for this, and the current wind of change should be seen as a long-overdue corrective.

Does ecology have a problem? Absolutely. I would go further, and say that ecology as a discipline has systematically created the conditions in which sexual harassment thrives. Like most other scientific fields, we have conferences, and research groups often contain power dynamics that favour senior figures, usually men. But there’s more to it than that.

All around the world, ecologists of various tribes have established remote research stations, observatories and camps. These in turn are often staffed by wardens or resident scientists. Due in part to the structural inequalities within science, but also to the profile of people willing to take on such roles, these staff are predominantly male.

The stations are also visited by a stream of junior researchers, sometimes formally as students, but often as volunteers or field assistants. A large proportion of these visitors are female; this again reflects the make-up of our field at the undergraduate student level. There’s no doubt that some wardens view this as one of the perks of their otherwise difficult, poorly-paid and under-valued jobs. I’ve heard them say as much.

The harassment triangle of inequality and isolation is then completed with the final element: inebriation. On an offshore island, or in the middle of a nature reserve, there’s little to do in the dark evenings other than drink, and there is usually a plentiful supply. Alcohol is an excellent social lubricant. Often it reduces inhibitions; sometimes people do things they regret. Sometimes this can be exploited.

I know personally of some appalling incidents, which I cannot share because they were told to me in confidence, and that should always be respected. Not everyone feels able or willing to speak out, and we mustn’t expect them to. Instead we should look critically at ourselves and ask how we have created a culture in which keeping quiet is seen as a necessary response. Given the sheer numbers of women who report being harassed or assaulted in the field, this is a shame we should not bear silently.

Of course the vast majority of researchers act with absolute professionalism, and many consensual, long-lasting relationships have started through fieldwork, including a few of my own. Don’t bother citing these as counter-examples though. If you believe that they negate the pressing need for action then you’re still part of the problem.

In writing this, I’m not casting stones because I’m personally blameless, or because I want to claim any moral high ground. I have said and done some extremely stupid things, usually after drinking. My only weak defence is that they were the result of being oblivious, not through exploiting my status. Nevertheless, I have implicitly contributed towards an atmosphere which has not always been as inclusive and protective as it should have been. Where I have gone wrong, please tell me, both so that I can apologise and also so that I can improve. In a community that has clearly failed many of its members, none of us should escape without taking responsibility.

What can we do to prevent further harassment happening? Calling out past behaviour and signalling that our community will not tolerate it is a vital step. Policies and statements are important indicators; these are valuable but also need to be enforced and reflected in behaviour. There is evidence that harassment occurs less frequently at field sites where such policies both exist and are respected. Most of all, we need to listen. I have a lot more to learn in this area, and will be grateful for any comments on this post that help me (and others) to do so.**

Finally, if you are one of the people directly culpable of harassing junior researchers, know this: we are watching you. The scandals are coming to ecology. I just hope that we are not found wanting in our response.


* This is of course not exclusively an issue affecting women, and the same power dynamic can lead to harassment and abuse in a variety of contexts. Any action we take collectively must be fully inclusive and respect the rights of all members of our community. Here are some numbers:

10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0102172.g003.png

Respondents to survey by Clancy et al. (2014), their experiences, and who were aware of, made use of, and were satisfied by mechanisms to report unwanted physical contact while on fieldwork. Figure 3 from original paper.

** As an established male researcher, who is implicitly responsible for creating the present culture, how can I feel any right to write this post? My answer is that we all have a part to play in demonstrating that we have taken notice and are willing to change. Further reading from people who know a lot more than me:

Clancy, K. B. H., Nelson R. G., Rutherford J. N. & Hinde, K. (2014). Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE): Trainees Report Harassment and Assault. PLOS ONE 9, e102172. link

Nelson R. G., Rutherford J. N., Hinde, K. & Clancy, K. B. H. (2017). Signaling Safety: Characterizing Fieldwork Experiences and Their Implications for Career Trajectories. American Anthropologist 119, 710–722. link

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