Field scientists often work in isolated, unsupervised, or otherwise dangerous locations. For instance, I used to work along remote streams with limited access and communication with my institution. These secluded environments can create conditions that exacerbate sexual harassment and bullying, from fellow field scientists or other people encountered in the field. This can lead to unsafe situations, particularly for non-male students and those belonging to marginalized groups. As a striking example of these hostilities, approximately 70% of women scientists have experienced harassment while doing fieldwork and one in four have been assaulted. Scientists at remote field sites can also experience hate symbols, threats of violence, or verbal abuse about a disability from people they encounter.
Even for the best-intending scientists, fieldwork environments can also have often-overlooked hostilities such as when different tasks are assigned to different genders or there is unequal access to important resources such as bathrooms, health care, and religious needs. All of these harmful situations can be perpetuated by the remote and isolated nature of fieldwork campaigns, limited access to institutional support systems, and inexperience identifying and addressing unsafe and unfriendly conditions. Scientists can be at a heightened risk during fieldwork due to their race, disability, gender expression, and religion. These common problems with fieldwork environments can negatively affect the wellbeing of students and their interests in science careers – furthering the lack of inclusiveness and belonging in scientific fields. This is a major problem for the scientific community.
What can scientists do to make fieldwork safer and more friendly?
One under-utilized approach to address unsafe situations in the field is through the creation and implementation of fieldwork codes-of-conduct. The codes-of-conduct will often contain procedures such as clearly establishing and communicating anti-bullying rules, identifying signs of harassment, and providing safety plans in response to dangerous encounters. For instance, the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research has established procedures for dealing with sexual harassment in the field and reporting. As another example, the Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve has a code-of-conduct that outlines unacceptable offences including discrimination and sexual harassment, as well as reporting and potential sanctions that could involve termination of employment. A code-of-conduct could also outline field rights including safe accommodations and access to communications. Additionally, the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists has a sample code-of-conduct which outlines how bullying, harassment, and other harmful practices will be identified and responded to. In an evaluation of one program, these codes-of-conduct and similar trainings were shown to better prepare nearly 100% of the scientists involved to effectively confront problems with the fieldwork environment.
Does your research group or institution have a fieldwork code-of-conduct that they follow?
It is important for all scientists involved with fieldwork to know strategies and protocols for dealing with unfriendly situations before these situations occur. Thus, when developing a fieldwork code-of-conduct, it is critical to know the hazards that could be encountered in the field and strategies for addressing them. For instance, scientists in the field should be cognizant of strategies to minimize risk in situations such as dangerous encounters with racists, confrontations with law enforcement, or a fieldworker with a disability who has gone missing in an unsafe area. Strategies to address these problems include awareness of risks, using the buddy system, and carrying documentation of your affiliation with a research institution (such as a written letter on the institution’s letterhead and car magnets with the institution’s logo). Scientists should also be aware of approaches for bystander intervention involving a direct response, asking for assistance, documenting harassment, distracting a bully, and following up after an incident.
How do you develop one?
When developing a fieldwork code-of-conduct, it is important to know of any existing policies and procedures at your institution, such as the IU Student Code-of-Conduct and Title IX. There are also online resources and workshops to help with the process, such as those from the ADVANCEGeo Partnership. Codes-of-conduct can be important for field trips as well.
If you do not have a fieldwork code-of-conduct, now may be a good time to develop one before the next field season. These codes-of-conduct are an essential step toward making fieldwork environments safer, more inclusive, and more belonging for at-risk scientists.