December 1, 2016

Getting Sexual Harassment Out of the Field

Posted by AGU Career Center

By Mary Anne Holmes

I took field camp back in 1983 and had a pretty unhappy experience. This was one of those “sink or swim” models of teaching, with some pretty blatant sexual misconduct of the instructor and a female student. I came away from the experience having learned little.

Sexual harassment and misconduct on the part of instructors, faculty, staff, and teaching assistants no doubt drives great people away from our field. Perniciously, it destroys a safe learning environment in addition to the painful effects on the target. The entire class suffers—it is never a secret.

This behavior is not a matter of mutual attraction between two equals but an insidious power play that preys on the vulnerable. It is a particularly heinous situation when students are from underrepresented international groups and risk jeopardizing visas, green cards, or passport privileges if they stand up to the predator.

Later in life, I got to teach field camp and was fortunate to team with a knowledgeable man who passionately believed in a no-tolerance policy for sexual harassment. Feeling safe in the field, at the camp, and in the neighboring town is as important for learning as taking the time to teach field methods. During this field experience, there was an incident of sexual harassment, this time by a visiting instructor who preyed on a female student at each camp for years. And although everybody seemed to know it, nothing was done—until my colleague arrived and put his foot down and one brave student spoke up. She was not the object of the harassment, but she was a credible witness, and her complaint was taken seriously by the offender’s home institution.

Once she spoke up, the wheels could begin to turn, and my colleague could press the case. Within a few months, the offender’s institution forbade his participation in field camp and his having female students for some period of years.

The American Geophysical Union (AGU) has taken an important first step in addressing harassment in the geosciences and promoting a no-tolerance attitude. AGU recently hosted a workshop at which several professional societies attended and agreed to move forward with additional steps to change the culture that tolerates such misbehavior. What can you do to help eliminate this negative culture in geoscience?

If you are an instructor, establish and carry out a no-tolerance policy. This should be written down with specific definitions of misconduct and consequences for noncompliance. It should be easy to find on websites. To ensure everyone gets it, have instructors and students sign it and keep these signatures on file.

Enacting it will be difficult and uncomfortable, but nothing compared to what a victim might suffer. A perpetrator must be confronted, and the incident must be reported to the appropriate people at the perpetrator’s institution. It requires follow-up in case the institution’s process is slow or nonexistent.

For students, be aware of current information and resources. Remember: a report from you carries weight. Don’t stay silent, speak up!

Mary Anne Holmes is a professor at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and previously served as program director for ADVANCE, a National Science Foundation initiative dedicated to increasing female participation in science careers. Holmes has dedicated much of her professional life and research to general equality and the female plight in the geosciences.