Fieldwork as a Female

I came across this story which was re-tweeted by someone on my Twitter feed today, and it got me thinking about all the crap I’ve had to deal with over the years. I suppose the main difference between me and the person in the article is that most of the harassment that I’ve had to endure hasn’t been from colleagues from my home institution or home country, but staff from the overseas companies and governments that I’ve collaborated with on projects, or run training courses for.

The unfortunate reality is that the overwhelming majority of foreign countries do not have the same kind of discrimination or sexual harassment laws as we do in Australia. The staff who work for these foreign companies and governments are not required to abide by the same clearly defined policies as my colleagues in Australia.

This week has been a prime example.

I have been in Indonesia to work with a local government agency who we are collaborating with on a research project. My main contact in the agency has been very respectful, as he does not want the collaboration to fail. He is second in command in the agency. However, in the space of 3 days, I have been hit on repeatedly by the man’s boss, asked vulgar questions about my sex life by some of his junior staff, and groped on the ass by one of his colleagues from another department…

And there is nothing that I can do about it. It’s not illegal. It is not against departmental policy. And I’m just the ignorant white girl from Australia who “doesn’t understand the culture“.

Yeah, no.

I already have enough problems with people asking me about my age, my marital status, whether I’ve got kids, etc. But I understand that while that may be inappropriate in Australia, it’s perfectly normal in some countries.

Asking me if I’m a virgin? Fuck off. That’s not normal anywhere. Also, I’m in my mid-30’s, what the fuck do you think?

I have had similar issues doing fieldwork throughout Africa and South America. My experience this week is not an isolated incident. It’s happened to varying degrees everywhere I’ve done fieldwork outside of Australia, Canada, and Europe. I’ve not done fieldwork in the US, so I can’t comment on that.

These people I’m working with are professionals, not some drunk douchebags in a bar. Yet, they still feel it’s within their rights to hit on me repeatedly, make vulgar comments about me, and to grope me – because it’s not strictly illegal or against company policy to do it.

I say this was mostly an issue overseas. I’ve had one incident of fieldwork related sexual harassment in Australia from a fellow PhD student when I was in grad school. He asked me out. I said no. I assumed that would be the end of it. I repeatedly turned him down when he kept asking because I simply wasn’t interested. You can’t help who you’re attracted to, and I simply wasn’t attracted. Anyway, we were meant to go out on a field trip with a bunch of other students. But he managed to talk the field trip coordinator into assigning us both to the same room on the trip – with only 1 bed. I was the only female on the trip, so I knew I’d have to share with a guy, but I was entirely uncomfortable sharing with this particular person under the circumstances. However, he’d managed to talk everyone else on the field trip into refusing to change rooms with me. It just wouldn’t let up. Everyone was trying to talk me into dating the guy: other students, postdocs, the faculty. In the end I agreed to a date just to get him and everyone else off my back. It went as well as I’m sure you can imagine. Then when I refused a follow-up date, he started making vulgar sexual comments about me at work. Despite a number of complaints to my PhD supervisor about it (who was acting head of school at the time), nothing was ever done about it. I was told to just ignore him, because he was simply being an immature brat. I was so close to submitting my thesis at that point that I just finished and got the hell out of there. I didn’t take it any further for fear of harming my chances of finding a job. Geology is a small community, and people talk.

There’s been one other incident of sexual harassment that I’ve had to put up with that was work related, but it was unrelated to fieldwork, and was before I became a geologist. This non-fieldwork case was far more serious and ultimately involved police and restraining orders.

Doing fieldwork in general requires a pretty thick skin and a sense of humour, especially when you’re in remote locations for an extended period of time. I can take a joke. But there’s a definite limit to the amount of inappropriate comments or behaviour that anyone should have to endure. I know where my limits are with my colleagues from home, and I will call them out on it when necessary. But when the people you’re working with have no concept of what’s appropriate or inappropriate because they’re not subject to the same discrimination or harassment laws as we are at home, then what can you do? Saying something can make the situation worse. I know this from experience. I tried to call a foreign colleague out on their behaviour once, and he just laughed at me and started sending me vulgar emails (you can’t just change your work email address like you can a Gmail address). Easy enough to block, but kind of complicated when you’re meant to be working with them.

So do I think sexual harassment during fieldwork is a problem? Yes, undeniably. But my experience has been that the main culprits are not those from our home countries for whom a complaint is likely to be taken a little more seriously, but it’s those from the foreign countries we’re working in who are not subject to the same policies and consequences for breaking those policies.

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2 thoughts on “Fieldwork as a Female

  1. I’m so glad you blogged about this. Unfortunately, it’s not talked about enough. I’m in a situation where doing an undergrad thesis may be off the table simply because I can’t avoid someone who sexually harassed me. I’m hoping if I put it off long enough, they’ll be done with their masters and gone. However my university is notorious for having grad students stick around for years and years and years.

    I am so sorry all this has happened to you. I can’t believe it’s happened so repeatedly as well. Thank you so much for opening up about it though.

    • I have been trying to find a different thesis, though passively. I’ve already put in quite a bit of work into my current one, but it’s not “official” so that door is at least open.
      I’ve seriously started considering not doing one in general as a lot of the other students that got a B.A. seem to be getting fantastic geology jobs.
      I did report the guy because he was going to be a TA at my field camp and that prevented him from going. But his thesis adviser and mine are the same professor and it’s in the same area of study. Our department just lost a bunch of staff either to them getting a new job, retirement, or sabbatical…so I can’t really find a new thesis adviser either. This year has been a whirlwind!

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