Researchers Routinely Face Sexual Harassment While Doing Fieldwork, According to Study

A survey of scientific researchers sought information about their experience with sexual harassment and sexual assault while involved in fieldwork. The results, published in the journal PLOS ONE, indicate significant rates of sexual harassment and assault in the field. Fieldwork often involves work in unfamiliar locations far from home, but it is considered an integral part of an academic career. The report highlights some serious but overlooked problems faced in the scientific community. It also raises questions regarding legal rights, such as who may be considered a researcher’s “employer” in the field, who has an obligation to protect employees from harassment and abuse, and who may be liable for any incidents that occur.

The authors of the PLOS ONE article defined “fieldwork” as “‘boots on the ground’ research activities” that offer “the ability to explore various ecological and cultural settings.” The surveys sought information about respondents’ overall fieldwork experience, as well as “their most recent or most notable fieldwork experience.” They used the federal government’s definition of sexual harassment, which includes “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.”

They sent out 666 surveys and received 658 responses. A majority of the respondents, almost 78 percent, were women. Fifty-eight percent of the respondents were categorized as “Trainees,” which included undergraduates, graduate students, and postdoctoral researchers. Tenured, tenure-track, and adjunct faculty accounted for about 27 percent of the respondents and were categorized as “Faculty.” Other categories included “Employees” and “Non-Academics.” The respondents represented 32 disciplines, with anthropologists and archaeologists accounting for nearly three-fourths of the total.

Sixty-four percent of respondents stated that they had experienced some form of sexual harassment while working in the field, and 20 percent reported being the victim of sexual assault. When divided between genders, 70 percent of women and 40 percent of men reported harassment, while the numbers were 26 and six percent for assault. Trainees and employees seem to face the greatest risk. Over 90 percent of female respondents and 70 percent of males were trainees when the harassment or assault occurred. Five percent of them were in high school at the time.

Identifying the liable parties can be a difficult issue in cases like these. The complainant’s “employer” may be a school hundreds or thousands of miles away, and the person or people committing the harassment or abuse may not have any direct relationship to the employer. Employers have a duty to provide a work environment that is reasonably free from harassment, but the question of what is “reasonable” becomes difficult under these circumstances.

Title VII’s definition of “employee”, “an individual employed by an employer,” is singularly unhelpful. 42 U.S.C. ยง 2000e(f). Courts have applied a broad definition. In academic contexts, they have held that compensation is not a requirement to be an “employee,” as long as there is some “direct or indirect economic remuneration.” O’Connor v. Davis, 126 F.3d 112, 116 (2nd Cir. 1997); Pemrick v. Stracher, 67 F.Supp.2d 149, 161-62 (E.D.N.Y. 1999); Kovacevich v. Vanderbilt Univ., et al, No. 3:09-cv-00068, mem. (M.D. Tenn., Apr. 12, 2010).

The sexual harassment attorneys at Phillips & Associates represent the rights of workers in New York City and surrounding areas. To schedule a free and confidential consultation with a knowledgeable and experienced advocate, please contact us today online or at (212) 248-7431.

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