A Departmental Approach to Addressing the Problem of Sexual Harassment and Assault in Field Experiences

WALTER A. ROBINSON (warobin3@ncsu.edu) is a professor in and head of the Department of Marine, Earth, and Atmospheric Sciences at North Carolina State University, Raleigh, North Carolina

The Department of Marine, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at North Carolina State University is an "all-sphere" geosciences department, with undergraduate majors and graduate programs in geology, marine sciences, and meteorology. We are proud of the field experiences we offer our students: local field trips embedded in courses, short field courses during campus holidays, and multi-week marine science and geology field courses. These are high-impact learning experiences, and I have been eager to create still more opportunities for students to get into the field earlier in their college careers, in order to increase student engagement with their courses and with the expectation that this will lead to improved persistence in our majors and enhanced student success.

Are we, as a department, putting students, especially women, at risk of harassment and assault when we encourage them to go out into the field?
However, last year I encountered a paper by Kathryn Clancy and co-workers in PLoS One (Clancy et al. 2014) reporting that many women field scientists had suffered sexual harassment and assault during field experiences. Most of the victims were in the early stages of their careers. More than 80% of those who experienced assault or harassment were trainees. Typically the perpetrator was someone more senior. I also encountered Prof. Hope Jahren's (Jahren 2014) harrowing essay in the New York Times, in which she described being assaulted early in her career while conducting fieldwork overseas and the subsequent impact of that assault on her choices of field sites and research.

Beyond their emotional impact, these articles raised two troubling questions:

  • Safety: Are we, as a department, putting students, especially women, at risk of harassment and assault when we encourage them to go out into the field?
  • Equal opportunity: If students perceive that they are at risk in the field, does this make them less likely to choose a major or area of research that involves fieldwork?

The next question, of course, is what to do? How can we insure that our field trips and camps are safe and positive experiences? I contacted the Women's Center here at North Caroline State, and the director, Dr. Ashley Simons-Rudolph, put me in touch with Mr. Otis McGresham, the Assistant Director for Interpersonal Violence Services, and Ms. Sara Forcella, Rape Prevention Education Coordinator. Mr. McGresham came over to our department for a meeting with faculty who lead field courses and trips.

If students perceive that they are ... at risk in the field, does this make them less likely to choose a major or area of research that involves fieldwork?
What did I learn? First, I was forced to shed my naiveté. Mr. McGresham is a very nice man, but when it comes to sexual assault he sees the world through "cops' eyes." Whereas I might want to attribute some cases of assault to youthful indiscretions and misunderstandings, most acts of harassment and assault are committed by people who seek opportunities to commit these offenses. Depending on the severity of the act, we might call these people "jerks" or we might call them "predators."

In other words, while you are planning your field course, happily contemplating the wonderful learning opportunities it will offer your students, there may be among your students, your teaching assistants, or (in the worst instance) your colleagues, someone who sees the course instead as an opportunity to do something terrible to one of your students. This demands an explicit and unambiguous response. However uncomfortable it may be, the topic of sexual harassment and assault must be addressed head on in field course training and preparation. Field course participants should be told that:

  • Harassing language and behavior are unacceptable.
  • Standards of behavior in the field are the same as at home.
  • Consumption of alcohol, licit or not, does not excuse bad behavior.

To help deliver these messages, my colleague, Jim Hibbard, drafted a "statement of civility" for the field manual for the 2015 Geological Field Camp. This statement will be included in materials for all of our field trips and courses. It reads as follows:

This class is a learning community, removed from familiar surroundings of the NCSU campus, some of our friends, and family. In order to fulfill the potential for learning and to preserve the spirit of community during our field course, we must show respect for the rights, privileges, and sensibilities of everyone in our community and of those with whom we interact outside of our group. Actions that make the atmosphere intimidating, threatening, hostile, or generally unpleasant to individuals are therefore regarded as serious offenses. For example, rude, sarcastic, obscene, or disrespectful speech and disruptive behavior have a negative impact on the learning experience for the group. Abusive or harassing behavior, verbal or physical, which demeans, intimidates, threatens, or injures another because of his or her personal characteristics or beliefs is subject to disciplinary sanctions.

There is a danger that such a statement will be glossed over in the field manuals. To prevent this, it must be explicitly discussed in preparatory meetings, and it must be made clear that the "disciplinary sanctions" it mentions are real and severe. Discussing this statement with students further provides an opportunity to talk about their responsibilities as bystanders - the obligation to intercede to prevent or stop harassment or assault – and the importance for bystanders and victims to report bad behavior. Here, it is essential that students be told precisely to whom such reports should be made.

I am under no illusion we have solved the problem of sexual harassment in the field, but I believe that engaging in these conversations is a necessary first step towards reducing the risks to our students. We need to consider the problem of sexual assault and harassment as seriously as we consider field or laboratory safety. I urge anyone who is responsible for a field experience to consult the rape prevention staff on her or his campus. Material, such as the above statement (you are invited to use it) should be included in field manuals, and pre-field training must build on this to make it clear that assault and harassment will not be tolerated.


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, v. 9(7), e102172, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0102172

Jahren, A. H., 2014, Science's Sexual Assault Problem. New York Times, p. A23, September 20, 2014.