Fieldwork can be challenging for female scientists: 5 ways to make it better

November 07, 2023

From 314 responses, 113 respondents (36%) provided examples of gender inequality they had either directly experienced or observed while working in coastal sciences. Our recent paper in the journal Coastal Futures revisits the survey results to further unpack fieldwork issues that continue to surface among the younger generation of female coastal scientists whom we supervise in our jobs. Collectively, the responses highlight barriers to fieldwork participation and challenges in the field, such as sexual harassment and abuse. As this female early-career university researcher wrote:Sometimes women are ‘advised’ to avoid fieldwork for security reasons. Women working on boats commonly face inadequate facilities at sea for toileting, menstruation and managing lactation.

Disrupting the narrative: fieldworkers operating equipment, carrying gear and fixing engines. Source: Women in Coastal Geosciences and Engineering network

What we did and what we found

In 2016, we surveyed both male and female scientists about their experiences of gender equality in coastal sciences during an international symposium in Sydney and afterwards online.

From 314 responses, 113 respondents (36%) provided examples of gender inequality they had either directly experienced or observed while working in coastal sciences. About half of these were related to fieldwork.

Our recent paper in the journal Coastal Futures revisits the survey results to further unpack fieldwork issues that continue to surface among the younger generation of female coastal scientists whom we supervise in our jobs. Many of those younger women don’t know how to address these issues.

The paper includes direct quotes from 18 survey respondents describing their experiences. One woman, a mid-career university researcher, said:

As I fill in this survey, the corridor of the building I work in is lined with empty offices. My colleagues are out on boats doing fieldwork. I have a passion for coastal science. That’s why I’m working in a university. But I have a disproportionately large share of administrative, pastoral and governance duties that keep me from engaging in my passion. I’m about to go to a committee meeting of women, doing women’s work (reviewing teaching offerings). Inequality is alive and well in my workplace!

Collectively, the responses highlight barriers to fieldwork participation and challenges in the field, such as sexual harassment and abuse.

A pressing issue, on and off campus

Universities have recently been criticised for failing to respond to sexual violence on campus. But women employed by universities working off campus – at field sites – can be even more vulnerable.

The social boundaries that characterise day-to-day working life in the office and the laboratory are reconfigured on boats or in field camps. Personal space is reduced. Fieldworkers can be required to sleep in close proximity to one another, potentially putting women in vulnerable situations.

As this female early-career university researcher wrote:

Sometimes women are ‘advised’ to avoid fieldwork for security reasons. Or [we] are considered weak, or we are threatened by rape for being with a lot of men.

Women working on boats commonly face inadequate facilities at sea for toileting, menstruation and managing lactation. Some women said they were “not allowed to join research vessels” or “prevented from [joining] research in the field because of gender”.

The source of this news is from University of Sydney