Many of us biologists conduct fieldwork in diverse places, from Alaska to the tropics, from aiming to understand how microbes are responding to climate change in the boreal soils to learning about life history strategies and co-evolutionary arms races of bats, their ectoparasitic flies, and the ectoparasitic fungi living on those flies.
The days before fieldwork tend to be hectic: make a checklist to make sure you have everything you need, think about a plan B (and a plan C, just in case), anticipate drawbacks and plan on how to address them, and the list goes on and on. The day comes. You make it to your field site, you collect the samples you want, obtain the data you need, everything works out just like planned, and you make it back to the lab — safe, on time, and without going over your planned budget. This is how it should be, but it never really goes like that.
Fieldwork is one of the most exciting experiences about doing research. It is also, in many cases, high-risk. During fieldwork, many things can go wrong, and most of those things cannot be helped. We cannot control the appearances of massive puddles in the middle of the road, critically damaging our transportation vehicles. We cannot control the thunderstorm that makes our study organisms disappear when we finally arrive at a remote field site after hours of climbing a mud-covered mountain.
Sadly, this is not always the case for threats to our integrity as human beings, and we, as a scientific community, have done far too little to address this problem. People from underrepresented groups in the sciences such as people of color, women, and those who identify as LGBTQIA+ or gender nonconforming often are at higher risk of suffering abuse during fieldwork. This comes in the form of sexual harassment, sexual abuse, discrimination, and intimidation. Scientists who have experienced abuse often fear talking about it because they are traumatized and because they fear retaliation and backlash, especially if the perpetrators of abuse are colleagues or superiors — advisers and people at higher career stage.
In Spring 2018, we carried out an anonymous survey to collect testimonies of what scientists, specifically from the LGBTQIA+ community, experience during fieldwork. The idea for such a survey sprouted from concerns that sexual orientation or gender identity may play an unwanted or unwarranted role in people’s professional career. Especially during fieldwork, when Diversity and Inclusion Offices from our university campuses are far away, LGBTQIA+ researchers are exposed to people who may not agree with their sexual orientation or who do not understand why “he” may want to be addressed as “they.”
Responses revealed experiences ranging from discrimination to situations that made researchers decide to no longer perform fieldwork outside of safe places. This adds a whole new level to fieldwork stress, namely having to evaluate sites for their tolerance towards LGBTQIA+. In one story from fieldwork, men voiced discomfort because an openly gay man would share a room with them while, simultaneously, women felt uncomfortable due to the possibility of having to share a room with someone from the opposite sex. Another survey respondent described that they were fearful to carry out fieldwork in places that are recognized for their homophobic culture. These experiences leave people feeling isolated and rejected.
We present a few strategies that we can instill in STEM fields to avoid cases like these:
1) INFORM PEOPLE ABOUT LGBTQIA+. Erase any misinformation that may exist. For example, a gay man is not a threat to the sexuality of cisgender males. Institutions can facilitate trainings on diversity and inclusiveness and provide information on the LGBTQIA+ community to eliminate negative stereotypes.
2) HAVE SUFFICIENT FUNDING AVAILABLE FOR FIELDWORK. Although sometimes it's unavoidable to share rooms due to limited budget or space, if there is the possibility to do so, provide individual lodging for people traveling to fieldwork or conferences. Especially for those who ask for it.
3) DEVELOP AN EMERGENCY PROTOCOL. As a lab, department, or institution, develop a protocol that scientists can follow as a response to experiencing a threat to their integrity. Protocols like this should be part of a broader departmental or university-wide mission statement about equity in field work. The bar has been set high by this example of a mission statement written by University of California Irvine professor Kathleen Treseder.
4) AVOID INTOLERANT AREAS. It is important to note that this does not only apply to countries like Niger and Tunisia where discriminatory laws expose LGBTQIA+ individuals to the risk of death penalty. It also applies close to home, in the USA, where there is an ongoing debate about public restrooms and which one transgender people and people who identify as gender-nonconforming should use.
5) IMPLEMENT A ZERO-TOLERANCE POLICY. Inform everyone in your lab, department and institution that there is a zero-tolerance policy regarding abuse. A code of conduct with expected versus unaccepted behavior and practices should always be made available through trainings and in field stations.