Date September 19, 2017
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Brown professor part of new anti-sexual harassment initiative in Earth science fields

A cofounder of the Earth Science Women’s Network, Meredith Hastings is now a co-principal investigator on a $1.1 million National Science Foundation grant to combat sexual harassment on college campuses and in the field.

Meredith Hastings
Meredith Hastings

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Despite having had a few “uncomfortable experiences” during her career while working with colleagues in the field, Meredith Hastings says she had no idea how prevalent sexual harassment was in her field of environmental sciences.

That is until she saw the results of a survey conducted a few years ago by the Earth Science Women’s Network (ESWN), a non-profit advocacy group that she helped to create.

More than half of the survey’s respondents said they had experienced some kind of sexual harassment in the course of their careers. Now Hastings — an associate professor in Brown’s Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences — is part of a nationwide effort, supported by a $1.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation, aimed at curbing sexual harassment in Earth and environmental science fields.

Hastings, who is also a fellow at the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, will work on the project with a team of researchers from across the country, led by Erika Marín-Spiotta from the University of Wisconsin. The researchers will develop bystander intervention training, education programs for academic departments and other strategies for preventing sexual misconduct.

Hastings discussed the project in an interview.

How did you become involved in this project?

The principal investigator on the project is Professor Erika Marín-Spiotta, a faculty member at University of Wisconsin-Madison and a member of the Leadership Board at the Earth Science Women’s Network. Both through my connection with ESWN leadership and the history Dr. Marin-Spiotta and I have of promoting professional development for early-career geoscientists, this project was an important next step for us in breaking down barriers for women to pursue science careers.

Like many of my geoscience colleagues, I was not aware that sexual harassment is particularly prevalent. In my own experience at remote field locations, I tossed up many of my uncomfortable experiences (as the only or one of a few young women) to other factors, such as: “Well, I was the only woman in the room when that was said…” or “I was the only undergraduate on the research cruise…” or “He didn’t realize I have a boyfriend when he said that.”

Then we surveyed the members of ESWN, and 51 percent responded that they had experienced some type of sexual harassment or assault in their careers thus far — and many of the respondents were still in graduate school at the time. This really highlighted to me that in a sense I was lucky. I had skirted what I would suggest were clear sexual misconduct situations because I communicated the importance of getting my work done above all else, and honestly, because I was naïve to how risky these situations were. Creating more awareness and developing training materials that actually directly address the reality of these situations can really make a difference.

What role do you expect ESWN will play?

ESWN is a partner organization on this project. ESWN is a nonprofit with more than 3,000 members that supports the retention of women in the Earth and environmental sciences through peer mentoring, community building and career development. Four leadership board members are involved in the project directly, and ESWN members will contribute to surveys and focus groups aimed at generating training materials that will be useful to the community at large.

What are some of the overall goals of the project?

The overarching goal of this work is to generate systemic change for gender equity in Earth, space and environmental sciences through development of tested bystander-intervention workshops for department heads, chairs and faculty to appropriately respond to, prevent and eliminate sexual harassment. We will also create materials for teaching sexual harassment as part of ethics training, incorporating this as part of scientific misconduct. Our aim is to raise awareness of this important issue and empower individuals within the Earth, space and environmental science communities to prevent sexual harassment from happening.

Getting there will require designing a community-based approach to sexual harassment bystander-intervention training for women and men academic leaders; inclusion of sexual harassment into teaching of ethical conduct of research; incorporation of geoscience-relevant scenarios into training and teaching materials, including field research and educational settings; participation of the most vulnerable populations in the development and implementation of training material to identify unique challenges faced by communities with intersectional identities; and collaboration with national society partners for dissemination, implementation and sustainability.

Are there factors related to sexual harassment that are unique or perhaps more prevalent in the Earth and environmental sciences?

There are two reasons that we are focusing on Earth, space and environmental sciences, otherwise known as the geosciences. First, it’s one of the least diverse fields in STEM. Many factors play into the decisions of women to leave science or exclude science as a career option. We are specifically aiming to tackle three related barriers: hostile climates due to the prevalence of sexual harassment, perceptions that sexual harassment is infrequent and affects few individuals, and the real lack of resources for responding to sexual harassment.

The second reason to pursue this in geosciences specifically is that our field has an additional challenge: We spend a great deal of time outside of the classroom, often training in off-campus research field sites where access to support networks and clear guidelines for conduct are weakened or absent. Studies have shown that vulnerability increases during one-on-one training and research at off-campus field sites, which are often remote and isolated. In a field survey of anthropologists, for example, 71 percent of women received inappropriate comments and 26 percent reported experiencing sexual assault — versus 41 percent and 6 percent of men, respectively. Few are aware of how to report sexual misconduct, especially when they are away from their home institution. And there is an urgent need to address this — almost all of the nearly 300 U.S. undergraduate geology programs require field training of some type.

How can people get involved in this work or help combat harassment more generally?

First and foremost is to never hesitate to report any situation that you see or experience, even if you would only diagnose it as “uncomfortable.” Make yourself aware of what constitutes sexual misconduct and sexual harassment, and what resources are available at your institutions to tackle this issue. Access materials from organizations such as Green Dot and Hollaback!, which aim to end harassment — from public spaces to your own backyard. The more intolerant we all become of unwanted and unwarranted attention, the more likely it will become less experienced. Lastly, I will be reaching out to Brown colleagues in the next few years to test out materials we will be developing as part of this project — so I hope that members of our own campus community will say yes when I ask for help with focus groups.