Go read the Survey of Academic Field Experiences study!

As happens to any academic study that receives a lot of press coverage and blogger attention, the actual content of the Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE) study by Clancy et al. (2014) has gotten a bit obscured in the ensuing discussion. I’ve played my part in this obscuring, by writing a blogpost that comments on an article that references the SAFE study without, at the time, having read the study itself. But in preparing to meet Katie Hinde, one of the authors of the SAFE study, I decided I had better actually read the paper. And I’m here to tell you that, if you haven’t already, YOU SHOULD GO READ IT TOO! It is incredibly well written–the authors neither under-sell nor over-sell their data. It raises what are, I think, the most important issues to consider when thinking about the environment that women in science experience. I’m going to mention each of these issues below, excerpting quotes from the paper (minus references), to illustrate how well the SAFE study deals with each of them.

1.  It’s open-access, which means that anyone with an internet connection can read it.

2. It emphasizes that microagressions and macroaggressions are linked in contributing to a hostile environment for women in science. This hostility is in turn linked to inadequacies in how scientists are trained:

Faculty, however, are rarely trained in the interpersonal skills of conflict management, negotiation, and resolution that would allow them to informally and formally confront personnel issues as they arise and before they can escalate. Prioritization of data-generation has the potential to contribute to the neglect – benign or otherwise – of team dynamics such that alienation, harassment, and assault may occur.

3. It recognizes that the detrimental effects of a hostile environment are not restricted to victims of hostility.

Bystanders to workplace incivility, particularly women, are demoralized even though they are not the direct targets of the perpetrator.

4. It emphasizes that perpetrators of assault in the field are more likely members of the STEM community (>70% perpetrators) than locals from near the fieldsite:

Conventional wisdom often attributes the majority of sexual misconduct to locals and cultural differences, an important consideration for, for instance, the international business workplace. Incidents perpetrated by locals certainly exist and are traumatic, but represented a small minority of cases in our survey.

Moreover, reporting a colleague likely has more severe professional consequences than reporting a local at the fieldsite:

Aspiring academics are exquisitely aware of the realities of finding and securing a position within small, highly specialized disciplines; as a result, targets and bystanders may be especially inhibited from reporting.

5. It acknowledges the importance of intersectionality, and emphasizes that the lack of diversity in STEM is a problem:

Our results cannot adequately speak to the experiences of people of color, or LGBTQ individuals because they are underrepresented in out fields and therefore our dataset…The lack of diverse backgrounds and perspectives may well constrain the range of research topics being addressed, slowing advances and achievements in science.

6. It draws attention to a possible link between the hostile environment faced by women in science and the “higher attrition rates of women in the sciences.”

7. Finally, it has this tremendously powerful visual representation of the problem we face. Spend some time really considering that each of these dots represents an actual person:

Figure 3 from the SAFE study. "Visual representation of respondents to the survey, their experiences, and who were aware of, made use of, and were satisfied by mechanisms to report unwanted physical contact."
Figure 3 from the SAFE study. “Visual representation of respondents to the survey, their experiences, and who were aware of, made use of, and were satisfied by mechanisms to report unwanted physical contact.”

It’s time to actually take action to make the STEM environment welcoming to women and minorities. I’ll write more soon about the actions I’m taking now, and planning to take when I go to the field next year. But action against a problem has to begin with understanding the problem, and an excellent way to develop your understanding of the problems faced by women in science, especially women doing fieldwork, is to read and really think about the SAFE study.

3 thoughts on “Go read the Survey of Academic Field Experiences study!

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