Risk and Harassment Reporting among Scientists by Kathryn Clancy

In light of recent divisive events on campus, the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology partnered with the IPRH to host an event on “Academic Freedom Across the Disciplines.” The forum sought to promote mutual understanding among the diverse body of scholars on our campus to address the vital shared principles that sustain research. Among the faculty who spoke for the event was Kathryn B. H. Clancy, Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Co-director of the Laboratory for Evolutionary Endocrinology. Here, she addresses how principles of academic freedom directly bore on her own routine research practices as a junior, female faculty member, and the how censoring pressures from within the broader academic community can present challenges to independent scholarship. — ac


Risk and Harassment Reporting among Scientists

I do feminist science research, and my work largely falls under the following 2 aims: testing medical assumptions about how the female reproductive body works, and understanding and raising awareness of the biases and behaviors preventing science from being inclusive of underrepresented minorities and women. You may be surprised to hear how hard it can be to convince colleagues and funding agencies that women are important, and to keep my comments brief, I’ll save that conversation for another time. But you are probably not surprised to hear that issues of inclusion in science can be professionally dangerous to study.

I want to share one story, of the dozens I could share, on the challenges I have faced doing research on issues of sexism and inclusion as a scientist. This story relates to a project on which I have recently published with my collaborators Robin Nelson, Julienne Rutherford, and Katie Hinde, all junior female professors. The Survey of Academic Field Experiences, or SAFE, surveyed over 600 researchers, male and female, and I personally interviewed 26 of them to provide narrative and context, and to produce qualitative analysis of their experiences. This project had been attacked from the beginning, by those who called our research a “witch hunt,” who doubted our ability to get tenure after doing this work, and who insisted that we overinflated the problems we found.

Just so you know, in our sample we found that a majority of female researchers and hefty minority of male researchers have been sexually harassed while doing fieldwork, and another 21% of women and 6% of men sexually assaulted. In the majority of these cases, the target is a trainee, and when women are targets, the perpetrator is often someone senior to them in the hierarchy. While anecdotes had been routinely circulated, and case studies written, of sexual violence happening at field sites for decades, scientists speak in the language of quantitative, peer-reviewed data. So that’s what we gave them.

Caption: 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. Each circle represents one survey respondent.

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. Each circle represents one survey respondent.

However, I’m sure you can imagine, without my saying, that one might encounter problems publishing data of this type. You might also imagine that doing this kind of research puts a target on your back, as someone to discredit, someone whose work should be blocked, someone who should not receive tenure. I have received rape threats, been called names I will not repeat here, and all four of us who have collaborated on this project carry the stories of hundreds of women and men who have been harassed and assaulted while practicing science.

The experiences I have had over the last few months show me how thin the layer of protection academic freedom truly is for untenured faculty, and yet how hard scientists should fight for it, if we want control over our research programs and we want to make better, honest science. Gatekeepers within our ranks do not always like work that questions the status quo, or reminds them of the privilege that led to their becoming gatekeepers. Institutions, especially public universities like the University of Illinois, should support those of us trying to speak truth to power and reveal the implicit and explicit biases facing women and men from many underrepresented identities in STEM and across academia. Academic freedom is what is necessary to protect those of us who want to be agents of change and imagine a better academia. In a time when some NSF directorates are mandated to only support research that “promotes national security or the economic interests of the United States,” universities need to lobby, support, and enable research no longer supported by the government.

One last thing. Our SAFE study has generated a lot of interest, in the national pressscientific press, and higher ed press.

A number of organizations, individuals, and disciplines are starting similar projects. What has saddened me is that one of the groups that wants to do this – and from a discipline that possibly needs it the most in STEM – is finding themselves hamstrung by this “national security or economic interests” mandate, because they are government employees. It seems as though universities may be the only place, then, to do inclusion research that will lead to a more diversely lead and just society.

Illinois could lead from a place of strength, or follow from a place of fear. Our brand should come from the principles we hold, our integrity in supporting dangerous ideas, and the conversations, policy changes, and cultural shifts we then enable. That is an Illinois I would be proud to serve.


Kate Clancy is the co-director of the Laboratory for Evolutionary Endocrinology and Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois. She is a human reproductive ecologist who specializes in women’s health, endometrial function and evolutionary medicine. Kate engages the public through integrated research and service projects at GAMES (Girls Advancing in Math, Engineering, and Science) camp each summer, as well as a new 21st Century Scientist Working Group funded by the Focal Point Initiative. She also teaches a hybrid, flipped, general education course every fall of 750 students on the biology of human behavior. She blogs at Context and Variation.


About anitacks

assistant professor of media and cinema studies at the university of illinois at ubana-champaign. + digital ethnography, inter-disciplinary approaches to media and technology studies, and hybrid pedagogies. engaged in research on/with innovation policy and practices, global digital cultures and translocal interventions, latin american science and technology studies.
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One Response to Risk and Harassment Reporting among Scientists by Kathryn Clancy

  1. Duncan Keenan-Jones says:

    Thanks Kate: a timely contribution

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