An Astonishing 79% of Women Scientists Encounter Negative Experiences During Polar Field Work

An Astonishing 79% of Women Scientists Encounter Negative Experiences During Polar Field Work

A recent study published in PLOS Climate examined the experiences of women working in polar environments. Fieldwork in the Arctic and Antarctica is crucial for addressing the challenges of climate change, and women play a significant role in this research. However, the survey revealed that women often face negative experiences during polar fieldwork.

The survey, conducted from September to November 2023, received over 300 responses from women around the world. The respondents, ranging in age from 18 to 70+, represented diverse ethnicities, life experiences, and career stages. Alarmingly, 79% of the women reported negative experiences during their fieldwork in the polar regions. These experiences were primarily driven by difficult team dynamics, lack of accountability for bullying or harassment, communication challenges, and sexism.

Some respondents reported reprehensible conditions, including sexual harassment, psychosocial harm, violence, racism, and homophobia. Additionally, only a third of the women reported having access to personal space during fieldwork, which can be particularly challenging when coupled with bullying or harassment.

One of the most pervasive negative experiences reported was problematic field team dynamics. Women often feel unable to speak up due to concerns about confidentiality and lack of reliable reporting structures. Cultural issues also prevent women from speaking out, as they fear being seen as “problematic” and having their opportunities limited. Even when harassment is reported, there is often a lack of accountability and consequences for the wrongdoer.

Sexism was another prevalent negative experience reported by the surveyed women. While progress has been made in diversifying polar research, male dominance still persists. Women often face an inequity of gender roles, being assigned more cooking and cleaning responsibilities and limited to lab-based roles. They also experience underestimation of their physical strength and face biases that hinder their opportunities for advancement.

Women also struggle with managing menstruation during fieldwork due to lack of privacy, weather conditions, and limited toilet breaks. This issue prevents some women from participating in fieldwork altogether.

The study highlighted the need for clear codes of conduct and harassment reporting structures in polar fieldwork expeditions. Institutions must provide mandatory training on team dynamics and equity, diversity, and inclusion, particularly for leaders. Creating proactive, flexible, and empathetic environments where women can advocate for themselves and others is crucial.

Despite the negative experiences, most women expressed a desire to continue their work in polar research. Women bring unique perspectives and skills to scientific tasks and should never be viewed as weak due to their gender. It is essential to support and empower women in polar fieldwork to ensure their safety and contribute to a more inclusive and diverse scientific community.