Anthropology professor addresses sexual assault issues in field sites

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Anthropology professor addresses sexual assault issues in field sites

By Saher Khan

When Professor Kathryn Clancy delves into a research project, she does so with the intention of making the world a better place for her six-year-old daughter, who wants to grow up to be a scientist like she is.

Clancy, anthropology professor at the University, was named one of Nature Magazine’s 10 people who mattered in 2013 for her research in trends of sexual assault in field sites within the field of anthropology. Clancy is not alone in her research; the sexual harassment project is collaboration with three other professors — Robin Nelson at Skidmore College, Julienne Rutherford at University of Illinois at Chicago, and Katie Hinde at Harvard University.

What Clancy and her colleagues found through their research is that sexual harassment and assault were not uncommon. While women are the more frequent targets, men were also harassed and assaulted, which highlights the importance of addressing this issue for both men and women. Their research of over 600 respondents across the field-based sciences will be submitted for publication shortly.

Growing up in the small city of Brockton, Mass., right outside of Boston, Clancy was a nerdy and outdoorsy kid. As an undergraduate at Harvard University, she was torn between pursuing neurobiology or an English degree to be a fiction writer. But somehow she stumbled upon biological anthropology, and all seemed right.

“Biological anthropology is really just evolutionary storytelling about what it means to be human, so in a lot of ways it was a nice fit,” Clancy said.

After graduating from Harvard in 2001, Clancy pursued her graduate degree in anthropology at Yale and did fieldwork in the Mogielica Mountain range in Poland.

After a stint at Harvard, Clancy started as a professor at the University in 2007.

Clancy writes for the Scientific American Magazine, and in a blog post called, “Anthropology Love Letters,” she discussed exactly what it was about anthropology that drew her in.

“What I love about the field is that it tries to understand why it is that humans vary and what is so interesting, and in a way normal, about how different we all are,” Clancy said. “There are so many ways that can make us all turn out so differently, and I just love understanding all the different things that make us turn out into these fascinating beings.”

Clancy’s traditional research is focused on women’s reproductive health but her newest research project deviates from her normal topics. It is about sexual assault and harassment occurring in fieldwork within anthropology.

The project started roughly two years ago when Clancy was traveling to give talks at various anthropology conferences. She ran into an old friend who mentioned that she was struggling to get her dissertation done.

“I asked her, ‘Hey, what’s going on — why aren’t you done yet?’ and that’s when she told me she had been sexually assaulted in the field, and she couldn’t look at her data because it gave her flashbacks,” Clancy said. “And when she tried to report it to someone above her, they told her she was a liar and didn’t believe her.”

Clancy said that the other people her friend worked with would not cut ties with the perpetrator because they were afraid of losing the data set.

After this conversation, Clancy asked her friend and another person who had experienced a similar trauma to write posts on her blog. The entries helped gain her recognition as someone who was collecting information and trying to raise awareness on the issue of sexual assault in fieldwork.

Andrew Orta, department head of anthropology at the University and Clancy’s colleague, said that Clancy is especially passionate about linking her focus on women’s reproductive health with the training of young women as scientists.

“Through her public speaking and her blog work, she is an important public voice and a role model for biological anthropology and women in science,” Orta said.

When Clancy was asked to speak about ethics to other anthropologists at a conference, she knew she had to expand the collection of anecdotes into a full-fledged research project.

“I realized my colleagues were going to skewer me if all I had were anecdotes,” Clancy said. “So that is when I decided to do something rigorous, and I got some of my colleagues together to do a real collaborative research project on this.”

After collecting data and information from polls, surveys and countless interviews, Clancy and her colleagues found that sexual assault, harassment and bullying was more substantial than she anticipated.

“I felt sadness and despair, but I could say it wasn’t surprising yet it wasn’t unsurprising,” Clancy said. “It just felt like the status quo; it felt like what I heard from too many people. I’m kind of at that point in my career where I’ve heard too many awful things.”

Clancy has been asked to speak at multiple conferences about the issue and her findings since the start of her research. After posting the preliminary results and several blog posts, she was contacted by women from all over the country and the world who wanted to do similar projects in their own subfields. Two professional societies, the American Association of Anthropology and the American Association of Physical Anthropologists both published statements against sexual harassment. The AAPA also formed an ethics committee and the AAA established a zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment.

All of the increased dialogue, awareness and action on the issue makes Clancy feel excited about the work of her and her colleagues. She said she feels good that their advocacy has sparked attention to such a serious issue that was not being discussed just two years ago.

Patricia Jones, who reaches out to faculty and fosters interdisciplinary research through the Beckman Institute, works with Clancy and said that Clancy is very energetic and passionate about her work. By drawing attention to a real issue, Jones thinks that Clancy is doing a service to the community through her research. One motivating factor to Clancy’s passion for social justice, Jones said, is Clancy’s role as a parent.

“When you become a parent, you want what’s best for your kid and other kids out there, and when you see this kind of stuff it’s really disturbing,” Jones said. “As you get older, you tend to see the more ugly aspects of the world, and for many of us that motivates us to say, ‘What can I do to make the world a better place?’ And once you have kids, you also have a motivation to say, ‘How can I make the world a better place for my kid?’”

Clancy herself recognizes she has a strong sense of fairness and that motivates a lot of her behavior.

“I have a real problem with cheating, discrimination, entitlement and other factors that can create unfair environments,” she said. “Given how outspoken and strident I often seem, I think it surprises people how maternal I sometimes am: not just with my daughter, but with my students and teammates (I play roller derby for our local league).”

This maternal instinct is why Clancy is so invested in creating a safer environment within the sciences for people to do their work, especially with a daughter who aspires to join the field.

According to Clancy, the experience that people have in the field directly influences what they choose to do in science if they stay in it at all. Some of the women Clancy and her team interviewed are no longer scientists because they were so horribly abused in the field that they did not want to return. Clancy gave an example of another woman who was sexually assaulted who changed her entire research program so she would never have to go back to the field site of her assault.

Clancy said that men who do not directly experience but had to witness it over and over again were psychologically damaged from feeling like they were worthless, horrible people for not speaking up, but they were paralyzed themselves because they were afraid of what would happen to them if they spoke up.

“So in my mind, what’s at stake here is the psychological health of a huge number of people. … We are losing tons and tons of brilliant scientists because science is hostile for them,” she said.

According to Clancy, the department here at the University has been working together to implement a certain code of conduct to make sure students are safer when they go out into the field.

Their first task is to create policies that are explicitly anti-sexual harassment. But Clancy said these only work if there is actual enforcement of some kind. That is why she wants to implement an independent reporting structure, to provide a safe and confidential person to talk to without having to worry about losing ones job or failing a class.

“Those are just the first basic steps. In time we want to be normalizing an inclusive atmosphere and normalize the notion that being sexist and sexual assault and harassment are not OK, so eventually the perpetrators get shamed out of the field,” Clancy said.

The next step in this project is to submit at least two papers for publication based on their data and to continue to challenge their colleagues to think well about these issues.

“I’m intolerant of intolerance and tolerant of pretty much everything else,” Clancy said. “I admire and appreciate independence and hard work, and I try to make the kind of world that I can be proud to live in.”

Saher can be reached at [email protected]