New study: women who work in coastal sciences face disproportionate challenges in the field

New study: women who work in coastal sciences face disproportionate challenges in the field

UOW researcher says fieldtrips slip under the radar and require special attention

A job working on the ocean or at the coast is often considered a dream role for emerging scientists, but for women the reality can be very different compared to their male colleagues.

Four female coastal scientists were curious about the state of gender equity in their field, so they undertook new research led by University of Wollongong (UOW) Associate Professor Sarah Hamylton.

Surveys undertaken by the research team revealed a lack of fieldwork active female role models, coastal settings that are unsafe for women, a relatively limited capacity to participate in fieldtrips, gender stereotyping in the field and discriminatory assumptions about women’s ability to perform fieldwork tasks.

Associate Professor Hamylton, from UOW’s School of Earth, Atmospheric and Life Sciences, said coastal field settings raise unique challenges for women.

“Women typically represent a very small proportion of people working from boats, where personal space is reduced and fieldworkers can be required to sleep in close proximity, potentially exposing them to vulnerable situations,” Associate Professor Hamylton said.

“Going over the survey responses was difficult and I knew we had to do something to bring this into sharper focus for our research community.”

The challenges of fieldwork: Improving the experience for women in coastal sciences identified specific challenges that women face while undertaking fieldwork in coastal environments from an international survey of 314 coastal scientists including both men and women.

As universities move to address issues of sexual harm on their campuses, Associate Professor Hamylton says that women working away from campus represent some of the most vulnerable students and staff in the higher education sector.

“Women working on boats commonly face inadequate facilities at sea for toileting, menstruation or managing lactation, particularly when they are in the minority,” Associate Professor Hamylton said.

“And as the social boundaries that characterise day to day working life in the office are reconfigured, women working can also face greater exposure to microaggressions, discrimination, abuse and sexual harassment.”

The researchers also found that women face barriers to participation in fieldtrips and are often overlooked for coastal fieldwork because of the physicality required for some roles such as boating, four-wheel driving, driving trailers, working with power tools, moving heavy equipment, scuba diving and swimming in the surf.

Associate Professor Hamylton said body exposure was an issue for many women working in the field, with close-fitting fieldwork attire such as wetsuits and swimsuits increasing the likelihood of women’s bodies being objectified by colleagues.

“The issue of body exposure also sheds light on the interconnected nature of multiple aspects of identity including race, religion, class and sexuality which can create other disadvantages for women in the field,” Co-author on the study Professor Ana Vila-Concejo from the University of Sydney said.

“For some women it isn’t social or culturally acceptable to wear swimmers or even to do fieldwork.”

For Associate Professor Hamylton and her colleagues, placing more attention on fieldtrips and the experiences of women should be paramount. The research team identified five priority behavioural and policy changes to improve the experience for women in coastal sciences.

These recommendations include publicising female field role models and trailblazers; improving opportunities and capacity for women to undertake fieldwork; establishing field codes of conduct; acknowledging the challenges women face in the field and provide support where possible in the field; and foster an enjoyable and supportive fieldwork culture.

“Fieldtrips slip under the radar and require special attention,” Associate Professor Hamylton said.

“Here at the University of Wollongong we have been working on a fieldwork code of conduct, which has had enthusiasm and buy in from all around the University… I hope it gives our female staff and students the opportunity to grow as scientists in the field as we need to do everything in our power to make that happen.”