Using Public Health Interventions to Prevent Harassment in Archaeology

Several times each year, I learn of another case. Sometimes, I see a post on social media. More often, it is through a private email or a phone request for an in-person meeting. The details differ, but the substance is the same: another early-career archaeologist has been harassed or assaulted in the course of their education and research.

In such moments, I stay calm and focused. How can I best support this person? I reassure them that they are not alone, and that what happened to them is not their fault. I connect them with confidential support and, if needed, career resources. If they want, I help them explore options for reporting the harassment at their home institution.

Later, when I am by myself, emotions rise to the surface. What disturbs me – and should disturb all of us – is that today, so many archaeologists and researchers in allied fields continue to be targeted by the same types of abusive behavior that I endured earlier in my own career.

Like so many others, during my 35-year career as an archaeologist, I sometimes found myself on the blunt end of verbal jabs, crude come-ons, and homophobic taunts. More than once I was exposed to pornography, aggressive nudity, and unwanted sexual contact in the coures of my work.

As a field scientist, I was coached to develop a thick skin, to play along, and to manage rather than confront harassing behavior. Like so many others, I feared that if I complained, I would lose access to training, work, and research opportunities.

I love being an archaeologist. And I am deeply committed to my professional community, the vast majority of whom are kind, ethical, and compassionate individuals. We share a deep bond, one forged through team-based field experiences, long hours in laboratories, and a common passion for digging into the earth to recover material traces of the past.

But archaeology, like many other field sciences, has a harassment problem. Thanks to a suite of recent surveys and interview studies, we have more data than ever before about when harassment occurs, who is targeted, and how harassment impacts individuals and the field as a whole. We also are starting to identify evidence-based solutions that can prevent harassment before it starts.

Identifying Prevalence and Patterns of Harassment
In 2018, I joined several colleagues and students in the Department of Anthropology at Stanford University on an ad-hoc committee to study the problem of harassment during field research. To better understand the problem, I conducted a review and analysis of 12 recent peer-reviewed research studies on harassment in archaeology and related field sciences.

The results are sobering: among currently practicing archaeologists, 15% to 46% of men and 34% to 75% of women experienced one or more harassment events during their careers. A staggering 5% to 8% of men and 15% to 26% of women experienced unwanted sexual contact, including sexual assault.

Archaeologists of color, queer archaeologists, and archaeologists with disabilities experience harassment at even higher rates. Furthermore, the studies conducted to date reflect only the experiences of currently practicing archaeologists. We have no idea how many people have left the discipline after being harassed.

The research studies show that harassment in archaeology occurs in predictable patterns. Archaeologists are most commonly harassed by other archaeologists, usually members of their own research team. Entry-level archaeologists are disproportionately targeted. Women archaeologists are more commonly harassed by men and supervisors, while men archaeologists are more commonly harassed by peers of all genders.

Harassment most directly affects the person targeted. But it also damages science by creating “a hostile environment that reduces the quality, integrity, and pace of the advancement of science by marginalizing individuals and communities… and prevents the healthy exchange of ideas.” Thus, while harassment is primarily experienced at an interpersonal level, it has a broader impact on society as well.

Public Health Interventions

The patterned attributes of harassment in archaeology, and its broad social impact, suggest that public health interventions are a productive source of interventions. Similar to substance abuse, drunk driving, domestic violence, and nutrition-related diseases, harassment is an individual behavior that can be amplified or curtailed by cultural norms and organizational structures.

Multi-level interventions, at the individual, relational, organizational, community, and societal levels, are needed. These six evidence-based interventions, adapted from public health models, can measurably reduce harassment before it begins and mitigate the adverse effects of harassment when it does occur.

  1. Listen to survivors and vulnerable members of the discipline. They will know where the problems are and what can be done to stop them. Conduct regular climate surveys and listening sessions to monitor changes in team dynamics. Emphasize that reporting harassment is a courageous act that supports the health of the organization.
  2. Define harassment as scientific and professional misconduct. Every professional society, university, museum, research institute, and publisher should clearly state that harassment will be taken as seriously as plagiarism, falsification of data, and trafficking in antiquities. In the United States, Congress needs to pass the “Federal Funding Accountability for Sexual Harassers Act,” which would require institutions to formally report verified harassment on federally funded research projects.
  3. Establish an independent, global harassment reporting hotline with powers to investigate reports of harassment and resources to support survivors. In Great Britain, the Chartered Institute of Field Archaeologists has partnered with a non-profit organization to provide channels for reporting outside of organizational chains of command.
  4. Require codes of conduct with clear mechanisms of enforcement for all archaeology research and educational programs. This has been shown to dramatically reduce harassment on field projects. Every permitting agency, research funder, lab facility, and museum can incentivize this practice by making codes of conduct a required element of any application or request.
  5. Change organizational procedures to reduce potential abuses of power by gatekeepers. Install checks and balances in academic advising and workplace supervision to mitigate early-career archaeologists’ vulnerability. For funding, permits, hiring, and other high-stakes career decisions, establish open and transparent procedures with decision-making power vested in committees or boards rather than individuals.
  6. Include training in interpersonal skills as part of education and mentorship for archaeology and other team-based sciences. Along with awareness of team dynamics and conflict management for research leadership, upstander training empowers all team members to intervene in harassment and to use their character strengths to build safe and inclusive team dynamics.

We are at a tipping point: we now know the extent of the problem, and proven solutions are available. We can change our disciplinary culture by implementing these interventions at our workplaces, research projects, and professional organizations. We need to take action now, because no one, in any field, should have to endure harassment as the price of entry for doing the work they love.

Barbara L. Voss’s two-article series, ‘Documenting Cultures of Harassment in Archaeology: A Review and Analysis of Quantitative and Qualitative Research Studies’ and ‘Disrupting Cultures of Harassment in Archaeology: Social-Environmental and Trauma-Informed Approaches to Disciplinary Transformation’ are available now via FirstView on Cambridge Core. They will be printed in two forthcoming issues (86/2 and /3) of ‘American Antiquity’. Both articles are free to access through the generous support of the Stanford Archaeology Center Director’s Fund.

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