Women in the Field: Tips, Tricks, and Thoughts about Gender and Field Research

Using a GoPro to capture learning to bead in the field…and learning about life as a woman in the field.

I was sharing tea with a colleague of mine one afternoon when I asked her a question I was dying to know about fieldwork: how was it having your period abroad? This question may not appear very important but if you have a period and if you’re traveling to a new place, you should be asking yourself this question. If you are a woman researcher doing fieldwork in a remote location or one with minimal infrastructure, having your period is at least one thing to think about and plan ahead for. Think about the times you’ve travelled abroad and mistakenly thought all bathrooms had toilet paper, or think about how difficult it might be to find tampons in a small, tucked away village.

The impulse to write this article came from thinking about such things and acknowledging how rarely these are topics of conversation when us researchers are preparing for the field. And yet, many of us women researchers learn to navigate and prepare for these situations. Wether we quietly ask our colleagues about periods in coffee shops or we learn the hard way that being a woman researcher abroad makes us vulnerable to local forms of sexism, there is much to be shared and discussed if only we stop being so quiet and secretive about how gender manifests in the field.

I start the article with a short discussion on sexual harassment and sexism, which I found to be a topic that comes up often with my women colleagues who do field research. Following this important discussion I’ll touch upon less serious and rarely discussed topics like menstrual cups, breathable underwear, and shampoo bars. I end this piece with a few reading recommendations on gender and fieldwork.

I wrote this article to stimulate conversation about our own subjectivities as researchers, and the rarely discussed but very important side of fieldwork: the personal and the subjective.

1. Sexism, Machismo, Womanizers, and other unpleasantries:

I’ll begin with what is the most difficult to address: sexism and harassment abroad. This is an unfortunate but absolutely necessary topic which I must touch upon because from my experience, and from that of other women researchers, sexism and sexual harassment rear their ugly heads often throughout field research. An eye-opening expanded survey led by archaeologist Kate Clancy found that 26% of female scientists experience sexual harassment while doing field research. I wish I could tell you that as a woman, you won’t have sexist experiences during your field research. But this is simply not the reality. Depending on where you’re doing your research and how you are perceived by locals, you might experience instances of sexism and harassment ranging from micro-aggressions to overt in-your-face sexism.

Think about this through an intersectional lens where your gender, skin color, sexuality, country of origin, social status, political status, and privilege as a researcher are packaged into one person (you, the woman researcher).

For example, throughout Brazil I was often perceived as a Brazilian because of my skin color. While this afforded a certain benefit, in other ways I was also subject to the types of overt sexism that other Brazilian women might experience while walking on the street. On the other hand, I was read as a heterosexual woman and did not experience any anti-gay interactions, which might be different for a field researcher whose sexuality might not be read as heterosexual. In addition, because I was a researcher from the United States, people I met that were critical of American involvement in Latin America were critical of me, which led to enthused conversations of power and politics. Yet others, who welcomed interactions with Americans, were kind and sometimes uncomfortably over-the-top in their admiration of the United States. In interactions with other male researchers and colleagues, I was routinely undermined about my expertise and knowledge. I learned to not take it personal.

I’ve heard horrible stories from other women colleagues about sexual harassment from their superiors while researching abroad, and unfortunately, these types of stories don’t seem to be on the decline. It is hard to write this without offering an answer that is comforting, but I don’t have one. In the case of persistent sexual harassment from a superior while researching abroad, I would suggest first that you immediately claim your space and your body from this person in whatever way makes you feel empowered. Immediately after feeling sexually harassed, follow any formal reporting mechanisms that are available to you and reach out to other colleagues you trust as soon as possible to get their advice. They might be able to give you sound advice on how to deal with this unpleasant situation. As field researchers, it is not easy to walk away from a research project after working so hard to secure a field site and research funding. This situation makes you especially vulnerable, as you might fear that if you assert yourself against a sexually harassing superior you might be taken out of a project you worked so hard on.

In spite of the vulnerability you might feel, tell someone you trust. Get advice from people that understand the situation you are in, the country, and the specifics of your situation. TELL SOMEONE.

In other casual yet uncomfortable instances of sexism you might experience, I also cannot offer a comforting answer. However, I can tell you what I did in my own, specific experience. When walking down the street, I just ignored the strangers that made sexist comments (like I might also do in the U.S. for example). It did not seem worth my time or energy to deal with those strangers. When dealing with people that I rarely interacted with that undermined my intelligence or capabilities, I was respectful and shared opinions but I did not overtly challenge them. Again, this was because it did not seem worth my effort. However, when dealing with people that I interacted with somewhat regularity, I respectfully asserted myself and made my opinions known when I could. Micro-aggressions were harder to address, and many times I tried not to let those scathe me. If you are a person of color these types of micro aggressions will feel familiar. If you are a white person that has experienced forms of micro-aggressions due to your gender, sexuality, or other social markers, these types of micro aggressions will feel familiar. These covert instances of sexism, racism, and homophobia are so difficult to address because they can seem so fleeting. Couple that with being in a place you are not from and with people you don’t quite know, one can quickly feel disempowered.

Knowing which formal reporting methods are available to you, and making sure you have a network of people you trust are two important steps you can take to mitigate situations of sexism and sexual harassment. Always be your strongest advocate.

Now onto less, erhem, heavy but very important tips:

2. Menstruation/ Gettin’ ya period

Returning to the introduction of the article, here’s what I’ve learned about what it’s like to have your period abroad. I talked with some of my closest friends about how they handled their periods while out in the field, especially in remote locations with minimal infrastructure. Some shared that they got on a birth control regimen before embarking on their field journey so that they would not have to deal with getting their period. Others told me they packed what they would need for the year in advance, and yet other researchers felt that they could secure personal hygiene items in their field site so they just bought items on a per-need basis. I opted for a menstrual cup and menstruation underwear when I was in the field, it was a great choice! Know your body and it’s ebbs and flows (hehe!). Definitely get biodegradable products. When you are in other countries, toilet paper can be scarce or you might have to pay a small fee each time you use the bathroom. Always carry tissues, wet wipes, or cotton rags with you just in case. I kept small packets of wet wipes and that is a decision I do not regret!

3. Undergarments

Opt for something comfortable and easy to wash. If washing clothing items by hand, you might want to consider high performance materials that won’t stretch out under rigorous hand-washing. I made the mistake of choosing cotton for my field stint and they were not the best choice in a high-humidity environment. If you are in a cold environment, dress accordingly. Buy comfortable sports bras with padding on them for warmth, and long underwear go a very long way in the cold as do good socks. I don’t have any particular brands that I recommend, so do some research and invest what you can in your undergarments. Being comfortable while you’re out of your comfort zone is the best way to be out of your comfort zone :)

4. Hair products

It’s hard to be a product junkie while you’re far away! Embrace minimalism and opt for a shampoo bar and/or all purpose soap. Hard soap travels so much better than anything liquid or creamy. There are many exceptional, biodegradable hair shampoos and soaps to choose from. If your hair is dry and requires moisture, I would recommend harder consistency moisturizers that don’t melt like shea butter. Definitely try out a hair care routine before taking it out into the wild, so that you’re comfortable and confident once you’re in-field.

5. Makeup

I would go the route of least resistance: keep it minimal. Weather, travel, a new environment…just take what you absolutely cannot live without. I keep it simple with a good sunscreen and lip balm.

6. Grooming

Definitely bring hair ties, cloth headbands, a brush/comb, tweezers, and small nail-cutters. Tweezers are immensely helpful, from plucking a rogue eyebrow hair to removing splinters or ticks from your body. I brought a small pair of grooming scissors and they proved to be helpful for cutting all kinds of things like paper, rope, cloth, and wild eyebrow hairs.

7. Sex

You are a human and humans sometimes have sex. You might have sexual relationships while you’re away, especially if you are going to be doing a field visit that is over a long period of time. Condoms and other types of protection may not be readily available abroad, some countries keep these types of items behind counters in pharmacies or clinics. Therefore, I’d advise to carry your own preferred methods of protection with you, and if you are the cautious type, Plan B would not hurt either.

This is a short but honest list of personal topics I think are important for women to consider before they embark on their field research. Below are a few reading recommendations on gender and fieldwork, from classic texts to personal blogs.

Reading Recommendations on gender and fieldwork

Check out the classics: Books on women and field research that are definitely worth a read include Women in the Field: Anthropological Experiences edited by Peggy Golde, Women Writing Culture edited by Ruth Behar and Deborah Gordon, and Gendered Fields edited by Diane Bell, Pat Caplan, and Wazir Karim.

This Mother Jones article talks about the findings of an expanded survey led by Kate Clancy, which I referenced above. The article also includes a link to an Inquiring Minds podcast episode featuring the authors of this eye-opening survey.

In a guest post from the blog Dispatches from the Field, Jodie Wiggins writes about her experiences as a field ecologist.

This article published in The Atlantic talks about the high rates of sexual harassment for women scientists in the field.

Olivia Wilkinson writes about her experiences doing fieldwork in the Philippines.

Alright field researchers, is there something I missed that you think is important for women field researchers to think about? Do you have a reading recommendation you think I should add? Let me know, I’d love to hear your thoughts. And by the way, keep on kicking butt in the field!