Anonymous sexism in paleoanthropology

8 minute read

Seems like every week, someone writes an article drawing attention to a new episode of sexism in science. Today it’s my turn to shine a light on this issue.

Sunday, The Observer published an article by Robin McKie: “Scientist who found new human species accused of playing fast and loose with the truth”. McKie featured extensive quotes from paleoanthropologist Tim White, who believes that the 2-year-long analysis of Homo naledi was “rushed”. McKie included both negative and supportive quotes from a number of scientists, all of them men.

McKie used one particularly negative quote from a source who would not go on the record with his or her name. Steeped in sexism, it has been sparking outrage among anthropologists in social media since the story was published this weekend:

The fact that Berger used women cavers to retrieve Naledi bones – on the grounds that they were the only ones small enough to get into the chamber – has only irked his critics even more. One said: “There are many male cavers who could get in there, but that would have spoiled the publicity stunt.”

It’s a short paragraph in a long article. Some may wonder whether this kind of comment is worth protesting. It is, after all, the sort of thing that may be whispered in the hallway at any scientific conference.

That’s exactly the point.

Best candidates for the job

McKie’s article is sloppy journalism. He gets the basic facts wrong, even though the entire story of the Rising Star Expedition is easily accessible to anyone who bothers to check. Hundreds of thousands have read the expedition blog from the beginning, and more than 230,000 have read the open access paper in eLife. The search for our excavation team and the subsequent analysis of the fossils has been well-documented in many public sources. Lots of journalists have covered this story without making stupid errors as McKie has done here.

The original Facebook ad that Lee Berger posted to search for excavators is available to the public.

Dear Colleagues - I need the help of the whole community and for you to reach out to as many related professional groups as possible. We need perhaps three or four individuals with excellent archaeological/palaeontological and excavation skills for a short term project that may kick off as early as November 1st 2013 and last the month if all logistics go as planned. The catch is this – the person must be skinny and preferably small. They must not be claustrophobic, they must be fit, they should have some caving experience, climbing experience would be a bonus. They must be willing to work in cramped quarters, have a good attitude and be a team player. Given the highly specialized, and perhaps rare nature of what I am looking for, I would be willing to look at an experienced Ph.D. student or a very well trained Masters student, even though the more experience the better (PH.D.’s and senior scientists most welcome). No age limit here either. I do not think we will have much money available for pay – but we will cover flights, accommodation (though much will be field accom., food and of course there will be guaranteed collaboration further up the road). Anyone interested please contact me directly on [email protected] copied to my assistant [email protected] . My deadlines on this are extremely tight so as far as anyone can spread the word, among professional groups.

Not a word about women being the “only ones small enough to get into the chamber,” and no preference for women or men indicated. Obviously women are not the only ones who can fit in the Dinaledi Chamber—the cavers who have supported the work of the excavators from the beginning of the expedition are mostly men.

This weekend, Lee added some context in a public Facebook post:

Finally, the idea that the six primary excavators, who just happen to be women, were chosen for their sex as some sort of publicity stunt is insulting. It’s insulting to our large team of scientists, it’s insulting to these extraordinary scientists who literally risked their lives daily to recover these fossils, and it’s insulting to female scientists in general. I led the selection panel its true. There were approximately 60 qualified applicants that responded to the Ad I and others circulated on various social media platforms. A significant majority of these applicants were women and that may reflect nothing more than the changing demographics of who is choosing to do a degree in this field, I don’t know – they are who applied. We shortlisted that group to about ten candidates who we felt were the best qualified based on their skills and their skills alone, as long as they met the physical requirements the dangerous task demanded. We quite literally ranked them in order. It is a little known fact that from the shortlist, the first selection of six excavators included a male, but he, it turned out, did not actually meet the physical requirements to get into the chamber and so by that one chance the six scientists we chose were all women and all the best qualified to do the job meeting all the requirements we set out at the time. I hope that clears that issue up once and for all.

After an open process of application, the best candidates were women. Simple as that.

The demography of paleoanthropology

It is not news that most areas of science have seen a massive increase in the participation by women during the last 40 years. But some senior scientists are oblivious to reality.

They should know better. Women are not only the future of biological anthropology and archaeology, they are the present. Since 1990, women have consistently been awarded more PhD degrees than men in anthropology in the U.S., the proportion of PhDs going to women is now above 60%. The proportion of women is even higher in graduate programs of anthropology, now above 65%, it has been higher than men since the 1970s. In my undergraduate classes in biological anthropology, more than 70% of students are women. Our current graduate students in biological anthropology at UW-Madison are all women, and this is not unusual for graduate programs in the U.S. There is absolutely nothing strange about the top candidates with archaeological experience being all women, because our students are mostly women.

How could a senior scientist be oblivious to this reality? One reason is that some departments have such a history of sexism and harassment that other scientists advise women students to avoid them like the plague. Some scholars don’t have students who are women because they are driving women away.

Sexual harassment driving people from the field

The reality of sexual harassment in paleoanthropology was brought to public attention last year by the publication of the Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE) study by Kathryn Clancy and colleagues. The study found that 71% of women respondents had been targets of harassment at field sites, and 26% of respondents had been targets of sexual assault. These incidences were much higher for women than for men, and most targets of harassment and assault had been students at the time they were victimized.

Harassment and assault in the field are not the only barriers to women in paleoanthropology. Pat Shipman this month has a harrowing article in American Scientist that recounts some of her experiences as a tenured woman in academia: “Taking the Long View on Sexism in Science”.

The culture of discrimination is far-reaching and ongoing. This year I learned of two public instances of overt sexual harassment directed at junior women that took place at a professional anthropology meeting in April. The accounts became a major topic of discussion in anthropology circles, so much so that I was able to check the stories with both subjects as well as with others who had witnessed the incidents. In one case, a senior male in the field apparently believed commenting on a junior colleague’s breasts was acceptable behavior and possibly even flattering. In the other, a senior male researcher invited a junior female colleague to sit on his lap.

These experiences, from harassment and sexual comments to assault during fieldwork, are connected in a broader pattern. One result is that many women leave field sciences. Paleoanthropology has a lower proportion of women in tenured and tenure-track faculty and research positions than in other areas of biological anthropology.

Our understanding of human origins is impoverished by the absence of creative voices who were excluded from research and fieldwork. Interested students find fewer women as research mentors, which impacts the next generation of science. It’s time to end this cycle.

We can demand better

The casual sexism reflected by the anonymous source in McKie’s article is part of this broader pattern. McKie himself has a record of reporting that shows he understands the fallout from reporting sexist comments from senior scientists. McKie this summer wrote about one of the most significant recent stories of sexism in science, with his sympathetic profile of Sir Tim Hunt (“Sir Tim Hunt: my gratitude to female scientists for their support”).

The named critics in McKie’s story are among the most prominent scientists in the field. He was obviously interviewing some high-powered people. McKie surely knows that the anonymous source in this story would rightly be criticized for making such a baldfaced statement of sexism, and he kindly provided confidentiality to the source who made it, to cover the smear.

I can’t know who was the anonymous “one”, but I plan to fight that attitude in every venue where I encounter it.