Earlier in the year, I had the opportunity to do some amazing fieldwork in a remote, logistically difficult field site. This opportunity was essentially dropped in my lap, by affiliation with the research center I work in. I was thrilled — this would open new doors, and potentially set up a life’s worth of work. Our outside contact sent some emails introducing himself, and said he was excited to have me on board. We started chatting about an in-person meeting at my campus, since there are a few of us who would be participating in this field expedition. The big obstacle would be getting funding, which the director of my center was confident I could do, because of my early-career status (with his guidance; he has a very successful funding rate). Everything looked perfect.
And then things started getting weird.
I was out of town on a research trip when I got a message on my cell phone from the expedition organizer. I have no idea how he got my number, but in it, he mentioned how he really wanted to get to know me better, since we’d be spending so much time together. This weirded me out initially, because my number is not public, but can be found with some digging. I had away messages on my office phone and email, and so it should have been clear to this guy why I wasn’t returning his messages. I chalked my discomfort up to cultural or generational differences, and decided to ignore the voicemail and continue conversing via email.
A few weeks ago, he visited campus. We spent the entire day together talking logistics and research projects and funding opportunities. I wasn’t really clear why we needed to do this in person, necessarily, but again chalked this up to cultural or generational differences. I was excited about the opportunity, so I made allowances for the guy’s slightly quirky attitude. I brought my grad student into these meetings, as we’d be working on her project.
And then things got a little weirder.
At dinner, he mentioned that at the field station, there would be a lot of military men, and he made some vague, off-color jokes that made me uncomfortable. He talked about “undressing in front of the boys,” or “sleeping all together,” or “having handsome field assistants.” When I asked pointed questions about health, safety, security, or conflict resolution, he made it really clear that he’d never thought very deeply about working with women (and it was revealed that he’d never gone into the field with women before). Then, he expressed displeasure at the fact that the other female professor didn’t want to go on the trip, but wanted to send her male student instead. He made a comment about my being married that made me uncomfortable. Again, I chalked these up to generational and cultural differences, thinking he was just a bit clueless (as a feminist, I tend not to hang around clueless older white men all that often by choice, and I’ve found my colleagues to be pretty savvy about diversity issues).
The meeting ended, and I did a lot of traveling for work in the weeks that followed. I recently met with my grad student and found out that the expedition leader had been contacting her independently (which is weird in and of itself), and invited her to fly out to see him and “meet other members of the expedition” when she was in the region for a work-related event. When she probed for details about who else would be there, he finally revealed it would be just him. She told me about this, and that her interactions with him — friendly enough at first– had been giving her a weird gut feeling. She was visibly relieved when I validated her feelings with my own– she’d been so worries that I wouldn’t take her seriously, because there’s nothing specific to point to and say “This. This is not appropriate.”
It comes down to this: We’d be going into the field in extremely remote conditions (like, the kind where if something happened, the bodies would never, ever be found) with this guy, and both of us agreed that, while he’d given no overt warning signs, our guts were telling us this wasn’t a good idea. We didn’t want to be alone with him, his hypothetical team of scientists, and fifty military guys for two months.
So now I have to decide: do I take advantage of this opportunity to have access to a field site that would be an incredible scientific opportunity? Do we decide to try to get there on our own, some other way and at a later date? Do we just drop this all together? At this point, the scientific and professional allure of going to what would be an amazing place is largely diminished by what my student and I can only describe as a gut feeling. How do we communicate that to him? To my department head? To the colleagues I’ve already announced this opportunity to, before I realized that it wouldn’t be a good idea?
Maybe we’d go, and it would be okay. But what if it did go wrong? I have to think not only of myself, but also my student’s safety, too. As a scientist, it’s challenging to make a decision based on something as nebulous as gut instincts; as a woman, I’ve learned to both trust that instinct, but to constantly question it in the face of public scrutiny. I can tell with near certainty when someone is going to catcall me, or make an unwanted advance, or comment on my appearance. I’m rarely wrong about those men. I shouldn’t be making excuses for this guy’s behavior just because he’s a clueless older white man. Even if this guy is just being clueless, rather than predatory, I’m not sure that I want to add that layer of extra stress on top of the complications of remote, international fieldwork. And, ultimately, I think it’s important to trust ourselves. My gut is a Bayesian; it makes informed predictions based on prior knowledge. I’d rather not test those predictions against empirical evidence.