Erika Marin-Spiotta

Erika Marín-Spiotta recalled spending weekends and holidays during her childhood in Spain out in the field with her father, an amateur archaeologist. “We were always traipsing through some sunflower field looking for ruins,” she said.

Marín-Spiotta, 41, never lost her love for and curiosity about the outdoors and developed a career where she can give it free rein. An associate professor at UW-Madison in the Department of Geography, she is a scientist who conducts research into how human activity affects the landscape, changing biodiversity or the chemistry of soil or water.

She is part of a team that will develop sexual harassment bystander intervention training for the earth, space and environmental sciences.

UW-Madison is introducing its own mandatory sexual harassment prevention training this semester. But some universities do not require it, and some academic fields have special training needs, said Marín-Spiotta.

She will be lead investigator of research being conducted in a partnership of the American Geophysical Union, Earth Science Women’s Network, and Association for Women Geoscientists.

Funded by a $1.1 million, four-year grant from the National Science Foundation, Marín-Spiotta and her team will gather data on the prevalence and types of sexual harassment in the geosciences, where women receive 39 percent of undergraduate degrees but make up only 20 percent of faculty.

Did you have any models of women in science growing up?

My mom was a Spanish teacher and she was always interested in science and geology but was discouraged from going into science. It was not something encouraged at the time or in her environment. Senior year in high school I had a biology teacher who was a good role model in terms of being excited about how things work.

Earth and spaces are among the least diverse fields in all of STEM in terms of gender, racial and ethnic diversity. Why do you think that is?

One reason is you have fields like geology and geophysics that historically had ties with oil industry, and are very field-based with a perception of being of very rugged and not very welcoming to women. The space sciences have astronomy and astrophysics and a lot of those people come from physics, which also is not diverse. Another reason is the fieldwork.

The fieldwork?

We spend a lot of time with colleagues, and we might be camping together in rugged environmental conditions. And the lines about what is appropriate get blurred in the field. And then you might have had to drive three hours and hike for two days, and something happens it might be you and your harasser – period -- in the field. You might need to depend on this person to bring you back to safety.

That sounds horrible.

I’ve heard horrible stories.

How else does the power differential work regarding a junior person’s career?

There are times when you have a senior professor sabotage the career of a junior professor or graduate student where it is not overtly sexual, but there are gender and sexual undertones. They might sabotage their publications or access to research funds. It creates a hostile environment that research shows leads to women leaving the field.

Does it occur only by men targeting women?

It definitely occurs among same sex people and men also are the target of sexual harassment. Women are overwhelmingly the target, though.

There’s this notion of a junior scientist who falls in love with her mentor and it develops into a romance. Is that just in the movies?

I know a lot of academic couples who met that way. We spend a lot of time together in the field. That can end up flourishing into a relationship. But some universities don’t allow those types of relationships. If there is a consensual relationship, they’ll ask the senior person to recuse themselves from any decisions on the junior person’s career. And there are many other cases where it is not consensual.

Why the focus on bystander training?

It’s not just bystander training, but we are developing training that includes the kinds of scenarios we encounter in the field.

Like what?

What happens if you are have to use the bathroom and there is no bathroom and your harasser is following you or watching you? Or you wake up in the middle of the night in your tent and someone is trying to get into your sleeping bag. What do you do? You have to get up in the morning and work with this person because you need to collect data to finish your dissertation. Those are the gnarly scenarios we want to get into.

Is there a counter idea knocking around that things are bound to happen in the field between men and women?

Anybody who has worked at a field station where there are researchers from all over the world spending a month or two months, there’re always romances that occur. And there’s the background of if you complain, you shouldn’t be in this field.

Very tricky.

We want to empower everybody in what we call a community-based approach. I’ve spent time in the field and often you get safety rules, but I’ve never gotten any information on harassment. You’re headed to Antarctica for three months and there’s nothing about an ethical code of behavior. So, we’ve already begun developing some codes of conduct.

So hopefully that will prevent some of that behavior.

Yes, but often people know that their colleague is mistreating co-workers. There’s an underground network – “don’t go work with that person.” Students who see harassment can feel completely powerless to do something about it. Peers may feel their profession is at risk and they don’t say anything. People often are in shock or wonder what they saw and what to do about it. The chair of an academic department may have had no training in dealing with it. Or a chair might take it higher up and be told, ‘they bring in millions of dollars for research, we’ll do an investigation.’ And nothing comes of it.

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I can recall being told to stay away from one professor when I was an undergrad.

Everybody knows and nobody does anything about it! We’re saying we have to do something. Some people will not be comfortable saying something to the harasser. But they can tell somebody else. There are a lot of strategies that don’t necessarily put you at risk. You can directly intervene, or ask for help, or go to the target later and say I saw that happen, do you need anything, how can I help you? This behavior has happened for a very long time because some people think it’s acceptable. We are scientists; this is not professional conduct.

How is this likely to fit in with policies at individual universities?

This project includes people at different universities, but we’re using the vehicle of professional societies to put pressure on academic institutions. Your identity as a scientist is often more closely tied to your membership in a society than it is to being an employee of a university. You might be the only person in your field at your university. The members of the professional society are your peers: they validate your work, read your papers, review your proposals, give you awards. That’s your community. Universities are very slow bureaucracies. If a society is revoking research grants or privileges of being a scientist, hopefully other institutions will follow.

So you hope the training you develop will be adopted by others?

Yes universities and other professional societies.

Will you try to track the efficacy of this training?

We will evaluate the workshops, but it will be hard to tell how it works in practice 10 years down the line. Hopefully the societies can follow up somehow.

What do you think about the mandatory sexual harassment training UW-Madison is introducing this semester?

I was involved in a focus group where they tested some of the material. I think it’s a really good start. It’s hard when you’re trying to develop something for all staff in every field at every level. It’s very general. I’m happy to see it. It is online, which is not ideal. The best way is to do this in person.


I ran a workshop for grad students at a society meeting and collected quotes from some of our members about how they felt being harassed and had department chairs read the quotes. That was powerful, because they put themselves in the shoes of the targets. And it’s hard to say ‘this doesn’t happen’ when you see some of your colleagues start crying or get up and leave the room.

There is a stereotype, exemplified perhaps by the TV show ‘The Big Bang Theory” about scientists being socially inept. Is that any truth to that? Could harassment be in part an extension of that?

There are definitely scientists who are clueless about social interaction and others who think their work is so important they don’t have time to care about the experience their students are having. I have no patience for that.

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