Training program helps prevent harassment in fieldwork environments

Fieldwork often puts researchers and students in remote environments that have unique challenges. The unusual setting of fieldwork can make sexual harassment and assault more likely, and it also calls for distinct approaches to prevent and respond to it. To address this systemic problem, University of Santa Cruz scientists developed a sexual harassment prevention and awareness training program specifically tailored to fieldwork environments. 

In a Scientific Reports paper, the researchers assessed the impacts of the workshop by surveying hundreds of California Department of Fish and Wildlife employees before and after they participated in the training. The training focuses heavily on prevention rather than reporting incidents after the fact.

“We really want to prevent incidents before they happen,” said Melissa Cronin, a marine fisheries ecologist at Duke University who co-designed the workshop while doing her PhD at UC Santa Cruz. “And we do this by using tools from the literature that help people build positive environments where the norm is such that you don’t let harassment happen.”

The team drew from social psychology studies to design an in-person workshop that involves group discussions and scenario-based problem-solving. The training started at UC Santa Cruz as a program called Building a Better Fieldwork Future in 2018. After a pilot study, Cronin and the team worked with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. 

The researchers trained a small group of CDFW staff to become instructors, and those instructors then delivered 90-minute trainings to 925 CDFW field scientists in 2022. They conducted the trainings in batches to create control groups, and participants voluntarily completed confidential surveys before and after the trainings.

The team found that the trainings worked similarly well for people of different genders and racial groups. In general, the trainings increased employees’ knowledge of the issue and their feelings that they can prevent and intervene in harassment incidents. 

The group also found that the impact of the training lasted longer than expected. 

“We had hypothesized that the effects of participating in the just 90-minute training might be short-lived,” said Erika Zavaleta, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz who helped design the trainings. “And that’s not what we found. To a large degree, across all demographic groups, months after the training people still felt and reported an elevated sense of knowledge about this issue, confidence that they could respond and desire to respond — both in prevention and reporting.”

Cronin believes the effectiveness of the training comes in part from its interactive design.

“I think that has to do with the fact that the training is live and interactive and that it is tailored to fieldwork,” she said. “It involves four separate scenarios where people have to interact with the content in small groups and then in large groups, and they have to actually engage. There’s not really any way out of it.”

Another result of the surveys showed that women and people from underrepresented minority identities scored their knowledge and ability to confidently intervene as lower than men and white people in both pre and post surveys.

“One explanation for that is that women and people of color either underestimate their own abilities, or perhaps the opposite — that white people and men overestimate their ability to prevent harassment in fieldwork,” said Cronin. “People who have very little experience with a problem might think, ‘Well this is very easy to respond to,’… while women and people of color, who are statistically more likely to experience harassment, perhaps know that this is a really difficult issue.”

The new paper provides the first data-based study of a fieldwork training program that addresses sexual harassment and assault. 

“This is the first training for which we have concrete evidence that it works,” said Cronin, adding that the researchers will continue testing what works and what does not.

The team plans to continue refining and building the training workshop, and in November of 2022, Cronin and Zavaleta co-founded FieldFutures, a company that offers the fieldwork-tailored training to institutions and government agencies. They offer the 90-minute trainings as well as more intensive four-hour trainings and have been impressed by the interest. 

“No one should be excluded from field science by sexual harassment and assault,” said Zavaleta, who emphasized that enabling everyone to do fieldwork safely also has broader impacts for science and society.

“They include things like addressing threats to biodiversity and tackling climate change,” she said. “This work is really connected to solving these other big challenges in addition to equity.”

In addition to Cronin and Zavaleta, the study’s co-authors include UC Santa Cruz Ecology & Evolutionary Biology Professor Roxanne Beltran, undergraduate student Melanie Esparza and Ph.D. student Allison Payne; and Valerie Termini (CA Fish and Wildlife Department), Joseph Thompson (Los Angeles Public Health Department) and Megan Jones (U.S. Geological Survey).