On 11 August 2014, Michael R. Gillings published a paper in Evolutionary Applications entitled “Were there evolutionary advantages to premenstrual syndrome?” There is a strain of thinking that is common in the general public, but is also frequently found among academic researchers that I call adaptionism. This line of thinking assumes that, if a biological phenomenon exists, it must be there as the result of natural selection – i.e., be adaptive. This makes things like PMS seem like a great, evolutionary mystery to be “solved”.
Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) affects up to 80% of women, often leading to significant personal, social and economic costs. When apparently maladaptive states are widespread, they sometimes confer a hidden advantage, or did so in our evolutionary past. –from the abstract, Matthew R. Gillings (DOI: 10.1111/eva.12190)
I could spend pages on the problems with this approach to such a question. Fortunately for you and I, Kathryn Clancy, who is far more knowledgable on the relevant evolutionary anthropology than you and I, gutted this paper for The Daily Beast earlier this week:
…the fact that PMS is heritable and variable tells us nothing about whether women with PMS have more children than those who don’t, and this is the true test for adaptation. This crucial point—the third and most crucial condition for natural selection—is absent from the paper.
Figure 1. Proportion of survey respondents, by gender, who indicated that inappropriate or sexual comments occurred never, rarely, regularly, or frequently at their most recent or most notable field site (N).
Important conversations are best addressed with good data. Science has a sexism problem and not all of it is of the passive, unconscious variety. As Kathryn Clancy, Robin Nelson, Julienne Rutherford, and Katie Hinde show in a new paper in PLoS One (“Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE): Trainees Report Harassment and Assault”), sexual harassment and assault is disturbingly common at scientific field sites. They find that when women are the victims it is most likely that the perpetrator is a superior, which allows abuse of the hierarchical power dynamic. They also find that codes of conduct are absent or unknown, that clear reporting systems are often unknown, and that the existing reporting systems often fail to address the issues satisfactorily.
Little is known about the climate of the scientific fieldwork setting as it relates to gendered experiences, sexual harassment, and sexual assault. We conducted an internet-based survey of field scientists (N = 666) to characterize these experiences. Codes of conduct and sexual harassment policies were not regularly encountered by respondents, while harassment and assault were commonly experienced by respondents during trainee career stages. Women trainees were the primary targets; their perpetrators were predominantly senior to them professionally within the research team. Male trainees were more often targeted by their peers at the research site. Few respondents were aware of mechanisms to report incidents; most who did report were unsatisfied with the outcome. These findings suggest that policies emphasizing safety, inclusivity, and collegiality have the potential to improve field experiences of a diversity of researchers, especially during early career stages. These include better awareness of mechanisms for direct and oblique reporting of harassment and assault and, the implementation of productive response mechanisms when such behaviors are reported. Principal investigators are particularly well positioned to influence workplace culture at their field sites.
Posted in Follies of the Human Condition
Tagged Feminism, Julienne Rutherford, Kathryn Clancy, Katie Hinde, Linkonomicon, PLoS, PLoS ONE, Robin Nelson, science, Sexism, sexual harassment