How to Combat Bullying and Discrimination in the Geosciences

How to Combat Bullying and Discrimination in the Geosciences

Bullying and discrimination within the geosciences are widespread and affect the practice of science at individual, institutional, and societal levels, ultimately hampering scientific advancement [Marín-Spiotta et al., 2020]. The majority of the perpetrators creating abusive research environments are supervisors [e.g., Woolston, 2019a, 2019b; Iwasaki, 2020]. Those most affected are early-career scientists from underrepresented groups [Marín-Spiotta, 2018; Moss, 2018]. As such, the lack of diversity in the geosciences [Bernard and Cooperdock, 2018] may give more opportunity for these injustices.

The root of this pervasive issue lies in the power dynamics within academia, where fears of retaliation and the impunity of professors let culprits get away with malicious behavior far too often. Despite increased discussions about this topic [e.g., Nature Editorial, 2019; Smith, 2020; Wellcome Trust, 2020], institutions, scientific organizations, and funders tend to provide neither effective support nor clear steps forward for those affected [Iwasaki, 2020; Mahmoudi, 2018]. Yet the onus of addressing hostile work climates should not be on the person experiencing abuse.

If you are witness to an unhealthy work environment involving bullying, discrimination, or other abuses of power (see sidebar), it is incumbent upon you to act as an ally to those experiencing abuse. Be mindful when talking with the person to make sure they are comfortable and supported while getting the help they need. If you are a peer of the hostile party, you could offer mentorship to help them change their behavior. In severe cases, you should elevate the matter to a higher authority—for instance, a department head or an institutional office that investigates reports of workplace abuse—for action to be taken. Above all, do not disregard or deny the victim’s experience, blame them, or apologize for the perpetrator.

What Are Bullying and Discrimination?

Bullying includes a range of aggressive and discrediting behavior carried out over a prolonged period. Discrimination refers to mistreatment, whether intended or not, on the basis of a person’s belonging to a specific group or on account of disability, nationality, or social, ethnic, racial, sexual, gender, or religious identity. Bullying and discrimination typically lead to similar kinds of misconduct, which can occur in many forms, including the following:

  • unfair and unequal working conditions, such as withholding information, collaboration opportunities, or support; assigning inappropriate or too many tasks; threats or refusals regarding funding; refusal of promotions; or discrimination because of pregnancy
  • scientific misconduct, such as changing authorship positions or taking credit for other people’s ideas or intellectual property
  • intimidating behavior, such as constantly contradicting or interrupting someone
  • attacks on personal integrity and dignity, such as spreading rumors or publicly shaming people
  • psychological attacks, such as making degrading verbal or written comments or sexist or racist jokes

With or without vocal allies on their side, people experiencing abuse in academic environments can, and often must, be their own biggest advocates. We recommend 10 concrete strategies for scientists to overcome unhealthy work environments, particularly if support from their own institutions is lacking or ineffectual. Please note that these recommendations do not address ways to respond to sexual harassment or assault, stalking, threats, or other forms of physical violence.

1. Recognize an unhealthy work environment. Recognizing discriminatory behavior is the most crucial point, although the hierarchical nature of academia can make this recognition inherently difficult when it is someone you look up to who is misbehaving. First, if there is a problem, do not assume you are at fault! It is the responsibility of the person in power to not be hostile in their actions or words. Academic institutions and departments should have definitions and guidelines for ethical behavior in place as well as policies protecting employees and students from harassment and bullying. Use these guidelines to assess your experiences, and keep a record of specific incidents to identify patterns. These measures can help you justify your perceptions and evaluate the situation. Needless to say, talk to family, friends, and other mentors for support and outside perspective.

2. Prioritize your well-being. Mental and physical well-being are inseparable and should be your first focus. Make sure you get enough sleep, take breaks, and do things that make you happy. You are valued for more than your capital and abilities as a scientist, and your well-being should never suffer. Do not hesitate to seek professional psychological help and other well-being resources and services, which many academic institutions already offer to their staff and students. There is no shame in getting external perspectives to guide you through your situation.

3. Confront your situation. It takes a lot of courage to approach a person who is harming you, particularly given the risks of their retaliation. However, by doing so, you take charge of the situation and signal to the culprit that their behavior is unacceptable. We recommend having such a discussion in a public place, for example, a cafeteria. If you feel more comfortable having a third party involved, reach out to a trusted person to join the conversation. Aim to establish agreements that detail how the perpetrator will change their behavior and how they will follow through with their role as a mentor in charge of your growth as a scientist.

4. Approach someone you trust. Reach out to a trusted individual for guidance. An ally who can effectively advise you and advocate for you can be an invaluable source of support and can help protect you from retaliation. Universities and research institutions often employ ombudspeople or others trained to mediate conflict situations. Seek guidance from these individuals, or, if your institution does not have staff trained in mediation, look for peer-mentoring support options at your institution and beyond—there are a myriad of early-career scientist networks, student councils, and online community resources of scientific societies, as well as Twitter and Slack groups.

5. Dare to speak up. It is possible or even likely that colleagues of yours face similar issues but have not spoken up. Finding the courage to do so can be hard for countless reasons. However, simply sharing experiences about and strategies on how to handle difficult work situations can already help you feel better. Sharing your experience with others could also create a “Me Too”–type effect, enabling you to act more effectively as a group against perpetrators. Moreover, having open conversations and removing taboos on discussions regarding harassment and bullying are important steps forward in acknowledging systemic problems.

6. Look for supportive collaborators. For most people, a hostile workplace will negatively affect the quality of their work. Try to find other experts in your field who can get involved in your research and act as mentors and allies. By expanding your team of supervisors or collaborators, you can diffuse the effects of power abuses that can occur in one-on-one relationships. Do not hesitate to approach potential collaborators with your scientific ideas at conferences or via email. However, make sure those scientists are not close associates or friends of the perpetrator. Widening your network of collaborators has the added benefit of creating relationships with people who may be able to provide letters of recommendation as you develop your career.

7. Change your physical work environment. Changing the physical environment in which you work can help put not only literal distance but also mental distance between you and an abusive situation. You could, for example, ask for a new work space in a different office, laboratory, or building; change occasionally to work from other places (e.g., the library or home); or look for opportunities to work as a visiting scientist in another research group. The latter can be facilitated by a travel grant (which also looks great on a CV) and can lead to relationships with new collaborators.

8. Document all incidents. Make notes and memos of important conversations with your supervisor and send them as meeting summaries. Such records can be key if your supervisor ignores agreements or your situation is elevated to an institutional level where “proof” of your situation is requested. Also, take note of bystanders who might have witnessed the discriminatory behavior you have experienced.

9. Transfer workplaces or labs. Unfortunately, difficult and abusive situations do not always improve, even with the approaches outlined here. Staying in a hostile work environment can ruin your career, so your best option might be to move elsewhere to start fresh in a different research group, department, or even institution. Your happiness, mental health, and professional growth as a scientist are worth it!

10. Explore external resources. In addition to resources provided through your institution, professional societies and other groups provide external sources of support. For example, AGU has an Ethics and Equity Center that provides free legal consultation for those who may be targets of hostile and toxic environments. These resources and organizations can offer guidance on how to resolve conflict situations that potentially involve legal actions.

There is no straightforward or easy way to improve or get out of a discriminatory work environment. The above steps are intended to empower individuals facing abuse and to help overcome or alleviate the consequences of workplace bullying, discrimination, and other behaviors that stem from imbalanced power dynamics in academic settings. If you need distance to make a major decision, consider taking time off to clear your head. Ultimately, whether you decide to stay in or leave a difficult situation, make sure to choose the option that is best for your well-being, and do not let the abuse you have experienced define how you value yourself personally or professionally.


We are grateful for helpful input and feedback provided by Erika Marín-Spiotta, Kristoffer Aalstad, and Jendrik Seipp.

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