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Leveling the Field – Tips for Inclusive Arctic Field Work

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“If we can teach statistics, we can teach our researchers how to avoid becoming statistics in the field.” S. Starkweather

For early career researchers, the prospect of joining an Arctic research expedition captures the imagination as well as the intellect.  Yet even as Arctic field work can deepen our understanding of this unique region and elevate the stature of our work, it can also put researchers at risk.  New studies have shown that female and early career researchers have an elevated risk of negative incidents in remote field settings, including assault, harassment, misconduct, and discrimination, too often at the hands of those in senior positions (Klancy et al. 2014; Nelson et al., 2017).  This is a critical problem that undermines our institutions and the quality of work we are able to collectively achieve.  As in any work setting, an emphasis on diversity of participants and inclusive team practices are viewed as key remedies to these challenges.  We extend that to propose that an emphasis on empowering each participant going into the field with preparatory knowledge and leadership tools is critical. 

The growing understanding towards the hidden risks of fieldwork was part of the motivation for an AGU panel that was convened at the 2017 Fall Meeting in New Orleans – Creating Inclusive and Diverse Field and Lab Environments.  Our contribution to the panel focused on the specific measures that field team leaders and participants can take to create an inclusive and safe environment for all participants.  To identify actionable practices, we drew from our own decades of personal experiences running field programs in the Arctic, but also from the collective wisdom of many experienced colleagues.  We zeroed in on empowerment as it is a fundamental pre-condition to feeling included and, and it is beneficial to all team members regardless of identity. We provided two different prompts, which these colleagues were invited to answer as suited their experiences:

  • In my experience, the following aspects of leadership in field work made me feel most empowered…
  • In order to make every member of my team feel empowered, I follow these practices…

Responses were analyzed and organized into 3 areas.

1 – Inclusive practices for preparing a team for fieldwork

Many field team leaders emphasized that inclusive practices begin well before the team deploys.  Starting with one of the most and least obvious approaches:

Choose your team with the goal of inclusion. 

Diverse teams are the most effective way to build inclusive and safe environments.  Respondents noted that hard skills, or time spent in the field, should not be a prerequisite for inclusion.  Field skills can be learned.  As we see in the following recommendations…

Proactively prepare expectations about field conditions. 

Respondents shared their techniques for actively engaging around topics like comfort, hygiene and privacy through sharing photos of field conditions or providing links to Polar Field Services offer a host of trainings from basic field skills like setting up tents, to more site-specific skills like snow machine training, wilderness medicine, and crevasse travel. Programs like Girls on Ice go even further, providing immersion opportunities in wilderness leadership that empower unrepresented participants.  Hands on training gives everyone an opportunity to learn essential skills for success and feel “ready to go.”  Access to explicitly documented training material leads to greater self-sufficiency, flattening out the power structure for sharing the knowledge you need.

Establish codes/norms early, get buy in reinforce continuously.

Field camps have cultural norms all their own that can take time to catch up to if you have never experienced them.  There are norms around autonomy and cooperation, privacy and disruptiveness, sharing and conserving.  An experienced mentor can help a newcomer make these hidden norms more visible. 

Additionally, it is important for each field team and field location to have clearly stated codes of conduct, rather than implicit codes that are learned the hard way.  More research stations, like Toolik Field Station in Alaska, are requiring new arrivals to read, US National Science Foundation) and professional organizations like AGU are similarly articulating policies and codes that guide conduct in a broader range of settings than just field locations.  These tools empower anyone on a team to recognize when lines are crossed. 

It is also important to be cognizant of any power dynamics that might manifest in your field team and for leaders to have a game plan for response. 

2 – Implement inclusive tasking and routines in the field

Nearly every respondent shared that inclusive field settings start with giving every participant a share of ownership in the work that is happening around them.  Leaders should strive to:

Enable individual responsibility for tasks.

Create opportunities for individuals to be responsible for important tasks.  Set them up for success through assuring they understand their tasks and have the tools to complete it.  Be conscious that you aren’t genderizing the tasks.

Proactively give everyone a voice during preparatory work and execution.

Give everyone a voice in the planning and execution.  Sometimes that means seeking out team members one-on-one to discuss potentially uncomfortable topics.  It especially important is to give everyone a voice during the inevitable change of plans that goes along with field work, which can be disconcerting to newcomers.

De-emphasize hierarchies.

This applies to both tasking and break time.  Working side by side with your field leader is as inspirational as sharing a meal with a distinguished scientist.  Equalizing the grunt tasks across all team members is a great strategy.  At Summit Station, each visitor, no matter how famous or important, has to take their turn doing the dishes and cleaning the toilets. 

Which brings us to our final topic.

3 – Adopt an inclusive leadership style

No discussion of inclusivity and empowerment would be complete without considering the role of leaders in fostering an inclusive climate.  Returning to the obvious again, diversity of leadership is an important condition for an inclusive setting.  Yet as one respondent pointed out, “There are opportunities for leadership at all levels.”  Remember that newcomers look to their leaders for norms, so it is essential that leaders:

Foster mutual respect as a core cultural value for the team.

This respect extends beyond identities and into the various roles people play in field settings: from cargo loader to chief scientist, newbie to veteran, all roles have dignity, contribute to the outcome, and must be respected. 

In Arctic science, we frequently hear our colleagues from Indigenous organizations emphasize the need for respect for those who have always called the Arctic home.  Visiting researchers must show respect for their homelands and their indigenous knowledge.  This practice is best reflected in highly engaged and collaborative exchanges. 

It is further critical that leaders:

Be responsive (!) to misconduct issues, even suspected ones.

An important point spelled carefully out in the Signaling Safety study (Nelson et al., 2017), is that there must be a responsiveness to and consequences for harassment and misconduct.  If something comes to your attention – even if it sounds minor – as leader it is your responsibility to check it out.  Ask questions, be curious, especially be open to things you don’t identify with. 


Maintain a positive attitude.

As a field team leader, you set the tone.  Those around you, especially newcomers, look to you for guidance.  They will learn from your norms. 

Strive to keep morale high, avoid and discourage gossip, and don’t play favorites. 

The field is a place that should be characterized by the wonders of discovery, the joys of collegiality, and the satisfaction of accomplishment.  It promises to be an ever-richer and more innovative space as more participants feel included and are able to offer their full talents.    We hope that these inputs from remarkable leaders in Arctic field work provide a valuable starting point for further dialog.  We welcome the opportunity to advance this dialog and are excited to be a part of the first lunchtime gathering celebrating contributions of Women in Polar Science at the Polar2018 meeting in Davos.