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Invisible barriers to fieldwork: breaking the period taboo

Updated: Feb 3, 2021

Mia Wroe outlines why fieldwork should not be a barrier to women in STEM and some helpful tips on surviving in the field while menstruating

Only 35% of science, technology, engineering, and maths undergraduates in the UK are female. In the workforce, only 22% of STEM jobs are filled by women, and this number has been stagnant since 2016. In the field of Earth Sciences, the numbers are slightly better, with 40% of undergraduates being female, but there is still a long way to go before a true representation of women is seen in STEM. One thing that consistently deters women from these career paths is fieldwork. Geology, biology, anthropology, and other similar fields all have large fieldwork components. In a career path so traditionally dominated by men, the menstruation taboo is a fieldwork barrier which is easily overlooked and dismissed.

For many, studying geology is a ticket to seeing the world. In order for any degree to be accredited by the Geological Society, undergraduates must complete a minimum of 60 days in the field, including a 28 day minimum (although many do longer) field research trip. These trips can take students across the world, to a variety of climates and an incredible range of environments. While these trips are an amazing opportunity that attract many students, they can also be a deterrent for some.

One of the biggest barriers to women in fieldwork is simple: toilet stops. When fieldwork is conducted in remote locations, or toilet stops are not factored into the day’s schedule in favour of “just one more locality,” female students can be affected disproportionately. Toilet stops are for more than simply using the toilet for some students. Students find it much easier to change sanitary products in bathrooms than they do squatting behind some bushes! It also isn’t ideal to have to carry around used sanitary products all day for lack of anywhere to discreetly dispose of them.

Furthermore, when female students know that there will be no toilet stops that day, it is common for them to limit their water intake to reduce the chance that they will need to urinate in the field. For women that have never spent time in the field before, learning the particular skills needed to squat in the field can be an intimidating idea! With science departments dominated by male staff, students may not feel comfortable asking for advice or reporting any issues they may have. If no female staff are available for a trip, students may feel that they would rather keep problems to themselves, potentially putting their health at risk.

There are, however, some easy ways to make fieldwork more accessible to female undergraduates, the most important of which being more information. By breaking the ‘period taboo’ early on in the degree program and starting a dialogue, staff can create an environment where it is okay to ask questions. There is no need for students to ‘learn the hard way’ anymore when the knowledge is available and only kept from them by stigma.

There is no formal advice on this topic for students within most universities. For example, there is no mention of sanitary products on fieldwork lists at all. There is guidance on outdoor clothing, food, equipment, but not periods, which tend to be forgotten as an important part of women's experience in the field. Due to this lacking guidance, students do not know they should bring digital tampons (those without applicators, to save space) or plastic or opaque ziplock bags to carry them in until they have access to a bathroom bin. Furthermore, students might not consider that they cannot guarantee the cleanliness of their hands while in the field, so might want to consider pads rather than tampons or change to pads that they can wear for longer periods of time. Menstrual cups are ideal but if students have never used them before, it would be great to be given a heads-up to allow them to try them out for a while before they embark on fieldwork, if they do choose to use them. Even simple things like heatwraps, which are great for controlling cramps, might be useful to be aware of.

Universities with formal policies that take these issues seriously, and ensure that fieldwork is planned accordingly, contribute to removing the barriers to fieldwork that women in science degrees can experience. For example, even simple policies like those requiring there to be forewarning when the plans for the day won’t include a toilet stop and for coaches with toilets (used for travelling between localities) to be booked can have a big impact. Overall, a safe environment in which to discuss these issues is essential, and should be standard practice across all higher education institutions.

If you’re interested in learning more, female staff in the Earth Sciences department here at the University of Birmingham recently published “Toilet stops in the field: an educational primer and recommended best practices for field-based teaching.” The article has been used as the basis for new standard practice guidelines in a number of UK and international Earth Science departments. It was successful in raising awareness of this issue in the scientific community, and it was also the inspiration for this article.

Special thanks to Dr. Sarah Greene for helping with this article.

From Issue 20

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