Alexander’s field experiences in the early 1900’s illustrate the difficulties women and minorities have with geoscience fieldwork.
Cover image credit: Eustace Furlong (left), Annie Alexander (center), and Edna Wemple (right) on the Saurian Expedition. Taken by John C. Merriam, digitized by D.K. Smith, UCMP (Public Domain)1
I will always remember my first experience with geologic fieldwork. It was my very first stop on a week-long trip across western Nebraska and the Colorado Rocky Mountains. I was an eager undergraduate geology major excited at the first chance to see rocks “in the wild.” We pulled our vans over at an outcrop and everyone hopped out. In a matter of minutes, I slipped, twisted my knee, and tore my meniscus (cartilage that cushions your knee). I spent the rest of the week hobbling with a bulky knee brace in pain, missing out on most of the long hikes that my classmates were physically able to do.
Geologic fieldwork is incredibly inequitable, inaccessible to large groups of people, and is biased to favor able-bodied, cis-gendered white men. In my experience, I was physically unable to experience the field in the same way as others on the trip. I was a burden and an outcast, someone who did not quite “belong” with the rest of the group. Experiences like this are more common than we would like to believe, and they are not limited to discrimination or difficulties based on physical ability.
The inequity and inaccessibility of geologic fieldwork hangs over the science like an overladen albatross. As long as the field remains a place for a certain group of people, geology and its related sciences will be discriminatory.
Annie Alexander’s paleontological expeditions of early 1900’s can be used as a backdrop for a discussion on field inequality. Alexander purchased her way into the paleontological field expeditions of University of California at Berkeley professor John C. Merriam. On one of these trips, she wrote a detailed journal of her experiences and took dozens photos.1 The notes detail the arduous work and many inequalities that she experienced in the field.
Through her poetic prose, Alexander shows us how amazing field experiences can be. She also shows how many women face extra burdens in the field, many of which are still true today.
The Saurian Expedition of 1905
As mentioned in the previous post, Annie Alexander accompanied John Merriam’s paleontology team on several expeditions. She collected fossils with various members of his research group in 1901-1905, but the best documented of these trips was a fossil hunting expedition in 1905 to Nevada that was termed the “Saurian Expedition.”1
Alexander was the primary documentarian of the trip. She wrote extensive notes and cobbled together numerous photographs taken on the trip. The group’s target was the Humboldt Range of Nevada, where they worked for two months on Triassic-aged fossiliferous limestone.2
Alexander traveled with several of Merriam’s students and research associates. Among them were Edna Wemple, who was the first woman to earn a masters degree in paleontology at UC-Berkeley.3
Alexander recounted how the team hiked across the wilderness of California and Nevada, and they used abandoned mining shacks as basecamps. The team spent long, arduous days prying bones from the hard, indurated limestone with picks, shovels, and dynamite. They then lugged heavy stones containing vertebrate fossils back to their basecamp, generally by horseback but sometimes by hand.1
One particularly large boulder weighed around 500 pounds (227 kg) and was too bulky for the horses to carry. Alexander wrote of how one of the men on the trip single-handedly rolled the large rock over a mile through rugged terrain back to the camp.1
Alexander loved poetry, and her journal reflects her experience as a poetic writer. She wrote about the experience:
Little by little the blocks were marked and wrapped and packed down to camp on the backs of our horses. This momentous event in the history of the skeleton had hardly transpired when the resurrection call aroused another Saurian from his long sleep. After a course in purgatory in which he will be divested of his limestone encasement he ought to shine as one of the foremost lights in the new museum at Berkeley, for he was a saurian of truly lordly proportions. He was found by Mr. Furlong some forty yards above Miss Wemple’s specimen; a few weathered ribs in the ledge were the only indications.Annie Alexander, 19051
The animal Alexander described was a 25’ (7.6 m) long ichthyosaur.
Alexander’s journal describes the difficulty of fieldwork. The crews labored through near constant strong winds and intense storms. One storm was so bad, the crew’s horses panicked and almost trampled members of the expedition. Despite the hardship, they found dozens of Triassic ichthyosaur skeletons and several ammonites that had, up to that point, only been found in Europe and Asia.1
Despite the hardship, Alexander immensely enjoyed the experience. She loved the outdoors, and found herself at home in the open air sleeping under the stars.
“People naturally count it among their blessings to have a roof over their heads at night but how oppressive this roof seems to you, and the four walls of your room after a month or two in the open! Half the universe shone down upon us those clear nights in Nevada; not a tree to break the wonderful arch of the Milky Way reaching from horizon to horizon. The same constellation seen night after night as we lay on our backs on the ground made their impress on our minds that a casual view of them from a bedroom window or a city street could never make.”Annie Alexander, 19051
On top of the physically demanding nature of fieldwork, and despite of her role as the trips financer, Alexander faced subtle discrimination on the expedition. She never published any of the resulting finds nor was she listed as a coauthor on any publications (although her colleagues on the trip named new species after her). The lack of any co-authorship clearly showed that, despite her funding the trip and participating in fossil discovery and extraction, the bulk of the scientific credit for the trip fell to the men on the expedition.
Also, as the only women on the expedition, Alexander and Wemple were expected to take care of the camp. In addition to their work in the field, the two also had to cook, clean, prepare firewood, and otherwise tend camp. None of the men on the expedition were expected to do these jobs. After a long day in the field, such work had to have been a challenge. Alexander wrote:
We worked hard up to the last. My dear friend Miss Wemple stood by me through thick and thin. Together we sat in the dust and sun, marking and wrapping bones. No sooner were these loaded in the wagon for Davison to haul to Mill City than new piles took their places. Night after night we stood before a hot fire to stir rice, or beans, or corn, or soup, contriving the best dinners we could out of our dwindling supply of provisions. We sometimes wondered if the men thought the fire wood dropped out of the sky or whether a fairy godmother brought it to our door, for they never asked any questions…Annie Alexander, 19051
Alexander’s Saurian Expedition in 1905 shows the inequality between men and women in the field. Unfortunately in many ways geoscience field work is not much better today than it was in 1905.
Inequality and Discrimination in the Field Today
My personal anecdote of my first field trip at the start of this post describes one of the largest obstacles to making geosciences more diverse. The field is not generally a place that is accessible to a large proportion of the population. The field is often a “trial by fire” experience designed to benefit only those who can keep up with fearless professors ambling up steep, often unsafe, cliffs. Field work is therefore one of the most significant “gatekeepers” in geoscience that signals to people with disabilities that they do not belong.
In addition, the field is rife with racial and gender-based discrimination, harassment, and assault. I quoted several of these statistics in one of my posts on Florence Bascom, but I will bring them up here. A survey of field scientists showed 64% had personally experienced sexual harassment and more than 20% were sexually assaulted in the field.4 Research has shown that a majority of women and minorities have experienced some form of discrimination in the field, even if this was not intentional on the part of instructors/trip leaders.4
Outside of a few rare instances, such as in Alexander’s case, women were generally not allowed in the field until relatively recently. They were not allowed at all on scientific research ships until the 1960’s.4 The field was built on a culture of exclusion, and this legacy is one of the key reasons why geosciences lag other STEM fields in diversity metrics.
Those who do not conform to the “rugged mountain man” stereotype of a field geologist are more likely to be excluded from other geoscience organizations or by their peers.4 LGBTQIA geoscientists report having to hide their identities in the field in order to better conform to what is “normal.”5 As I discussed in my last post, Annie Alexander likely had to hide her LGBTQIA status from the general public in order to participate in paleontology. Sadly, if Alexander was alive today, she may still have had to hide her true identity in order to be a paleontologist.
The field discriminates in many other ways. Students are often excluded from the field because of the high costs of doing field work. Gear, backpacks, waterproof clothing, boots, etc.. are all incredibly expensive, and there is social pressure to buy the best name-brand gear. We often expect students to purchase this expensive equipment when they have the least means to do so.6
The field is also a place where mental health is not a priority. Undue burdens are placed especially on students who have to deal with strenuous conditions, microaggressions, and the fear of not achieving a desired grade.7
As a white man, I would be amiss to tell you I know what fieldwork is like for women and minorities. I have, however, observed several “microaggressions” or other discriminatory practices on field trips. I will avoid naming names or providing too many details, as I feel that is unfair, but some aspects of recent trips I have been on have stood out to me.
I have already written about my experiences with a (temporary) disability in the field. But I have been on numerous trips where some members of the trip have been unable to hike to the outcrop stop and have therefore missed out. Field trips and work should be designed so all attendees can participate regardless of physical ability.
On a trip I was a part of I noticed the strenuous conditions of working from sunup to sundown followed by several hours of “post trip debriefing” where the exhausted group was expected to present on topics that were covered in the field. This creep of work time into personal time causes higher stress and leads to less focus in the field (which can cause safety standards to become lax).
The lack of a firm split between work and personal time can also discourage people from attending field excursions. In one trip, I had little to no time to call home, and if I did spend a few minutes calling my young children, I would miss out on expected social functions or scientific discussions. While not as serious as racial and gender-based discrimination, the lack of “free time” in the field excludes large groups of people.
Another aspect that stood out to me was the lack of formal bathroom breaks. On one trip I was on, I noticed that there were several field trip attendees who were uncomfortable going “in the woods.” The trip had no formal bathroom stops, even though each stop was no more than 30 minutes from the nearest vehicle.
The lack of bathroom stops in field trips can be discriminatory for people for many reasons, but is especially discriminatory of transgender individuals.8 Many trips also do not have any breaks through the day, except maybe outside of downtime as the group drives from one location to another. Individuals who need these breaks for health or religious reasons are therefore excluded from fieldwork.8
I want to acknowledge that, as someone who has led trips, that I am sure that I have unconsciously engaged in discriminatory behavior. This is the nature of systemic discrimination. However, I am working towards modifying how I run trips to be more inclusive to people of all backgrounds and abilities. If we all understand that this is an important problem in geosciences, we can work together to solve it. Inclusive field practices should be on the same level in our trip planning as is safety.
I think it is important to have open discussions of how inclusive our field experiences can be. Annie Alexander loved being outdoors and was someone with the background, knowhow, and financial means to go into the field for months on end doing physically arduous work. Even then, she still faced discrimination.
The reason I decided to go on a bit of a tangent was that, despite it being 120 years later, we really have not made many changes in how fieldwork is done. It is still run by, and largely catered to, able-bodied cis-gendered white men.
We need to work together to ensure women and minorities don’t need to be the heirs to sugar fortunes to be active in field research, nor should they be unfairly expected to do extra work on top of already difficult fieldwork. Our field programs should be more inclusive and accessible to all. Until that happens, geosciences will never achieve diversity.
- Alexander, A. M. (1905). Saurian expedition scrap book. Digitized by D.K. Smith (2017). 1905 Saurian Expedition. University of California Museum of Paleontology.
- University of California Museum of Paleontology. Annie Montague Alexander (1867-1950). Link.
- University of California Museum of Paleontology. 1903 Shasta County Expedition. Link.
- Marín-Spiotta, E., Barnes, R. T., Berhe, A. A., Hastings, M. G., Mattheis, A., Schneider, B., & Williams, B. M. (2020). Hostile climates are barriers to diversifying the geosciences. Advances in Geosciences, 53, 117-127.
- Mattheis, A., De Arellano, D. C. R., & Yoder, J. B. (2019). A model of queer STEM identity in the workplace. Journal of homosexuality.
- Giles, S., Jackson, C., & Stephen, N. (2020). Barriers to fieldwork in undergraduate geoscience degrees. Nature Reviews Earth & Environment, 1(2), 77-78.
- John, C. M., & Khan, S. B. (2018). Mental health in the field. Nature Geoscience, 11(9), 618-620.
- Pickrell, J. (2020). Scientists push against barriers to diversity in the field sciences. ScienceMag.org Link.