On The Culture of Harassment in Archaeology: An interview with Barbara L. Voss

On The Culture of Harassment in Archaeology: An interview with Barbara L. Voss

[Content advisory: This article discusses harassment and discrimination in archaeology, including discussion of sexual assault.]

On the morning of March 30, 2021, three articles on the culture of harassment within archaeology dropped. And it was epic. Across three articles, Barbara (Barb) Voss reviewed and analyzed current research about the prevalence and patterns of harassment within our discipline. Most useful was her list of proven interventions that have demonstrable results in reducing harassment. Most difficult and heart wrenching to read were her own personal accounts dealing with harassment and how it impacted her career decisions. 

Reading these articles was tough, as I knew it would be, and it occurred to me that there are so many of us who had nowhere to turn when this happened to someone we knew or even ourselves. When we reported an incident of harassment, we were told that we had to figure it out or get out. That is messed up. The significance of these sorts of articles has the immense potential to change how we do archaeology – it could fundamentally change how we could feel safe in our professional spaces.     

The three articles, Documenting Cultures of Harassment in Archaeology (2021); Disrupting Cultures of Harassment in Archaeology (2021); and Using Public Health Interventions to Prevent Harassment in Archaeology (2021) are all Open Access, and I cannot recommend them enough. Over the course of the last few months, Barb and I have been talking through the responses and through the articles themselves. Based on the significance of our discussions, the impact it could have, and her thoughtful responses, I thought it important to make it more formal, and so I requested an interview. The interview took place on a shared document, in comments, and with an abundance of trust. 

Also, just to say, these issues, as we all know, are not limited to archaeology, but are discipline wide concerns.


Uzma: Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. Your articles have already become touchstones for discussion around harassment in our discipline. And perhaps we should start there/here. In your article you mentioned you are using the broad term of  “harassment” in recognition that gender and sexuality are not the sole factors in professional abuses of power. Your examples span across decades — important decades in which much work around harassment and safety have happened. Could I ask you to speak broadly about the ways we understand “harassment” to have changed over time? 

Barb: I think it’s helpful to think of harassment is a useful umbrella term, one that describes behaviors that share four specific attributes: (1) they occur in work and educational settings; (2) they involve an abuse of power; (3) they are interpersonal; and (4) they convey hostility, exclusion, objectification, or second-class status based on the perceived identity of the target. 

When Kate Clancy – one of the leading researchers on harassment in field sciences – testified to Congress in 2018, she introduced a framing I find very helpful: “come-ons” and “put-downs.” 

“Come-ons” are unwanted sexual attention, while “put-downs” involve speech and actions that marginalize or exclude the target(s) by stigmatizing their real or perceived identity. While “come-ons” receive the most media attention, “put-downs” are the most common, and they can cause just as much emotional harm and career damage as unwanted sexual attention. So it is important to address all forms of harassment – sexual, identity-based, physical and non-physical, direct and indirect – to remove barriers to participation in archaeology and related fields.

Although harassment has been most commonly used to refer to abuses of power related to gender and sexuality, Kimberlé Crenshaw reminds us that, “Anything that’s meant to address gender inequality has to include a racial lens, and anything that’s meant to address racial inequality has to include a gender lens.” The research conducted to date shows that BIPOC archaeologists, queer archaeologists, and archaeologists with disabilities are disproportionately affected by harassment.

Uzma: Can I ask you to speak a bit about the ‘barriers to change’ that you were able to identify, including the normalization, the exclusionary practices, gate keeping, etc.? 

Barb: In “Disrupting Cultures of Harassment in Archaeology,” I identify normalization as one of five key barriers to harassment prevention (the other four are exclusionary practices, fraternization, gatekeeping, and obstacles to reporting).  

In survey research on harassment, respondents commonly described harassment as part of the culture of archaeology, something that is socially expected and that is “normal.” These findings should be a wake-up call for all archaeologists. 

From a trauma-informed perspective, this normalization of harassment is understandable. Survey research indicates that 15%–46% of men archaeologists and 34%–75% of women archaeologists have experienced one or more harassment events during their careers. It’s likely that even more archaeologists have witnessed harassment directly or know of harassment occurring through second-hand accounts.

The resulting collective experience of trauma in our discipline is staggering to contemplate. My hope is that the two-article series provides archaeologists and others in allied fields with tools for dismantling this normalization of harassment. 

Uzma: Significant for such work are the discussions of quantifiable survey results related to harassment in the field. Could you talk a bit about how you selected the surveys?

Barb: My primary objective in writing the first article, “Documenting Cultures of Harassment in Archaeology,” was to aggregate and analyze the growing body of research about harassment in archaeology and related fields. There has been so much research done over the last ten years, but it is really hard to find it and some content is behind paywalls, which poses barriers to access, especially for early career and non-academic archaeologists.

Also, the sheer volume of new studies has made it difficult to keep up with the literature. I wanted to bring all that new information together in one place, so that if you are trying to make the case for better policies and procedures in your workplace – whether academia, museums, cultural resource management, or government and NGO – you can bring this one article to your dean or director or human resources manager and say, “Look, there is a real problem with harassment in archaeology. It has been verified through methodologically-sound, peer-reviewed research. And we need to take action now so that we protect our people and so that our department or company doesn’t become the next #metoo news story.”

Once I had gathered all the studies I could find, I used three criteria to select studies for analysis:  

  1.     The study had to either focus exclusively on archaeology or present study findings in a way that allowed content related to archaeology to be disaggregated from general results;  
  2.     The study followed an approved human subjects protocol or had equivalent procedures in place to protect research subjects’ well-being and anonymity; and
  3.     The study had passed peer review or had been publicly presented in a juried venue such as a professional conference.  

During 2018-2020, I located twelve studies that met these criteria. Seven had robust quantitative components. Initially, I had hoped to be able to combine the results of these studies into a single set of metrics (what is often called a meta-analysis). However, it soon became clear that this would not be possible, because there was so much variation in survey methodologies and especially subject recruitment methods.

For example, many studies about harassment in archaeology recruited participants through social media, which raises questions about whether self-selection biases, technology access, and social network pathways influenced the composition of the study population. Other studies used professional society membership rosters to recruit participants, which on the surface might seem to resolve these issues. But, students, entry-level professionals, and other marginalized archaeologists tend to have low participation rates in professional societies. So it’s unlikely that membership-based surveys can fully capture the experiences of the most vulnerable archaeologists. So, both crowd-sourced and roster-based quantitative surveys have value, even if their results cannot be easily integrated.

The other problem is that very few of the studies published results for archaeologists of color, non-heterosexual archaeologists, archaeologists with disabilities, and trans, non-binary, and agender archaeologists. Several noted that this information was originally collected, but that because of the low number of participants in those categories, they could not disaggregate results by race or sexual orientation without potentially compromising the anonymity of the respondents. There’s a huge research gap as a result and we need to develop better methodologies that ethically document the experiences of archaeologists of color and other marginalized archaeologists.

While initially I planned to only focus on peer-reviewed or juried research, when these gaps became apparent, I expanded the paper in two directions. I added a very brief overview of the history of gender equity research in archaeology, which had tangentially addressed harassment as a mechanism for exclusion. Some of this equity research included a focus on class that was often missing from more recent surveys and interview studies. 

I also developed a section on grassroots activism: conference actions, ad-hoc groups, blogs, art installations, and journalism. This was one of the hardest sections to write because there is so much amazing stuff being done, and with the strict word limit in American Antiquity articles, I couldn’t include everything. I decided to focus on examples involving archaeology students, early career archaeologists, queer archaeologists, and archaeologists of color, because these are exactly the segments of our community that are underrepresented in formal research studies. 

Uzma: What were some of the surprises (or not) that emerged through analysis of the quantitative research?

Barb: Even as a survivor who has been intermittently involved in sexual violence prevention and activism for much of my adult life, I was still shocked by the high frequency of harassment in archaeology. Surveys results indicate that 15% to 46% of men archaeologists, and 34% to 75% of women archaeologists, have experienced harassment during their training and career, and that 5% to 8% of men archaeologists, and 15% to 26% of women archaeologists, have experienced unwanted sexual contact, including sexual assault. This high prevalence places archaeology in the same range as the military and the entertainment industry – two economic sectors that have notoriously high frequencies of harassment.

And I think we all should be shocked by this, because it’s absolutely horrific. No one should ever have to endure harassment to get an education or pursue a career. 

Some of the research in archaeology confirms well-documented patterns in educational and workplace harassment: harassers most commonly target early career archaeologists, archaeologists are most commonly harassed by other archaeologists (often members of their own research team), and archaeologists in marginalized groups experience harassment at higher-than-average rates.

One particularly interesting finding, which was consistent across many studies, is that there are specific gendered patterns to harassment in archaeology: women archaeologists are most commonly harassed by men and by superiors, while men archaeologists are more commonly harassed by peers of all genders.

It is also important to stress that while quantitative research reveals broad patterns, many people’s experiences of harassment do not conform to these dominant trends. This is why qualitative research – both open-ended survey responses and interviews – are so important, because they capture the full breadth of the problem.

Uzma: I found the section on interviews so revelatory after reading the survey results. One of the key points of analysis that you highlight from Laura Heath-Stouts work is how harassment places a ‘cognitive burden’ on those who have experienced it. Can I ask that you speak a bit more about that, in relation to (if you feel comfortable), your own experiences that you shared in the articles? In some sense, what I am asking is how do we work through the cognitive burden? 

Barb: Laura Health-Stout’s research, along with other studies, helps us understand why harassment has such a long-term negative impact on education and careers even when the harassment itself is short-lived or does not specifically pose a barrier of access to professional opportunities.

I understand this cognitive burden as having two components: one immediate, and the other quite long-lasting. To give an example from my own experience, in “Documenting Cultures of Harassment,” I describe a field project where a male colleague exposed himself to me in the shower facility. A few days later, while drunk, he tried to barge in on me when I was in the toilet. His behavior towards me was very aggressive and I feared it would continue to escalate. When I reported his behavior to my supervisor, she made it clear that she was not going to take any action to protect me from my colleague’s behavior.

For the remainder of that project, a huge amount of my mental energy was dedicated to tracking my colleague’s movements and his schedule. I was constantly performing this intricate calculus to avoid being caught alone with him: adjusting my paths of movement, timing my rest breaks and bathroom visits for times when he was occupied elsewhere, and isolating myself socially so that I would not be inadvertently drawn into meals or gatherings where he might show up. The archaeology work that I was there to do became secondary: I was counting days until the project was over and I could return home.

Afterwards, the mental calculus continued. Archaeology is a small field. I knew that I would not be able to completely avoid contact with him, so I strategized about how to minimize those interactions and ensure that I only saw him in public contexts with others present. I also carried a lot of anger against my project supervisor for disregarding my complaints. That lack of trust at times carried into other professional relationships and other projects.

When doing the research for these articles, it was so transformative to read similar accounts in the words of other survivors. Because harassment is by definition interpersonal, it is so easy to doubt yourself, especially when supervisors or other people senior to you disregard your concerns.

For me, healing from harassment is an ongoing process, one that is never truly finished. Having been victimized multiple times in archaeological settings, by other archaeologists, I walk with that personal history every day when I go to work, do field and research, attend a conference, or visit a museum. Usually it is in the background, but it is never fully out of sight. I have benefitted immensely from talking with other survivors (both informally and in organized groups) and from professional counselling. And I feel very fortunate and privileged that I am now in a professional role – tenured professor – from which I can talk openly about my experiences without fear of loss of employment.

Uzma:  I really appreciated the consideration of a trauma informed approach that you outline in your article, and I wondered if I might ask you to speak more about the importance of such an approach and what some key aspects might be to keep in mind, etc..

Barb: Trauma-informed approaches came out of grassroots activism in the 1970s and 1980s – early rape crisis centers, movements against domestic violence, sexual assault survivor networks, and veteran activist communities. They have now been validated by public health research, and have become the widely adopted standard of care endorsed by medical and legal associations as well as government health agencies. Trauma-informed care has also been slowly percolating into educational settings, and during COVID-19, we started to see this language being used more widely in academia.

The core principles of a trauma-informed approach are straightforward. First, an individual or group is more likely than not to have a history of trauma. We don’t need to ask about individual experiences, we can just assume that many people’s present-day experiences are shaped by their history.

Second, institutions and “business-as-usual” organizational procedures have the potential to retraumatize individuals. This is especially relevant to harassment, which occurs within an institutional context: workplace, school, organization, project, etc. So by definition, survivors experience harassment both as a result of the perpetrator’s actions and in relation to institutional culture and organizational responses.

Third, empowering survivors and other vulnerable members of organizations can transform these environments to deter further abuses of power and to support healing and recovery. General guiding principles include institutional transparency and honesty, including admitting when harm is done; building cultural competency; actively affirming that all members of an institution are valued; and fostering self-determination, privacy, and agency.

For myself, I try to bring these questions to my professional practice: What structures of power are at play at this moment? Who are the most vulnerable participants in this setting – are their needs being met, their voices heard, and their dignity respected? Who is empowered to make meaningful decisions, and who is being excluded? Can that be changed? Am I listening enough? Am I being honest about my actions and intentions, as well as my limitations and constraints? Am I willing to prioritize the well-being of others over my research and professional goals? Perhaps most importantly, what would be the more caring response to this situation?

Uzma: I think understanding the significance of interventions is really important. I invite you to close out our conversation with a list of what we can do and perhaps if there are one or two things you might want to highlight. 

Barb: The most important thing to do is to listen to survivors and other vulnerable members of your organization or research team. They will know where the problems are and what can be done to stop them. In addition to “open door” policies and transparent complaint procedures, regular confidential climate surveys can be especially important to identify problems as they are emerging.

Along with that, each of us can emphasize that reporting harassment is a courageous act that supports the health of the organization and the discipline.

On an organization level, every professional society, university, museum, research institute, and publisher needs to clearly state that harassment is a form of scientific and professional misconduct – similar to plagiarism, falsification of data, human subjects violations, embezzlement, and trafficking in antiquities – and will be treated as such.

For laboratories, field research projects, and other educational and training programs, codes of conduct with clear mechanisms of enforcement have been shown to dramatically reduce harassment.

Finally, prevent potential abuses of power by gatekeepers by establishing open and transparent procedures for advising, supervision, funding, permits, hiring, and other high-stakes career processes.

The details of these and other interventions will of course vary by context. For example, Carol Colannino and her colleagues are piloting a suite of interventions for field schools that specifically address the residential learning environment and faculty-student power differentials. The important thing to know is that whatever our roles in archaeology or in allied fields, there are actions each of us can take to prevent harassment before it starts and support survivors when it does.

Uzma: Thank you so much for this interview, for the work that you have done in bringing these articles into circulation, and for all the unseen labor that you do to keep our discipline equitable and just. 

Barb: Thank you for inviting me! And before we wrap up, I’d just like to mention one more thing – I’m currently working with an amazing team of translators to produce Spanish versions of both articles, which will also be released open access, hopefully later this year (2021).


Editorial Update: The Spanish version of both articles has been released open access.

Actualización: el 17 de noviembre de 2021, la revista académica Latin American Antiquity y Cambridge University Press publicaron las traducciones al español de una serie de dos artículos. Ambos artículos son de libre acceso.

Documentación de culturas del acoso en la arqueología

Contra las culturas del acoso en la arqueología


Whether you yourself are a survivor or whether you have—or someone you know has—witnessed harassment and sexual assault, you are not alone. Support is available. If you are not sure where to start, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) provides free and confidential support to survivors and to those who care about them. Support is available 24 hours per day, 7 days per week by phone (800-656-4673) and via live chat at https://www.rainn.org/. En español, llame al (800-656-4673) a la Línea de Ayuda Nacional Online de Asalto Sexual o comuníquese a través de la opción “Chat Ahora”: https://www.rainn.org/es.

Si tú eres un sobreviviente o si has sido testigo—o alguien que tú conoces lo ha sido—de acoso y agresión sexual, no estás sole. Existe ayuda disponible. Si no estás segure por dónde empezar, la  Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN) provee atención gratuita y confidencial a les sobrevivientes y sus seres queridos. La atención está disponible 24 horas del día, 7 días de la semana. En español, llame al (800-656-4673) a la Línea de Ayuda Nacional Online de Asalto Sexual o comuníquese a través de la opción “Chat Ahora”: https://www.rainn.org/es.


Barbara L. Voss is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Stanford University and the incoming Director of the Stanford Archaeology Center. She is a historical archaeologist who investigates the modern world through themes of colonization, diaspora, and sexuality.