Julia Bingham, she/they, is an interdisciplinary marine scientist and currently a PhD candidate at Duke University. Her research is focused on improving conservation and fishery management through local communities’ knowledge and values. But her discipline hasn’t always been the social sciences. She’s been engaged in field based coastal research in one form or another for nearly 10 years. In undergrad and post grad, their fieldwork had them on rocky shores, mudflats, beach dunes, forested streams, salt marshes, and onboard research boats.
This is all important to know because today Julia’s sharing their story of navigating femininity in the field. And whether you’re also in environmental sciences or part of a wholely different profession or pasttime that has made you feel pressured to fit in, that has made you question what makes you “you”, Julia’s words will resonate.
Note: there are a few mentions of sexual harassment and sexual assault in this episode.
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Featured in this episode: Julia Bingham (she/they)
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About Julia: Julia Bingham (she/they) is a queer environmental social scientist and outdoor enthusiast based in coastal North Carolina. Julia is working on a PhD in Marine Science and Conservation at Duke University, and currently conducts fieldwork in the ha-hoothlee (traditional territory) of Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations on the west coast of Vancouver Island, in partnership with Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations and Ha’oom Fisheries Society.You can read more about Julia’s work at juliaabingham.com or by following on twitter @juliaabingham.
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Note: This transcript was lightly edited and created using a transcription service. As such it may contain spelling errors.
Gale – Narration: Hi all. It’s good to be here. I hope this season has awakened your senses and put a spring in your step. Thank you for being so understanding about how we’ve relaxed the schedule. I’m really excited to share this special episode with you. As always – take care, and stay curious out there. On with the show.
Gale – Narration: I’m Gale Straub and you’re listening to She Explores.
This is Julia Bingham, she/they, an interdisciplinary marine scientist and currently a PhD candidate at Duke University. Her research is focused on improving conservation and fishery management through local communities’ knowledge and values. But her discipline hasn’t always been the social sciences. She’s been engaged in field based coastal research in one form or another for nearly 10 years. In undergrad and post grad, their fieldwork had them on rocky shores, mudflats, beach dunes, forested streams, salt marshes, and onboard research boats.
This is important to know because today Julia’s sharing their story of navigating femininity in the field. And whether you’re also in environmental sciences or part of a wholely different profession or pasttime that has made you feel pressured to fit in, that has made you question what makes you “you”, I know Julia’s words will resonate.
Before we jump in – there are a few mentions of sexual harassment and sexual assault in this episode.
Without further ado – Makeup & Muckboots.
Julia Bingham reads:
It’s a long scramble from the truck to the shore, down a steep sandstone slope slick from last night’s drizzle. I’m with three other scientists, all men. We’re heading to an ecological experiment site on the rocky shoreline of coastal Oregon, during the early morning low tide. We’ll be down at the water for at least four hours. The sky is a soft lilac, the stars are disappearing, and the ocean is a rough indigo streaked with gold. My attention is centered on scoping out a suitable pee bush.
I love hiking and backpacking, so I’m no stranger to the trail pee. But coastal fieldwork presents some extra challenges. It’s tough to pop a squat wearing enormous waterproof overalls layered between thermals and a hefty, inflexible jacket, fully exposed on a rocky ledge or shin deep in marsh mud, with colleagues and the occasional curious member of the public a few meters away. If I have to pee during fieldwork without any suitably hidden spot available, I’ve got a couple of options: Ihold it for the remaining hours (while listening to never ending waves tempting my bladder) or I trek all the way back to the parking lot, drive several miles to a public toilet, and take an eternity getting out of all of my layers. I’ll even try to be strategic about timing my water and caffeine intake to minimize the potential need for breaks. If I’m on my period, I have less choice about skipping the restroom. In these moments I find myself jealous of the men I work with who, barring a #2 need, can usually just go stand behind the truck.
This is one pretty benign example of the ways I’ve felt my body and for that matter my gender play an active role in how I experience fieldwork. By fieldwork, I mean research and scientific data collection done at a study site, often outdoors or “in the field” rather than in a lab or classroom. My academic career has revolved around various types of fieldwork. Over time, I’ve realized that my physical needs as a female-bodied person as well as my relationship to gender are intimately connected to my research and fieldwork experience.
I’m an interdisciplinary marine scientist, currently a PhD candidate at Duke University. My research is about improving conservation and fishery management through local communities’ knowledge and values, with a focus on equity. I’ve been engaged in field-based coastal and marine studies for nearly ten years, but I’ve switched disciplines multiple times. In undergraduate and post grad research, my fieldwork centered squarely within the realm of ecology and marine biology. I’ve worked on rocky shores, mudflats, beach dunes, forested streams, salt marshes, underwater shallow reefs, and onboard small research boats. Over time, as I engaged in more community-based projects, my interests shifted and I dove into the world of social sciences. Now my fieldwork includes interviewing people, observing meetings, and occasionally tagging along with fishers and fishery managers.
There’s so much I love about fieldwork: being fully present in outdoor spaces and using my body, the challenges that help me build personal and professional skills, and the space it allows for fostering a childlike wonder at the world around me. Fieldwork can also be an incredibly intimate way to build relationship to place, which I find helps solidify a sense of connection and belonging that has often eluded me socially.
Even now that my research includes more work with people, fieldwork still brings thrilling surprises, and a way to actively pursue curiosity and connectivity. Still, challenges and frustrations emerge – especially when science and fieldwork become unnecessarily gendered or unwelcoming spaces. That disrupts all those good bits.
Over time, a theme has emerged across my fieldwork: my body and how I express my gender and sexuality as a queer woman influences my experience in the field, and vice versa. I’ve become deeply familiar with the extra challenges that come with being female-bodied in outdoor fieldwork. I’ve also found myself wrestling with my relationship to my gender and how I show up to my academic, professional, and personal worlds.
Struggling to find a place to go pee or change a tampon makes for entertaining stories, but ultimately reflects a barrier of accessibility. Bringing up these kinds of topics with an instructor or mentor can feel embarrassing, especially if it’s perceived as questioning established methods with quote unquote ‘personal issues.’ When I’ve been a part of fieldwork led by women, these challenges are distinctly less present. There’s more openness about attending to bodily needs.
Other fieldwork accessibility barriers are issues, too; the physical demands of fieldwork and the financial burden of traveling and gear, without support from the university or research group, can be prohibitive to many people. Field gear itself is often unavailable in sizes fit to petite or curvy bodies, and when it is, it’s often limited to thinner, pinker, tighter versions with an even bigger price tag. When I got my field gear in undergrad, I needed my own set of the muckboots, bib overalls, and the pvc jacket we used to stay dry and warm in the cold Pacific coastal fog and wave splash. Navigating availability and price meant buying the overalls and jacket in men’s “small,” so the overalls and jacket were still ridiculously oversized. The bagginess made it hard not to slip on the wet rocks.
Then there are issues around safety. Women are more likely to be harassed or assaulted while in the field, especially if conducting work alone, or even when they’re with supervisors. This is on top of the disproportionate rates of harassment by male peers and superiors women already experience in academia. A survey conducted in 2014 by researchers at University of Illinois, Skidmore College, and Harvard found that 71 percent of women who conduct scientific fieldwork experience sexual harrasment, mostly perpretrated by superiors in their research at their field site while the women were trainees or students, compared to only about 41 percent of men. That’s almost two times the likelihood of harrassment for women compared to men. The survey also found that 26 percent of women reported experiencing sexual assault during fieldwork, also usually while they were a trainee or student. And while these stats are staggering, I unfortunately also know this risk to be true from my own experience.
Research shows that it’s also common for women to feel disregarded, devalued, seen as less capable, patronized, or otherwise be the target of sexism in science. Some women report being delegated to more quote unquote ‘feminine’ roles in fieldwork groups (for example, organizing the group’s food), and many find themselves feeling forced to choose between having a family and maintaining a career that includes fieldwork.
There are so many intersecting dimensions of identity that complicate how people experience barriers in fieldwork: Race, class, sexuality, disability. The list goes on. Lack of support, accessibility barriers, discrimination, compounded with safety concerns in fieldwork all disproportionately impact the experiences of women of color. Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color are consistently left or pushed out of science and academia, experience high stress, racial profiling, and elevated rates of harassment and assault while conducting fieldwork and tend to be treated as less competent by peers and mentors. Rates of harassment and discrimination in the field are also elevated for LGBTQIA+ people. A recent survey of geoscientists found that more than half of respondents feel unsafe in the field; as many as one third have opted not to do fieldwork due to personal safety concerns specifically linked to their gender or sexuality. It’s no wonder, then, that over time, women and especially queer, gender nonconforming, trans women and women of color are less likely than cis men to continue conducting fieldwork later in their careers.
I love fieldwork and want others to be able to access and enjoy it. But I also have to clarify the privileged place where I’m coming from: I’m a white bi woman who is very newly exploring being openly nonbinary. My overall experience in fieldwork and science has been resoundingly positive. In many ways, my whiteness and my ability to pass as not queer keeps me safe. I’m a less vulnerable target for harassment, discrimination, and assault because I’m more likely to be believed than a student of color if I were to report an incident. I also have the financial means and the physical ability to conduct fieldwork with minimal assistance. I have a supportive and thoughtful doctoral advisor who allows me an enormous amount of autonomy in my dissertation research, and my undergraduate advisor was similarly respectful, patient, and encouraging. You could say that I have it pretty easy in the fieldwork world.
A common frustration that comes up in conversations with my peers and colleagues who are women is the way that certain quote unquote “feminine” traits get shut down in fieldwork. Even though there are more genders represented today, men are still the majority and many fieldwork experiences still seem to come along with a supremely masculine, machismo energy. In many of my experiences, and the stories shared with me by my peers, there’s been a general “man up and tough it out” approach to the fieldwork. We routinely swap stories about project leads who make a very masculine show of their fieldwork, to the extent that they may take unnecessary risks, resist delegating tasks requiring physical strength, make gendered “jokes” during the work, and have little patience for less experienced students.
None of these patterns are inherently masculine, but I can’t ignore that they often are paired with stories of the same project leads treating students differently based on gender. Such ‘mentors’ tend to provide more professional attention to men and masculine peers during physically demanding fieldwork, while dismissing women and feminine peers or giving them too much personal attention. Case in point: I had a project lead who was much more concerned with trying to set me up with his favored male student than with the quality of my work. I was supposed to feel flattered by the sexualized attention. When I attempted to report the professor, I was quietly sidelined from future research products related to the project.
It can feel like we have to minimize femininity in order to reduce friction. To best play the macho fieldwork game, I used to de-feminize myself in the field, especially during undergraduate and post-grad ecology research. To be clear, I did need to be my toughest self for some of the physical demands of the work. But I also genuinely felt it was even more important to be perceived as tough, and thought appearing soft or “girly” would work against me. (Hello, internalized misogyny!)
If I didn’t come off as strong enough to carry the gear or resilient enough to weather the conditions or stoic enough to manage unexpected setbacks, I feared my male colleagues would view me as less capable of doing the work and delegate me to less exciting tasks — or worse, not ask for my assistance in future fieldwork at all. I didn’t want to lose their respect, which was tied to my ability to keep up in the field. So I would shut down my emotions and minimize my expressiveness. I’d try to appear less feminine; I’d tuck my hair under a hat, avoid jewelry and makeup in the field, and mirror the behavior of my male colleagues. I would also physically push myself. I worked through flare-ups of my chronic headaches, back pain, impaired circulation, and digestive issues. I’d never ever voice discomfort. I don’t think I told any mentors or colleagues about my health challenges while I was in the ecology fieldwork world, even though it made the work painful and contributed to worsened anxiety. I didn’t want to reinforce stereotypes of women not being ‘tough’ enough for the field.
De-femming myself extended beyond around other scientists, to any men that were a part of my fieldwork experience. During one of the first projects where I frequently interacted with fishers, I caught myself masculinizing my body language. I’d converse with the fishermen with my feet braced, chin up, shoulders squared, jacket pulled back, hands in pockets with elbows out wide. I’d even project my voice louder and deeper than how I usually speak. I would literally try to disguise the difference in age and sex between me and the men around me by mirroring their posture and mannerisms.
These performances are tiring. They make me feel alone. Trying to take up space this way takes extra effort for me, and reinforces to myself that some of my real personality traits like being sensitive, emotional, expressive, inquisitive, and careful are not welcome in the field. At the end of a group fieldwork day, I’d ultimately be more exhausted from my social performance than from the physical work.
Eventually, I did realize that much of my worry about how I was being perceived had a lot to do with my own ego and relationship to femininity. When I was five, I decided that my favorite color was no longer fuschia pink, it was sky blue. The boys in my class were insistent that pink was a girly color, and that girly things are gross. They wouldn’t allow quote unquote “girly” kids to play tag or hide and seek with them. I was learning to associate the word “girly” with silly, weak, and boring. I didn’t want to be those things, therefore I didn’t want to be girly. I wanted to play active, physical games outside, therefore I didn’t want to be girly. For years I rejected soft, floral, colorful, flouncy, frilly, pink, pastel, “girly” things because I wanted to be strong and smart and cool, and allowed to play in the dirt with the boys. I had learned that those were separate worlds. I carried this grade school lesson into the world of science, where the often hyper-masculine environment of fieldwork reinforced it.
In college, that fraught relationship with my femininity lent itself to confusing frictions across multiple dimensions of my life. At the same time as I was building my research and fieldwork experience, I was struggling to figure out how to navigate my social world as a young woman. I found myself working hard to be the ‘right’ kind of feminine – attractive to the male gaze in the social realm through some elusive balance of softness, docility, and sexiness, while still ‘one of the boys’ in science classrooms, labs, and in the field. In either space, I was trying to receive validation from the men who surrounded me. I reflected their ideas of how a scientist should behave in one world, and what a potential date should look like in the other.
The dissonance between the two performances – neither of which felt like my actual self – was bewildering, exhausting, and terrible for my well-being. It was also terrible for my friendships with other women.
It wasn’t until my first year of grad school that I really started to unpack my relationship to my gender. The catalyst was a particularly bad burnout, spurred by a confluence of physical and mental health challenges, including a bike accident resulting in a concussion and a broken wrist, and back to back sexual assaults from two male peers. I finally sought counseling, where I eventually began to realize how much I was hurting myself with my heavily gendered self-editing. Several years later, I’m still navigating what feels most like “me.” One aspect of this is to intentionally bring the masculine into my social world, and the feminine into my professional world – including fieldwork.
As I rediscovered my love for “girly” things like dresses and flowers, and as I started building relationships in the queer community – eventually realizing I’m queer myself – I found myself angry, saddened, and confused that I felt I had to leave being a girl out of my identity during fieldwork. I resented that I had learned to view my own softness and emotionality as weakness. I was re-teaching myself to devalue feminine traits every time I went into the field, and reinforcing a belief that those traits are at all gendered in the first place. In a way, deciding to bring more of my authentic self back into my work helped force me to begin confronting my own internalized misogyny.
Even if the consequences of being perceived as feminine during fieldwork were real, I wasn’t helping myself by using so much energy to present a curated version of myself. I also wasn’t helping any of my peers or students by setting an example to play along with the pressure to ‘man-up.’ I knew through personal conversations that some of my women and nonbinary peers felt similarly to me, and I wondered how many of the men around me in the field were also putting on a more “manly” show. Were we all worried about losing respect and field cred if we let our sweeter, gentler, more emotional selves show? Were we all just pretending together?
I started to experiment. I began bringing more of my femininity into the field, and standing up for myself when encountering gendered barriers. I speak more openly about my needs, and I try to let my enthusiasm (and frustration) show I have fun with my jewelry, and I wear mismatched sparkly studs when fieldwork makes dangly earrings impractical. I have a variety of go-to braided hairstyles so my long hair stays out of the way while still bringing me feminine joy. Sometimes I’ll go weeks without eyeliner, and sometimes I’ll wear mascara in the marsh and lip color in the lab. Who says makeup doesn’t go with muckboots?
Re-femming myself does occasionally present really uncomfortable and challenging experiences. But it’s also liberating to choose to present the way I want – even if it isn’t always in a feminine way; sometimes I want the blocky boot and funky patterned, square-cut button up instead of the floral dress or blouse. When I’m most comfortable, alone or with my closest friends, I rarely think about my gender at all.
I wish I could say that this caution-to-the-wind, just-be-yourself approach is the relationship I have with my gender expression all of the time now, but that’s not true. To me, it would be ideal if none of my actions and expressions were perceived externally as gendered, or prompted me to think of myself in a gendered way. I don’t particularly like trying to place labels on my identity, especially ones that tend to infer a societal ideal of how to look or behave; they stress me out and trigger my fears around not being a good scientist or the right kind of ‘woman.’ My insecurities about bending too far from the norm still flare up frequently, and I still worry how I am perceived by colleagues. That will probably remain true for a long time. And that’s ok.
Even if uncomfortable or tiring, I do believe it pays to be conscious of how your gender is perceived in the field. Gender performance can be a strategic tool, albeit a very personal one. Here’s how I choose to use it.
In unfamiliar research environments, I pay attention to how other women dress and behave to gauge what is acceptable (read: safe) in that space. In my current people-centered research, there’s less of a need to be physically tough, but I still frequently attend to how I’m perceived. While conducting interviews, I balance showing up authentically – which most people do respond well to during conversations – with trying to de-feminize myself when I get a sense that the interviewee sees me as ‘young woman’ first, and ‘competent researcher’ second. I amp up my softer feminine side while observing a meeting space because I’m more easily ignored that way, so the meeting is more likely to proceed as it would without my presence. I still sometimes take on a wider stance and a louder, deeper, rougher voice when I tag along with fisheries managers on fieldwork so that they might take me more seriously. I also drop occasional ecology jargon into my vocabulary so that they know that, even if I am now participating as a social scientist, I have sufficient background experience to understand their work.
I have also upped my safety game now that I conduct a lot of fieldwork solo. I attempt to androgenize my appearance and I tuck a knife and whistle into my pocket when entering an unfamiliar outdoor field site alone. Some of my women peers carry pepper spray and other types of self protection precautions in their own solo fieldwork as well. It’s only while working with trusted peers and colleagues or while leading a group of students in a familiar space that I switch from gender performance for safety to gender performance for self-expression. I do something similar with sexuality, too. I’m only recently becoming more open about my queerness outside of my friendship circles, because being perceived as anything but cis and straight by some of my colleagues seemed like a whole bucket of worms I didn’t feel ready to open.
All this effort to shift how I am perceived has served me in two opposing ways. On the one hand, I sometimes feel trapped by my female body in the challenges that come along with it in field research. I often resent having to think about my bodily needs or my presentation of gender at all. On the other hand, through fieldwork I’ve become much more confident in my own abilities in outdoor work, and more familiar with my personal sense of gender and sexuality. Ironically, re-femming myself eventually allowed me to become less attached to she/her pronouns.
Playing with and feeling frustrated by femininity in fieldwork has helped me to embrace my own identity and queerness, and empowered me to be more of my actual self in my professional and personal life. It has also helped me to be a more reflective academic, which is instrumental in my current work with Indigneous collaborators. In order for me to conduct equitable and ethical research, practicing relationality, which is often perceived as ‘feminine’ in nature, is essential. Reflexiveness and an intentional awareness of my potential impact as a white scientist are also key.
It’s infinitely rewarding to see young women and queer students thoroughly enjoy themselves on a class trip to the field because they feel comfortable with me as their TA. I want to empower my students to bring their authentic selves into the classroom and the field; we are better scholars when we are not distracted by having to present in the ‘right’ way to feel safe or accepted. I enjoy feeling strong and tough and capable, but I don’t believe one should have to “man up” or hide the emotional, feminine self in order to be those things. Relationality and vulnerability require great strength of character. Persevering in research requires both resilience and self compassion.
I love fieldwork. Fieldwork pushes me to go outside my comfort zone in a way that has helped me grow immensely in my confidence and self assurance. Fieldwork fuels my tenacity, my boldness, and my curiosity. Fieldwork helps me get in touch with that inner child that never lost their love of playing in the mud and trying to make friends with plants and creatures. Fieldwork helps me find my limits. It helps me decide which fears to navigate and overcome, and which ones to listen to and build boundaries around. Fieldwork is messy and almost never goes to plan, which drives me nuts by challenging my attachment to control – something instrumental to my personal growth. Fieldwork has facilitated and deepened some of my most valuable relationships. Fieldwork is fun. Fieldwork helps me figure out what makes me feel most like me. This has rung true for me in nearly every type of fieldwork I’ve experienced so far, and I am immensely grateful for it.
It is essential, in my opinion, that these positive experiences are accessible to anyone who wants to do outdoor work. Knowing where to pee, having tampons and pads on hand with other field supplies, building an inclusive and affirming field team culture, and keeping firm personal boundaries and robust safety practices as a part of fieldwork protocol helps to mitigate risk and reduce the ‘othering’ that women can feel in the field, especially newer students. When mentors and colleagues create a welcoming space, when femininity or queerness isn’t implicitly equated with weakness, when taking care of bodily needs doesn’t come with shame, we are liberated to be fully present in the field and actually enjoy our work.
Those of us with experience, privilege, and power to enact change can work to make fieldwork spaces more safe, accessible, and inclusive for others. We can take the time to figure out how our identities relate to our fieldwork and challenge the unnecessarily gendered dimensions of field research. We can make fieldwork a more relational and mutually supportive and collaborative space through our softer selves. We can disencumber our curiosity that drives our scientific interests from trying to be masculine enough to be included. And we can make fieldwork a more diverse, expressive, and fun space to revel in the mess and the muck by encouraging each other to bring our most authentic and enthusiastic selves to the field.
While en route to my current field site on Vancouver Island this past September, I stopped over in Seattle to see my friend Jesse. Jesse is beautifully, wonderfully, infinitely and androgenously queer. They have been an invaluable source of love and support for me for nearly a decade, and I consider them a role model in authentic self-expression. It was the first time we’d seen each other in over two years, and we’ve both grown further into ourselves over that time. Jesse told me I was serving them Lara Croft meets humanities professor vibes, in the best way. And I think that is exactly the level of academic feminine badassery I’d like to keep carrying through my career and all the fieldwork to come.
Gale – Narration:
Thanks so much to Julia Bingham for sharing their story with us. You can find Julia on Instagram @juliaabing and on Twitter @juliaabingham. Julia also shared this piece as an essay on She-Explores.com. As always, I’ll link this all in the show notes.
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Music in this episode is licensed through MusicBed. This episode was produced and hosted by me, Gale Straub.
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