Field feminism: How leaders can support women in STEM one period at a time.

Last summer I travelled to Nunavut for my PhD research. I was so excited in the months leading up to my trip. I would get to experience twenty-four hour daylight (almost), travel on the tundra landscape, meet local community members, and participate as a science team member on a research cruise. Then I realized that my fieldwork dates aligned with my period. I worried a lot about how I would deal with menstruating in the field, even though I had been in the field many times before. Could I buy the supplies I needed or should I use precious luggage space for pads and tampons? Where would I use the bathroom on days out on the treeless land and how would I safely store and dispose of used products? I even went to my doctor and requested a prescription for the pill in a failed attempt to control my cycle. I went to the Arctic. I brought a LOT of hygiene products with me. I took two packages of pills back-to-back and prayed that my period wouldn’t come. But as fate (or biology) would have it, my period started on my first day at sea.

After I returned to the lab, I started asking other women about their experiences and strategies for dealing with menstruation during fieldwork. The first thing that I learned was that women want to talk about it, but for a host of reasons don’t always bring it up. In my experience, the fear of being viewed as high-maintenance or less capable has prevented me from broaching the topic with others. I also collected some amazing tips and tricks – my favourite being to always bring a package of Pringles. First you get a yummy snack and later you can use the empty tube as the perfect container to store and pack out your used products. The big take away for me was that many of us learn how to deal with feminine hygiene issues in the field in isolation and by trial and error. As scientists we always learn from our peers, look to the literature, and expand on the knowledge of others. But in the realm of menstruation, we often figure it out for ourselves without external support.

One of the ways we can promote inclusivity in STEM for women and girls, is to reframe menstruation and not allow having one’s period to be a barrier to accessing productive and enjoyable experiences in the field. The list below includes three simple actions that can help us get started!

  1. Get rid of the “rite of passage” mindset

Many years ago, I was out for a day trip with students and someone asked where the bathroom was. I gestured to the nature around us and jokingly replied, everywhere. I think back to this interaction and wish that I could change my response. The student was clearly uncomfortable and my words were not supportive. There are many personal reasons why someone may not be able to toilet in the bush, and as leaders we hold a responsibility to make our excursions accessible and productive for all of the attendees. In order to promote diversity in our disciplines, we need to ensure that we practice inclusivity in all settings – the lab, classroom, and the field. As an experienced researcher or trip leader, it is tempting to adopt the mindset that everyone needs to figure things out for themselves. But, this is not productive or inclusive. I propose that the first step in making the field a more inclusive place for all people is to lose the idea that struggle is necessary for personal growth. Each individual has their own story and it is not up to the trip leader to judge their potential or dedication to the research based on their personal needs and comfort level.

  1. Talk about it!

Effective immediately, I will include a discussion on menstruation as part of the trip orientation for all future excursions. We talk about travelers’ diarrhea and all sorts of other unpleasant things, so we can talk about periods too.  Leaders can help their students and research team prepare for the field by being candid about what to expect. Tell people what to bring and include feminine hygiene products on the list. If the trip is somewhere remote and you will only have what you bring with you, be explicit about it. List the services and amenities that will be available. This is not about hosting a luxury field school, it’s about helping people prepare. Access to laundry, showers, and the opportunity to purchase needed supplies may change how participants pack for the trip. And this isn’t just for menstruating women, there are lots of personal reasons why someone may want to know what to expect in terms of access to facilities and amenities. In addition, being open and honest will demonstrate your values as a leader and act as an example of constructive communication.

  1. Pack a wellness kit.

First aid kits are a necessity in the field and many of us already supplement official first aid kits with extras like sunscreen and hand sanitizer. So why not set aside a small part of the field trip budget to build a wellness kit. This kit can contain all of the extras that will help keep trip participants comfortable and productive – because you can’t focus on your work if you are worried about your period or some other issue. The wellness kit is the perfect place to keep a stockpile of tampons and pads, but it’s not just for periods. Fill it with sunscreen, baby wipes, insect repellent, hand sanitizer, you name it. This should be the go-to place for trip participants that are missing something that they need that will make their learning experience more enjoyable and productive. The wellness kit is not intended to provide freebies to participants. In fact, you don’t even need to tell people that it exists until you are already on the trip.

So there you have it. A few easy ways you can start practicing feminism in the field. Do you have other ideas on how to make fieldwork more inclusive and break the taboo of talking about menstruation? Please share them in the comments below.

Yours truly,

The Peaceful PhD


The game-changing sponsor

The atrium of the Taylor Institute is saturated with the hum of discussion. Small group chatter, digital interactions, and the occasional rush of content spilling out of the workshop galleries. The melody from the piano interacts with the crowd. A different type of dialogue, bolstering the event’s creative culture. The atmosphere is charged with this year’s conference theme – “conversations that matter.”

Impactful mentoring and empowerment were reoccurring topics threaded through my conference experience. The plenary session, conversation cafes, and workshops sparked my curiosity – how can I be a better mentor? How can I be a better mentee? I reflected on my personal support network and thought about some of the pivotal moments in my career where my mentors challenged and changed me.

A few years ago, I attended an interdisciplinary luncheon focused on diversity and engagement. The folks around my table exchanged introductions and explained their interest in the session and how it applied to their daily work. When it was my turn, I expressed a few personal aspirations accompanied by some ideas to increase my exposure and further develop as a diversity champion. My comments prompted a more detailed discussion after the session with a senior leader who was sitting at my table. Later that day, he contacted my supervisor and expressed his support for my involvement in activities that would allow me to broaden my skillset and gain the exposure I desired. He identified with my passion for the subject and connected a potential opportunity with my career goals.

Contacting my supervisor only took a few minutes of the leader’s time. But those few minutes of sponsorship had a profound impact on my career. A nod from a respected leader earned buy-in from my immediate supervisor and colleagues and effectively granted permission for me to spend time developing a skillset outside of my core technical competencies.

It certainly helped that my sponsor had a large circle of influence, but you don’t have to be a senior leader to be an advocate. At the student level there is room to nominate colleagues for awards and to recognize outstanding contributions from peers, and even up the line from effective supervisors and leaders. A quick recommendation or introduction could establish a connection that becomes the foundation for great teaching, learning, or research. And a moment spent providing thoughtful feedback has the potential to change the way that someone thinks about their personal and professional development.

So thank you, to the sponsors and mentors who have shared their networks and resources with me and encouraged me to explore and take risks. I hope that I can give back to others with the same generosity and sincerity, because it has made all the difference to me on my journey.

© SF Jones, 2017

Inspired by my experience at the 2017 Conference on Postsecondary Learning and Teaching hosted by the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning at the University of Calgary.