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Being Female in The Field


I'm going to start my research blog off with something that I don't think is discussed very often among field scientists - at least not in a public way - which is doing field work as a female. I'm not going to write some silly puff post about how to be ladylike in the field and I'm certainly not going to say that there is any sort of field work that men can do and women cannot. I think that if you want to do it, you can do it. But as a woman working in the field, and I suppose this goes for long term camping excursions as well, there are a few things one must consider that a man need not.

At this point, I have collectively spent just over 18 months in the field. I have done field work in Ecuador, Peru, Puerto Rico, South Africa, The Netherlands and The United States. I've spent months living in rustic cabins, small buildings made of corrugated steel, tents with a shelter, tents without a shelter and hammocks. I've worked in environments ranging from dry grasslands to rainy tropical forests. Each of these situations require some specialized supplies as they feature some specialized challenges, but for most of them, I have packed a very similar kit. I'll write a future post with a recommended pack list for field work that is agendered, but for this post, I want to focus on the few things that I think women need to pack/prepare, or at least consider packing/preparing, before going in to the field.


One of the most important things to think of in the field is safety. Everyone needs to think about safety from the elements: packing appropriately for the climate that you are about to be working in, and safety from various health risks: getting vaccinated and packing whatever medicines your doctor recommends. But something I find people don't often think about is safety from other people. This of course applies to men as well as women, but I think that women tend to be more vulnerable as others look at them as less capable of defending themselves. Even when you work in the most remote of field locations, there can still be a likely risk of encountering another person. If anything, I think you are more at risk of having a dangerous encounter with a stranger when you are in a remote location, especially if you are working alone. I think that this is something people feel uncomfortable talking about, which makes it even more dangerous. I can tell you many a story of a scientist being attacked in the field, and I do not wish for myself or for you to have one of your own stories to tell.

I personally think that every field scientist, as well as every person, should take some self defense classes. Studying martial arts can be a good source of moving meditation as well as physical exercise, but it is also an invaluable way to learn to defend yourself, even when fighting larger and stronger opponents. I am by no means an expert in martial arts, so I do encourage you to do your own research on this topic, but the styles of martial arts that I would recommend for self defense are: Jiu Jitsu, Krav Maga and/or Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. In a nutshell, Jiu Jitsu can teach you how to redirect your opponent's weight and movement against them. Krav Maga is a style that was literally developed for people at risk for street-style attacks, and thus is a great style to protect yourself from attackers. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, which is definitely the hardest style I have ever tried, teaches you to use leverage to tackle your opponent. A study by law enforcement officials found that 90% of all fights end up on the ground, and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is absolutely the best way to learn to fight on the ground. Pick whichever style you think you'll enjoy the most. My best recommendation would probably be Krav Maga, as I think you can learn to defend yourself faster with that style, but they are all valuable.

For those that don't want to train in a martial art, which, of course, I understand - it's a lot of time and money that you may not have, you can always protect yourself in other ways. A great way to prevent anything from happening, is to work with a trusted field assistant. Individuals are far more at risk than groups or pairs of people. If working alone is your only option, or if you want to carry something to defend yourself anyway, your field knife can be a good self-defense option. Personally, I don't place much faith in weapons that can be taken away from you, as they can then be used on you. I would recommend instead to keep a small stun gun or pepper spray canister on you instead. There are many models with added security to make them difficult for an attacker to take away from you or to make them difficult to intuitively use, so that if you drop it or have it taken away from you, your attacker won't be able to figure out how to use it against you. It's important to know the legality of carrying and/or traveling with these items, which I leave for you to do. I won't recommend any brands or models here either as I'm not sure how legal that is either, so I will instead leave that for you to do as well.

Personal Hygiene

Hopefully you haven't been too turned off by my self-defense schpeal, and have hung around for the other section of items I think are important. Something women have to deal with in the field that men are blissfully unencumbered with, is of course: menstruation. Menstruation at home can be annoying, even painful, but in the field, it can be a nightmare. One option, is to simply eliminate it (or at least greatly reduce it) - certain hormonal IUDs can eliminate your period completely, or reduce its severity at least. If you're going to be in the field for a long time, I highly recommend this route. I did this before spending a year in the field and it made life much easier. Another option for this, is to use hormonal birth control pills to skip your period. You can do find more information about how to do this here. I am not a doctor, heck, I'm not even yet a PhD, so I highly recommend you discuss these options with your doctor before trying them. Research has shown both methods to be safe, in general, but every person's healthcare needs are different so definitely talk about them with your doctor first.

If you do decide to go the birth control pill route, or even if you don't decide to skip periods, but do want to continue your course of birth control pills while in the field, know that many countries sell birth control pills over the counter (meaning: without a prescription). Here in the US at least, getting multiple months of birth control pills from your insurance can be at best: very difficult, and at worse: impossible. Check the regulations for whatever country you are working in, but often it is possible to buy your birth control from pharmacies there at a cost that's way less than what one pays in the US.

For those of you who don't want to manipulate your natural cycle, which is something I can definitely understand, then I highly recommend that you invest in a reusable feminine hygiene product so that you don't have to pack a ton of disposable products with you, and even more importantly, if you are camping: so that you don't have to litter your field site with buried sanitary products. My personal favorite reusable product is the Diva Cup which is a medical grade silicon menstrual cup. These are great because you can reuse them for years, and they can provide up to 12 hours of protection before you need to empty them, which is great when you're working in a group in the field and don't want to repeatedly sneak away to take care of your personal hygiene.

While we're on the topic of scuttling off to take care of your business, sometimes you're in a field situation where it's not safe to separate from the group or where there's nowhere to take cover from the group. If you're the kind of person that's shy but also likes to be able to pee while they work, then I recommend this really silly product: The She Wee. I learned about these when doing field work in The Netherlands, where our field location was so flat that we would often have to walk upwards of twenty minutes away from the group just to pee. This ridiculous device is a sort of funnel, made of surgical grade silicon, that allows women to pee while standing up. I definitely appreciated this device when working in South Africa, where walking away from the group meant risking encountering angry and incredibly aggressive bull elephants. Though I will say, that in the vast majority of field situations, when you're not surrounded by wild animals or working on insanely flat terrain, you can get by just fine without this. Or if you're someone with a lot of self-confidence that hasn't been brainwashed into feeling body shame, then this is also a completely unnecessary product for you.

Another item you will probably appreciate are wipes. I buy biodegradable face wipes and use them to wash my face and sometimes my entire body. These are great if there's no nearby water source as wasting your precious drinking water to do something like wash your face each day would be simply insane. The brand Yes To makes wipes for all different skin types that are safely compostable. There are many other brands out there at different price points that make compostable wipes, or if you prefer a brand that's not biodegradable, you can always keep the used wipes in a small bag and dispose of them whenever you have a chance to get rid of the rest of your field garbage. If you do have a reliable water source, then feel free to skip the wipes and buy some biodegradable soap and shampoo to use instead!

These are just a few of the things that I think are important for women to think about and to pack before a field excursion. I recognize that they may not be useful for some women, or for some field scenarios, but hopefully they will be useful to others. If you have any other suggestions for female-friendly field equipment, feel free to leave it in the comments or send me an e-mail!

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