Re-branding Tough

Is toughness a necessary requirement to conduct field work in the geosciences? What, exactly, does “tough” mean? How can toughness be interpreted in light of diversity and inclusion efforts, especially in a pursuit like field geology, which often demands physical capacity?

My ancestry is Scandinavian, and my Viking ancestors are often associated with “traditional” views of tough. Case in point, Gunnar Hámundarson, a 10th century Icelandic chiefdom legendary for his physical ability. Here he is described from the original literature (replacements mine).

“[Gunnar] was a tall man in growth, and a strong man, best skilled in arms of all men. He could cut or thrust or shoot if he chose as well with his left as with his right hand, and he smote so swiftly with his sword, that three seemed to flash through the air at once. He was the best shot with the bow of all men, and never missed his mark. He could leap more than his own height, with all his war-gear, and as far backwards as forwards. He could swim like a seal, and there was no game in which it was any good for anyone to strive with him; and so it has been said that no man was his match.” (from The Story of Burnt Njál, translated by G.W. DaSent).

Field geoscience often endorses the necessity of these traditional attributes of toughness. Physical strength, agility, and endurance are deemed essential traits when working in harsh and rugged environmental conditions. Students and new field researchers are routinely warned of the physical rigors of field work, often discouraged if their abilities do not meet muster. Consider the following text from a safety waiver for a nondisclosed geology field camp (again, replacements mine).

“Students must be able to walk without assistance five to ten miles per day over [rough] terrain while carrying a backpack weighing at least 25 pounds (including lunch, 3 to 4 liters of water, emergency supplies, rain gear, and mapping equipment). Students must possess vision sufficiently keen (unaided or with correction) to be able to spot the physical hazards present in field sites. They also must be able to see well enough to comprehend geological features at physical scales ranging from hand specimens (examined with a hand lens) and local outcrops observed at a distance of meters, to mountain side exposures viewed from miles away. Students who do not meet these requirements cannot complete [said course].”

In short, if you’re not traditionally tough, you’re out of luck.

Ironically, toughness can be recognized by many other attributes that transcend the physical. These characteristics include resourcefulness, resilience, grit, and, most of all, courage. These characteristics endure long after physical strength fades due to fatigue, injury, or age, exemplifying a novel interpretation of toughness that lasts over the long haul.

Those of us from underrepresented groups know these characteristics all too well and have relied on them throughout our lives to survive and succeed. Our resourcefulness has allowed us to create original solutions to issues of accessibility. Our resilience has given us the mettle to push forward in the face of harassment. Sheer grit, or strength of character, has driven us to succeed despite discrimination. Most importantly, we have all displayed remarkable courage, remaining strong despite the challenges we face as members of underrepresented groups.

What characteristics could be more essential to ensure success under the daunting conditions faced in field geoscience?

Traditional toughness detracts from a sense of community and teamwork through alpha mentality, unhealthy competition, ableism, exclusion, and worst of all, resentment. Gunnar met his end in a clan feud when rivals attacked his homestead. He put up a good fight, one befitting a traditionally tough hero. However, when his bowstring broke, he was unable to keep the enemies at bay. Gunnar asked his wife for strands of her hair to weave a new string. She refused, because earlier that day Gunnar had struck her in anger. This “tough” gesture bred resentment that cost Gunnar his life. Exclusion in field settings is akin to the slap in the face Gunnar’s wife Hallgerðr received, and that same resentment takes the life out of any feeling of inclusion underrepresented groups could feel in field settings.

The novel facets of toughness mentioned above are much more befitting efforts devoted to diversity. Instead of exclusion and resentment, they foster community, altruism, support, and gratitude. Field geoscience is about appreciating the natural world, sharing its wonder, sustaining it in perpetuity, and communicating the knowledge we gain. Everyone should be included in this experience, not just the traditionally tough.

Let’s rebrand tough to describe a more inclusive set of ideals that celebrate the contributions that anyone can make.



Darrin Pagnac a PI on the NSF GOLD FIELD project examining diversity and inclusion in field geoscience.  

This page last updated 24 Apr 2018 - 11:48am