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Sexual harassment and assault plague U.S. research bases in Antarctica, report says


Updated September 1, 2022 at 8:31 PM ET

On her very first day in Antarctica, one woman was warned to avoid a certain building at the National Science Foundation's McMurdo Station "unless [she] wanted to be raped."

Another was so "freaked out" by the pervasive sexual harassment that she began carrying around a hammer.

Sexual assault and sexual harassment "are a fact of life" in Antarctica, another woman said, "just like the fact that Antarctica is cold and the wind blows."

These are among the accounts published in a newly released report, commissioned by the National Science Foundation, that shows just how pervasive stories of harassment and assault are at the bottom of the world.

And it comes to a damning conclusion about the agency's operations in Antarctica: "Sexual harassment, stalking, and sexual assault are ongoing, continuing problems."

The report, which was presented to the NSF in June and publicly released last week, is based on more than 80 interviews with individuals and focus groups, along with a survey of 880 current and recent employees. Many of the report's interviewees are anonymous.

"It wasn't surprising to me to hear some of the stories that we heard," said Roberta Marinelli, the director of the NSF's Office of Polar Programs, in an interview with NPR. "It's certainly disappointing."

Many employees view sexual harassment as a problem

The NSF oversees all American operations in Antarctica. Each year, more than 3,000 scientists, contractors and military personnel are sent to the continent for programs under NSF's jurisdiction. About one in three of them are women.

In the report's survey, 72% of female respondents agreed that sexual harassment was a problem. Just under half agreed that sexual assault was a problem. (Among male employees responding to the survey, about half and a third, respectively, agreed that harassment and assault were problems.)

"Every woman I knew down there had an assault or harassment experience that had occurred on ice," one interviewee told the report's authors. Although incidents involving female victims were "much more frequent and severe," the report stated, several men also recounted experiencing sexual harassment by men and women.

Officials at the NSF commissioned the report in April 2021 after years of individual reports of sexual harassment.

A remote and difficult workplace

Antarctica is an unusually challenging environment for these kinds of allegations. Its remoteness often means people are unable to leave for weeks or months at a time.

"You're so isolated and so detached from the normal roles in society that often it makes it, for lack of a better word, easier to get away with inappropriate behavior," said Meredith Nash, an Australian researcher who did not participate in the NSF report.

"When people are out doing deep field work, not only do they not have the capacity to report, because you can't call someone or send an email or whatever – if you're working with your harasser, you literally can't get away from them," said Nash, who now serves as an associate dean of Diversity, Belonging, Inclusion and Equity at the Australian National University.

Up until now, incidents have been reported as one-offs. In 2018, the name of a seven-mile-long glacier was changed after its namesake, the geologist David Marchant, was accused of sexually harassing female graduate students. He was later fired from his job at Boston University. In a statement at the time, he denied the allegations.

In a separate incident, the NSF says it received a report of a rape at one of its facilities within the past five years. The agency says it "promptly" referred the allegation to the Department of Justice.

The problems go well beyond scientists. Of the thousands of people working in Antarctica under the NSF each year, about 800 are researchers. The rest are support staff, including cooks, janitors and maintenance workers, many of them employed on seasonal contracts.

Challenges of reform

Throughout the report, respondents describe a pervasive environment of harassment and assault – and a workplace that is unfriendly to those who report incidents.

"People on station fear, and rightfully so, that if they are harassed or assaulted and report it, they will be the ones who will be going home," one person told the report's authors. "When things happened on ice, the number one thing I heard was 'don't report it or you will go home and be blacklisted from the program.'"

Particularly at risk were people who felt that their livelihoods could be at stake, like seasonal employees who depend on contract renewals, or Ph.D students who are reliant on lead researchers – a fact that officials acknowledged.

"The research shows us that even when we have the best sort of the best practice around reporting, the best possible sort of system, people still don't report because the power dynamics are such that it's not usually in the interest of the victim," Nash said.

Changing the power dynamics at these remote bases will be challenging, officials acknowledged. The infrequent availability of flights and ships means there's no simple way to separate victims from their harassers. And the numerous contractors and institutions that operate under NSF's oversight each has its own human resources policies and procedures around assault and harassment.

But officials at NSF say they are committed to reforming their operations.

"I don't feel I have a choice but to do anything other than meet this challenge head on," said Marinelli. "We have an obligation to provide a safe work environment, to provide workplace safety and workplace development opportunities for anyone who wants to come to Antarctica."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

: September 1, 2022
A previous web version of this story incorrectly attributed a quote to Roberta Marinelli that was actually spoken by Meredith Nash. In fact, Marinelli said: "It wasn't surprising to me to hear some of the stories that we heard. It's certainly disappointing." A second quote was misattributed to Stephanie Short. In fact, that quote was spoken by Nash: "The research shows us that even when we have the best sort of the best practice around reporting, the best possible sort of system, people still don't report because the power dynamics are such that it's not usually in the interest of the victim."

Transcript :


Unfortunately, there are no continents on the planet without sexual harassment, and that includes Antarctica. A new report reveals that sexual harassment and sexual assault are major problems at U.S. Antarctic facilities. The report was commissioned by the National Science Foundation, which runs the Antarctic program. The report found that nearly three-quarters of women working there felt sexual harassment was an issue. Nearly half were worried about sexual assaults. NPR's Joe Palca has been reading through the 273-page report, and he's here in the studio to tell us about it. Hey, Joe.


SHAPIRO: What are some of the revelations in the report?

PALCA: Well, one of the things that jumps out at you is how pervasive this problem seems to be. They quoted one of the people they interviewed as saying, every woman I know down there has had an assault or harassment experience that occurred on ice - on ice is what they call working down there. And this is a sentiment that they heard from many, many different people. The report also said that many people didn't trust the officials they were supposed to report to when they had a problem because they thought, A, there might be reprisals, or, B, they were thinking that these people were more interested in protecting the agencies than protecting the people.

SHAPIRO: Is there something about working in Antarctica that makes this more of a problem?

PALCA: Well, I've been to Antarctica, and it's very remote. And even though the internet has made it smaller, it's just not a place that you can walk down the street and see anybody. Much of the year, these spaces are totally inaccessible. The sun disappears for months in the winter. And that means the staff doesn't have anywhere to go or anyone to talk to. I spoke with Madeline Nash (ph). She's an associate dean at the Australian National University. She studies harassment in Australia's Antarctic program.

MEREDITH NASH: You're so isolated and so detached from the sort of normal roles in society that often it makes it sort of, for lack of a better word, it makes it easier to get away with inappropriate behavior that probably wouldn't be condoned, you know, back in normal life.

PALCA: So imagine if it's your supervisor doing the harassing. It's not like you can go down the hall and complain. That supervisor's supervisor might be thousands of miles away.

SHAPIRO: Has a problem like this been documented before?

PALCA: Well, Nash says many people who've worked in Antarctica know it's an ongoing issue.

NASH: Anecdotally, the information that's presented in this report is widely known, that women in particular suffer greatly, that sexual harassment is a significant problem.

PALCA: But what's unique about this report is that it puts some numbers behind the problem and shows it's really pervasive. And now, to be fair, Nash says it was NSF that commissioned the study, so they're aware there's a problem.

SHAPIRO: And now that it's out, what does the National Science Foundation have to say about it?

PALCA: Well, Roberta Marinelli is head of the Office of Polar Programs.

ROBERTA MARINELLI: It wasn't surprising to me to hear some of the stories that we heard. It's certainly disappointing.

PALCA: Marinelli says one of the things she thinks will improve the situation is to make it easier and less fraught for people to report incidents of harassment.

MARINELLI: But more important than that is we have to create an environment in which this kind of behavior just isn't tolerated.

SHAPIRO: Those sound like the right words, but is there the will to actually do something?

PALCA: Well, who can say for sure? There are some structural issues that make it difficult to make changes in the Antarctic. I mean, there's the military that transports people, their contractors, their scientists who have their own rules and institutions - the rules they have to live by. So coming up with a strategy that's going to be acceptable to everyone is going to be a challenge. But at the end of the day, this is NSF's responsibility.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Joe Palca. Thanks, Joe.

PALCA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.