Remote Antarctic research stations plagued by widespread sexual harassment, with women having to work alongside their abusers for weeks, Australian report finds




  • In Science
  • 2022-09-30 12:31:25Z
  • By Business Insider
An aerial view of Casey station in Antarctica, 17 January 2008.
An aerial view of Casey station in Antarctica, 17 January 2008.  
  • Women working in Australian Antarctic research stations are plagued by sexual harassment, a report found.

  • The report describes unwanted advances, homophobia, prominently displayed pornography, and period shaming.

  • US stations are also rife with sexual harassment, an earlier report found.

Sexual harassment and homophobia are plaguing remote Australian Antarctic research stations, a new report found.

The report, commissioned by the Australian Antarctic Division, was circulated among staff on Thursday per the Australian broadcaster ABC News.

It describes a toxic environment of uninvited physical contact and unwelcome requests for sex. The predatory culture included the display of pornographic and offensive material on site and sex-based insults or taunts, per the report.

Women reported having to "go to great lengths to make their menstruation invisible," and a voucher-by-request system that means women needed to "go through a gatekeeper to access free menstrual products," per the report.

Homophobia is also rife, per the report, creating a toxic environment.

Meredith Nash, an Associate Professor in Sociology of the University of Tasmania who led the report, told ABC News women "have to work in the field with their abusers for weeks at a time because they simply can't leave," Nash told ABC.

"Or, because of the power dynamics, they are not in a position to make a complaint or get support immediately as they would do back home," she said.

"I was actually gobsmacked to read some of the reports here talking about pornographic material up on the walls," Australia Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek told ABC News.

"I hope the report will be a catalyst for further change," she said.

In a statement to staff, Australian Antarctic Division director Kim Ellis said he was "deeply concerned" by the report, per ABC News.

"I think this lets the light in and gives us real authority to make change in the organization," he told ABC News.

Women were told to carry hammers for protection

It is the latest in a series of damning documents describing a toxic culture that puts women in danger in the remote location, including among US research stations.

The issue was first brought to prominence in 2017 by news outlet Science with an investigation describing allegations of bullying from then assistant professor David Marchant.

Jane Willenbring, then a 22-year-old graduate student at Boston University, described being pelted with rocks while urinating in the field by Marchant during US Antarctic field research in 1999 and 2000, being called a "slut" and a "whore," and being asked to sleep with Marchant's brother.

After she reached tenure, Willenbring revealed the allegations and called for an investigation. Marchant was fired in 2019, and a glacier carrying his name was renamed.

Though the events took place more than 20 years ago, a recent report from National Science Foundation published in June this year shows that only a little progress has been made since then, Nash said in a blog post published September 6. 

Seventy-two percent of women surveyed from the United States Antarctic Program said sexual harassment was a problem, per the report.

In de-identified quotes, women describe being warned against attending parties at the McMurdo station, carrying hammers for protection, and men drunkenly following them to their rooms and intimidating them.

"Every woman I knew down there had an assault or harassment experience that had occurred on the ice," said one interviewee.

The report also describes women feeling intimidated by human resources when bringing allegations and a widespread belief that they would be "blackballed" if they reported assault.

Talking about the Australian report, Nash said that extent of the problem is such that it may be "unethical" to send women to Antarctica in these conditions.

"I think on some level, it is unethical for us to continue trying to encourage women to enter a male-dominated field if we are not confident that organizations can keep them safe," she told ABC News.

 

 

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