The US Antarctic research program is rife with sexual harassment and assault, according to a report released last week. Commissioned by the National Science Foundation (NSF), which manages the program, and written by an outside company, the report also found that those who work in Antarctica largely do not trust their employers to take complaints of harassment seriously, protect victims or to punish offenders – and that some groups are less aware of the problem than others.
Overall, 72% of women reported that sexual harassment is a problem in the community, according to a 2021 survey cited in the report. The survey involved people who had worked in Antarctica for the past 3 years, including scientists and support staff such as cooks and janitors, and military personnel. The figures were 48% for men and only 40% among executives, regardless of gender. Attitudes towards the treatment of complaints showed a similar gender gap. For example, 46% of men thought perpetrators were held accountable, while only 26% of women did.
The report — which is based on interviews and focus groups and anonymous survey responses — doesn’t attempt to quantify the extent of the sexual misconduct in the program, but offers some stark anecdotal accounts. “Every woman I knew there had an experience of sexual assault or harassment,” said one interviewee. “I can’t in good conscience encourage more women to come here as it is now,” said another. The report identifies McMurdo, a sprawling research station that houses more than 1,000 people during the summer peak, as the epicenter, but notes that sexual harassment issues have been identified everywhere the US research program operates in Antarctica, including the Amundsen-Scott South Pole and Palmer research stations, research vessels and remote field sites.
“We’re still trying to understand how we got to this point and how we’re moving forward,” said Roberta Marinelli, who leads NSF’s Office of Polar Programs, in an interview with Science. In a statement accompanying the report’s publication, NSF said the report “is of serious concern.”
“The report is more shocking than I expected,” said Helen Fricker, a professor at the University of San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography who studies the Antarctic ice sheet. She has been to the continent herself earlier in her career and has recently sent students there as well. She has heard some “pretty awful stories” from colleagues who have worked in Antarctica, such as geophysicist Jane Willenbring, who, from 1999, was bullied and sexually harassed by her graduate advisor while working in a remote field site. (Science reported on her experience in 2017.) But the report shows “it was definitely much, much more pervasive than I thought,” Fricker says. “Some of the things that these people have been through are criminal. … I mean, literally, people were talking about rape.”
The report also raises concerns about enforcement. “Many of the community members we spoke to feel deeply betrayed by what they perceive as a failure to hold perpetrators accountable and anemic attempts to prevent or respond appropriately to sexual assault and harassment,” the report states.
In 2013, NSF issued a Polar Code of Conduct, which expressly prohibits “physical or verbal abuse of any person, including, but not limited to, harassment, stalking, bullying, or hazing of any kind.” The consequences for violations may include expulsion from Antarctica. But decisions about whether or not to punish bullies are left to the patchwork of educational institutions, corporations and federal agencies that monitor workers in Antarctica, many of whom are not trusted to thoroughly investigate complaints.
“I’ve seen numerous cases where HR has been given a report and the person who behaved inappropriately has seemingly received no repercussions,” says one person in the report. “What do you do when you have a harassment case that doesn’t come from your own institution?” asked a scientist. “NSF needs to develop a mechanism that addresses these situations.” Others noted it’s unrealistic to leave investigation and enforcement to the Title IX office of an educational institution “14,000 miles away,” one said.
NSF promises change. Marinelli said in the wake of the report, the agency sees “several things we need to work on at the same time: we want a prevention-oriented environment; we want people who have had a negative experience to feel comfortable reporting it; we want that.” that reporting is effective; we want disciplinary action to be taken when warranted; we want to be fair to everyone on the ice.”
For now, says Willenbring, an associate professor at Stanford University, “it’s really disappointing.” When the story of her experience broke out during the #MeToo movement, she hoped NSF would make changes to protect vulnerable people working in Antarctica. The agency did have a policy in place stating that “they may consider sexual harassment findings from the Title IX offices of universities when making funding decisions,” Willenbring says. But she’s made little progress since then, despite listening sessions highlighting just how big a sexual problem harassment and assault were in Antarctica. “Who are these people who are so clueless that they haven’t listened to people for the past 5 years?”