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

The aurora australis over Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in 2009. A new report from the National Science Foundation finds sexual harassment and assault are a major problem at remote facilities.
Patrick Cullis
U.S. Antarctic Program photo Library
The aurora australis over Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in 2009. A new report from the National Science Foundation finds sexual harassment and assault are a major problem at remote facilities.

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.

Every woman I knew down there had an assault or harassment experience that had occurred on ice.

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."

NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce contributed to this report. contributed to this story

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Corrected: August 31, 2022 at 10:00 PM MDT
Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.
Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.