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Sexual harassment ignored by U.S. Antarctic research program, employees say

When a report last month documented pervasive sexual harassment in the U.S. Antarctic Program, many polar researchers and USAP employees saw it as confirmation of their own experiences. They also said the 25 August report wasn’t the first time the National Science Foundation (NSF), which manages the program through contracts to private companies and commissioned the report, had been told about the problem. But those who spoke out were often ignored or punished, some Antarctic veterans say.

“There are a million examples of guys being obnoxious and inappropriate,” says Joni Zisman, who in April quit her job as IT manager at McMurdo Station, the largest of the three U.S. Antarctic bases, after 13 years with the program. “But what really pissed me off was that leadership has spent the past 2 decades laughing it off and retaliating against anybody who has tried to make things better.”

Zisman is one of at least four senior employees who have recently left Leidos, the lead contractor for the Antarctic Support Contract (ASC) awarded by NSF. All told Science about their frustration with how sexual harassment has been allowed to fester. “The unwritten rule ever since I started in the 1990s has been to keep your mouth shut,” says Elaine Hood, who resigned in July after more than 20 years in corporate communications for a series of lead contractors. “Because if you complain, you will be blacklisted.”

The report, by Leading and Dynamic Services and Solutions (LDSS), doesn’t quantify the extent of the sexual misconduct but offers stark anecdotal accounts. “Every woman I knew down there had an assault or harassment experience,” one interviewee said.

Since 2019, an informal and fluctuating network of USAP employees called the Ice Allies have put their jobs and their careers at risk in hopes of bringing about change. Drawn from contract employees of all stripes, from cooks and maintenance workers to firefighters and health care professionals, the Ice Allies have also looked into wage disparities and other forms of discrimination against USAP employees—many of them young women in a culture dominated by older men.

One veteran member of McMurdo leadership who befriended the group in its earliest days was Julie Grundberg, who in 2016 became ASC area station manager after many years working in Antarctica. The group’s efforts gained momentum in the fall of 2019, after a rape survivor began sharing her story with colleagues. The survivor’s courage, Grundberg says, “led to other people being brave, too. And so I sat in my office for days, and had person after person after person come and talk to me.”

Grundberg and the Ice Allies compiled a folder of more than two dozen cases, which they forwarded to NSF after removing identifying features and getting the survivors’ permission. At the same time, the woman who had come forward about her rape started to receive unfavorable performance reviews. Within weeks she was fired and flown home.

The Ice Allies held a Day of Silence at McMurdo Station in January to raise awareness of sexual assaults on the ice.Ice Allies

Those events compelled the Ice Allies to emerge from the shadows. In early 2020 they set up a table outside the dining room in the station’s main building to collect signatures on a petition urging NSF and the contractors to take sexual harassment more seriously. It asked for better training, a clear channel for reporting assaults, psychological support for survivors, and evidence that disciplinary actions had been taken when warranted. “It is inexcusable that such a forward-looking institution”—referring to NSF—has “fallen behind in taking such common-sense measures,” the petition concluded.

More than 200 people signed the petition. Grundberg also held several meetings with NSF’s head of Antarctic logistics, Stephanie Short, and another NSF staffer based at the station. Short says that flow of information led NSF to commission the LDSS report. “It was important to us not only to understand where the challenges were, but where we needed to focus resources to start to address any challenges,” she says.

Grundberg also kept her Leidos bosses in the loop. “I wanted them to know that [sexual harassment] is a rampant problem down here,” she says. “And I wanted them to explain what they were doing to address it.”

Grundberg says her barrage of emails and phone calls led superiors to decide she wasn’t a team player. On 28 July 2020 Leidos sent her a memo saying she was being terminated for “an inability to meet job expectations.”

Leidos declined comment. But Grundberg’s 
former colleagues say her dismissal was a huge loss. “She’s the best leader we ever had,” Zisman says. “She was beloved by everybody except her ASC bosses.”

In a memo to all employees immediately after NSF released the LDSS report, Leidos’s Michael Raabe, director of the ASC contract, cited the company’s “deep concern with the findings … and our commitment to ensuring all its [job] sites are a safe and welcoming place for employees.” The memo invited employees to avail themselves of “multiple reporting channels,” including Raabe himself, an anonymous Leidos hotline, and the human resources departments for all six subcontractors.

But many USAP employees say offering so many reporting paths has allowed the lead contractor and its subcontractors to ignore complaints or pass the buck and misreads a key finding in the report. “The report makes it clear that people don’t trust their human resource departments and those other entities,” Hood says. What’s needed, she and others say, is a single, independent point of contact. The LDSS report also suggests that NSF hire an ombudsperson to serve as a central resource for survivors of sexual assaults.

Who actually investigates sexual assault—and how—is murky. NSF’s station manager at McMurdo, with overall authority for the sprawling research station that houses more than 1000 scientists, support staff, and military personnel during its peak summer season, is also a U.S. marshal and must report any criminal activity. But many survivors don’t want to take that route, says Jessica Mindlin, a lawyer with the Victim Rights Law Center and a member of the LDSS team that wrote the report. And the U.S. military, which provides logistical support for USAP operations, has its own system for handling complaints involving service members.

A board of senior managers in NSF’s Office of Polar Programs oversees adherence to its polar code of conduct, which covers a range of behaviors that includes sexual assault. But the body, called the Code of Conduct Review Board, operates in near-total secrecy; none of the USAP employees interviewed for this story, for example, even knew it existed. Mindlin adds that the review board “does not have authority to take action, and it is not an investigative body.” The LDSS report notes that the board relies on information submitted by contractors, which “contains scant (if any) references to sexual assaults.” When such an incident is reported, it adds, the materials submitted “do not convey a full and accurate picture of what occurred.”

“We comply with contractual reporting requirements and inform the NSF of Polar Code Conduct violations on both a quarterly and annual basis,” a Leidos spokesperson says. “We report serious incidents to the NSF as they occur. The NSF determines whether additional reporting is warranted.”

The LDSS report asked USAP employees how they thought contractors and NSF have handled reports of sexual harassment and assault, but it did not try to quantify their number, frequency, or nature. NSF hopes to get those answers from a survey to be carried out later this year.

“Our goal will be to collect data that can inform policymakers, improve response, and also strengthen prevention efforts,” says sociologist Jane Stapleton, president of Soteria Solutions, the company that will conduct the survey for the LDSS team. “Organizations hire us because they really want to change the culture, not simply check a box,” says Stapleton, who recently conducted a similar survey for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which operates ships and several remote research sites that Stapleton says mirror the environment in Antarctica.

Current and former USAP employees say they want to believe NSF is committed to making things better. “The NSF has certainly been accused of complicity and sweeping incidents under the rug,” says one current employee who requested anonymity because of her involvement in Ice Allies. “But the fact that they commissioned the report and are pursuing this survey indicates that they’re embracing accountability and seeking a path to positive change.”

“The problem,” the advocate continued, “is that, to this point, they’ve outsourced the mission to private companies who have a vested interest in silencing us. Our fear is that these entities will pay lip service to culture change, implement a new training program, and do nothing substantial to make real culture change.”

Others share that fear. For example, Hood and others were outraged when, on 31 August, Raabe got a new deputy—the same person who became Grundberg’s supervisor in the spring of 2020 and who immediately began to question her performance. “We had hoped that heads would roll” after the report, Hood says. “Instead, it looks like more of the same.”

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