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Sexual harassment plagues Antarctic research

The U.S. 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 external firm, the report also found that those working in Antarctica largely don’t trust their employers to take harassment complaints seriously, to protect victims, or to punish perpetrators—and that some groups are less aware of the issue 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 covered people who had worked in Antarctica in the previous 3 years, including scientists as well as support staff such as cooks and janitors, and military personnel. The numbers were 48% for men and just 40% among leadership, regardless of gender. Attitudes about how complaints are handled showed a similar gender divide. For example, 46% of men thought offenders were held accountable, whereas only 26% of women did.

The report—which is based on interviews and focus groups as well as anonymous survey responses—doesn’t attempt to quantify the extent of the sexual misconduct in the program, but it offers some stark anecdotal accounts. “Every woman I knew down there had an assault or harassment experience,” one interviewee is quoted as saying. “I can’t in good conscience encourage more women to come down here as it is right now,” said another. The report identifies McMurdo, a sprawling research station that houses more than 1000 people during its summer peak, as the epicenter but notes that problems with sexual harassment were identified everywhere the U.S. Antarctic research program operates, including the Amundsen–Scott South Pole and Palmer research stations, research vessels, and remote field sites.

“We are still working to try to understand how we got to this point, and how we move forward,” Roberta Marinelli, who leads NSF’s Office of Polar Programs, said in an interview with Science. In a statement accompanying the report’s release, NSF said the report “presents serious concerns.”

“The report is more shocking than I expected,” says Helen Fricker, a professor at the University of San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography who studies the Antarctic ice sheet. She went to the continent herself earlier in her career and has sent students there more recently. She’s heard some “pretty awful stories” from colleagues who have worked in Antarctica, such as geophysicist Jane Willenbring, who was bullied and sexually harassed by her graduate adviser while working at a remote field site starting in 1999. (Science reported on her experience in 2017.) But the report shows “it was definitely way, way more pervasive than I thought,” Fricker says. “Some of the stuff that these people have experienced is criminal. … I mean, literally, people talked about being raped.”

The report also raises concerns about enforcement. “Many of the community members we spoke with feel deeply betrayed by what they experience as a failure to hold offenders accountable and anemic efforts to prevent or appropriately respond to sexual assault and harassment,” the report states.

In 2013, NSF instituted 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 can include removal from Antarctica. But decisions about whether to punish harassers are left to the patchwork of educational institutions, companies, and federal agencies that oversee workers in Antarctica, many of whom aren’t trusted to thoroughly investigate complaints.

“I’ve seen numerous instances where HR has gotten a report and the person behaving inappropriately has received seemingly no repercussions,” one person is quoted as saying in the report. “What do you do if you have a harassment case that doesn’t come from your own institution?” a scientist asked. “NSF needs to develop a mechanism that addresses those situations.” Others noted that it isn’t realistic to leave investigation and enforcement to an educational institution’s Title IX office that is “14,000 miles away,” one said.

NSF is promising change. Marinelli said that in the wake of the report, the agency sees “several things that we have to work on simultaneously: We want a prevention-oriented environment; we want people who have had a negative experience to feel comfortable reporting; we want that reporting to be effective; we want a disciplinary action taken if it’s warranted; we want to be fair to everyone who’s on the ice.”

For now, says Willenbring, an associate professor at Stanford University, “it’s really disappointing.” When the story about her experience broke amid the #MeToo movement, she was hopeful NSF would make changes to protect vulnerable people working in Antarctica. The agency did institute a policy stating “they could take sexual harassment determinations from universities’ Title IX offices into account when making funding decisions,” Willenbring says. But she’s seen little progress since then, despite listening sessions that made clear how big a problem sexual harassment and assault were in Antarctica. “Who are these people that are so clueless that had not been listening to people over the last 5 years?”

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