In Antarctica, Sexual Misconduct Is a 'Fact of Life'

National Science Foundation report: Sexual assault, harassment ongoing at US research bases
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 2, 2022 8:34 AM CDT
Updated Sep 4, 2022 12:55 PM CDT
In Antarctica, Sexual Misconduct Is a 'Fact of Life'
Stock photo of a research station in Antarctica.   (Getty Images/Leamus)

Sexual misconduct is alive and well on all seven continents. That's one takeaway from a new report commissioned by the National Science Foundation that concentrates on such accounts coming in from the bottom of the Earth. It identified an "ongoing, continuing" issue of "sexual harassment, stalking, and sexual assault" in the US Antarctic Program community, per a release. NPR reports the nearly 300-page report resulted from a survey of nearly 900 current and former employees with the USAP, in addition to dozens of interviews. Nearly three-quarters of the women surveyed said sexual harassment in Antarctica is a problem, while almost 50% said sexual assault is.

As one female respondent put it, sexual assault and sexual harassment "are a fact of life" on the icy continent, "just like the fact that Antarctica is cold and the wind blows." Another said single women are made to feel like "prey." The remoteness of the research bases makes dealing with such allegations especially challenging. Other issues include fear of being blacklisted for making allegations, and a network of varying HR rules depending on what contractor or institution one works for. The report, commissioned in April 2021, finds that trust that USAP leaders will make inroads on these matters is "low," and that solutions such as training and easily accessible reporting mechanisms are "lacking," per the release.

The NSF (the overseer of all of the United States' Antarctic operations) says it's already started taking steps to improve communication and education, including by enhancing its screening processes, and by hosting special "listening sessions" led by experts on sexual harassment that will guide future improvements. "We will emphasize creation of a positive culture in which harassment and assault are considered completely unacceptable," the release notes.

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This isn't the first time that rumblings of sexual misconduct have filtered up from the southernmost part of the planet. In 2017, multiple women accused Boston University geologist David Marchant of verbally, physically, and sexually abusing them while they were conducting Antarctic fieldwork under his supervision. Meanwhile, 2020 research out of the University of Tasmania delved more closely into sexual harassment and relations between the sexes in "remote, historically masculine" Antarctica. Dr. Roberta Marinelli, the director of the NSF's Office of Polar Programs, tells NPR these most recent findings are "disappointing" but not surprising. (More Antarctica stories.)

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