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NSF Confronts Entrenched Harassment at Antarctic Facilities

OCT 18, 2022
The National Science Foundation is taking steps to address sexual assault and harassment at the Antarctic research facilities it supports, including launching a new office to support victims. The problem was the subject of an expansive report the agency released to the public in August.
Andrea Peterson
Senior Data Analyst

Two figures in silhouette during sunset in Antarctica

Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station (Image credit – Brien Barnett / NSF)

Responding to a report documenting widespread sexual harassment and assault at Antarctic research facilities, the National Science Foundation is launching a new office dedicated to supporting victims and ramping up harassment prevention efforts, the agency announced last month.

The National Science Board, which oversees NSF, issued its own statement on Oct. 3 pledging immediate action. “We stand with all victims and condemn these actions in the strongest possible terms. The board will not tolerate hostile and unsafe STEM work environments,” it read. “We are, in partnership with the NSF director, committed to addressing this immediately, forcefully, and transparently, and to ensuring that the USAP is open to all without fear of any forms of harassment or assault.”

The NSF-led U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) commissioned the report in April 2021 to assess the prevalence of harassment and assault within the program and recommend response and prevention strategies. The final report was delivered in June of this year and NSF released it to the public in August.

In addition to finding harassment and assault are common, the report indicates there is disillusionment with authorities’ ability to address the matter, with many community members feeling “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.”

Report details personnel experiences

USAP manages all scientific research and related logistics in Antarctica, overseeing three permanent stations as well as temporary field sites and research vessels. During the Antarctic summer, the program hosts over 1,600 participants across all sites, who live and work in close quarters for weeks or months at a time. Of these, contractor personnel supporting facility operations and logistics make up two-thirds of program participants, and almost 90% during the winter. In the summer, the remaining population is split about evenly between researchers and personnel from the military and other federal agencies.

About a third of all program participants are women, and for years there have been reports of sexual harassment at stations and field sites. To gain a more systematic view, the study team interviewed 16 individuals and 11 focus groups organized around demographic groups and work roles. They also collected input from 880 respondents to an online survey that was sent to over 3,600 people who had recently worked in Antarctica.

Many women told the team that unwelcome behavior was common, describing incidents ranging from sexually explicit conversations and sexual advances to stalking and sexual assault. One USAP participant remarked, “It’s just a known fact around station. It’s so self-evident that [it’s] barely worth speaking out loud. [Sexual assault and sexual harassment] are a fact of life [here], just like the fact that Antarctica is cold and the wind blows.”

Among women who participated in focus groups for the study, 59% had personally been subject to or witnessed sexual assault or harassment, and 95% knew someone who had experienced it. Some men also reported experiencing harassment. Among women who responded to the survey, 72% agreed or strongly agreed that sexual harassment is a problem within USAP, while 47% said the same of sexual assault. Men and senior personnel were less likely to be aware of sexual harassment and assault within the program, with only 48% of men and 40% of senior personnel agreeing harassment is a problem.

Several people called out McMurdo Station as an especially dangerous location, with one interviewee describing it as a “training ground for bad behavior,” noting that it “sets the tone” as the largest of the three permanent stations.

While many women perceived harassment as a well-known threat, some focus group participants were “amazed” by the stories shared by their peers and claimed they were unaware of the extent and severity of such occurrences. A younger male participant remarked, “Even for people who do have the privilege of being in a position to step in, [such as] older men who [could] see these things happening and who aren’t doing gross things to women — they don’t notice.” Another participant speculated that individuals with power don’t intervene because they “don’t want to be the one person who is calling people out.”

Study participants indicated harassment often went unreported and some said victims were “actively discouraged” from reporting incidents to supervisors or contractors’ human resources departments. Many believed that retaliation against victims was commonplace and that perpetrators rarely faced consequences.

“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.’ … I saw this happen, people who stood up and reported that something had occurred and then they were fired and sent off ice,” one respondent stated. Women employed by contractors for service roles were perceived as especially vulnerable to retaliation.

Institutions seen as unresponsive

Since 2018, NSF has been reinforcing efforts to combat harassment in research environments, instituting new requirements for grantees and contractors and establishing online reporting portals. Many of these requirements apply to the agency’s Antarctic facilities, and the NSF’s Polar Code of Conduct, which is signed by all USAP participants, explicitly prohibits “harassment, stalking, bullying, or hazing of any kind.”

Even so, the report finds NSF has been unable to effectively monitor and respond to harassment within USAP for a “variety of historical, institutional, and structural reasons.” Quoting NSF officials who participated in the study, it notes there is a perception the agency only has the authority to terminate grants or remove personnel from Antarctica, but cannot order contractors, the military, or other institutions to discipline or fire people.

One senior interviewee remarked, “[I believe] NSF needs to change its policy. We are setting in motion where we have predatory behavior being encouraged because NSF cannot say, ‘We are not going to allow this.’ … As a federal bureaucracy it’s super easy for us to pass the buck.”

The Antarctic program’s complex structure also leaves victims without a clear sense of how to access support or who can hold offenders accountable. The report also states researchers often doubt their home institutions can understand their situation or intervene on their behalf from “14,000 miles away,” as one victim put it.

Others, particularly those in marginalized groups or workers in lower-status positions, simply do not trust that their organizations’ leaders are interested in keeping them safe.

Some respondents reflected that sexual harassment and assault are not actually treated as “safety” issues, which are taken very seriously, with routine training and violations subject to immediate discipline. By contrast, personnel viewed the training they received on sexual harassment as ineffective and alienating.

“I was horrified at some of the comments made by the presenter at orientation as I felt she was really minimizing women’s experiences and feelings,” one program participant said. Another remarked, “The training implies some people are just sensitive. It doesn’t get at what really happens. And what we can do about it.”

Women in Antarctica have been advocating for improved conditions. In 2019, a grassroots organization known as the “Ice Allies” formed to support survivors and push NSF and contractors to take sexual harassment more seriously. Some participants in the USAP study said they hoped it would spur a reckoning.

“We’ve kind of been screaming for change for a long time, and this … felt like a real way that things could actually change because all of us really love that community, and it kind of feels like a lot of times ‘if you don’t like it just don’t work here,’ but it’s our community and it’s our livelihood and it means so much to us that I would like to see it change,” one interviewee remarked.

NSF vows continued action

The report offers guidance on how NSF can improve its harassment prevention and response efforts, laying out steps that include community engagement, building capacity for trauma-informed victim support services, and developing a comprehensive anti-harassment training program.

In its response, NSF states it is launching a Sexual Assault/Harassment Prevention and Response program as a single point for reporting all incidents of harassment. The program will be managed by the NSF director’s office with a point person in Antarctica.

In the coming months, senior NSF officials and NSB members also plan to travel to Antarctica, where they will conduct town hall sessions at the McMurdo and South Pole stations and oversee the establishment of the harassment prevention office. The agency is also planning updated training that will include bystander and intervention training, instructions on how to report incidents and obtain support, and information specific to remote field sites.

NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan stated , “These are only the first of many actions I will take over the coming days, weeks, and months to ensure all USAP deployers are safe. I am personally committed to ensuring that all USAP stations, field sites, and NSF-funded science and education programs at all locations are free from harassment and sexual assault.”

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