Report: Antarctic research bases are plagued by sexual harassment and assault A new report commissioned by the National Science Foundation finds a culture of silence and fear among employees at U.S.-run facilities in Antarctica.

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

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Unfortunately, there are no continents on the planet without sexual harassment, and that includes Antarctica. A new report reveals that sexual harassment and sexual assault are major problems at U.S. Antarctic facilities. The report was commissioned by the National Science Foundation, which runs the Antarctic program. The report found that nearly three-quarters of women working there felt sexual harassment was an issue. Nearly half were worried about sexual assaults. NPR's Joe Palca has been reading through the 273-page report, and he's here in the studio to tell us about it. Hey, Joe.


SHAPIRO: What are some of the revelations in the report?

PALCA: Well, one of the things that jumps out at you is how pervasive this problem seems to be. They quoted one of the people they interviewed as saying, every woman I know down there has had an assault or harassment experience that occurred on ice - on ice is what they call working down there. And this is a sentiment that they heard from many, many different people. The report also said that many people didn't trust the officials they were supposed to report to when they had a problem because they thought, A, there might be reprisals, or, B, they were thinking that these people were more interested in protecting the agencies than protecting the people.

SHAPIRO: Is there something about working in Antarctica that makes this more of a problem?

PALCA: Well, I've been to Antarctica, and it's very remote. And even though the internet has made it smaller, it's just not a place that you can walk down the street and see anybody. Much of the year, these spaces are totally inaccessible. The sun disappears for months in the winter. And that means the staff doesn't have anywhere to go or anyone to talk to. I spoke with Madeline Nash (ph). She's an associate dean at the Australian National University. She studies harassment in Australia's Antarctic program.

MEREDITH NASH: You're so isolated and so detached from the sort of normal roles in society that often it makes it sort of, for lack of a better word, it makes it easier to get away with inappropriate behavior that probably wouldn't be condoned, you know, back in normal life.

PALCA: So imagine if it's your supervisor doing the harassing. It's not like you can go down the hall and complain. That supervisor's supervisor might be thousands of miles away.

SHAPIRO: Has a problem like this been documented before?

PALCA: Well, Nash says many people who've worked in Antarctica know it's an ongoing issue.

NASH: Anecdotally, the information that's presented in this report is widely known, that women in particular suffer greatly, that sexual harassment is a significant problem.

PALCA: But what's unique about this report is that it puts some numbers behind the problem and shows it's really pervasive. And now, to be fair, Nash says it was NSF that commissioned the study, so they're aware there's a problem.

SHAPIRO: And now that it's out, what does the National Science Foundation have to say about it?

PALCA: Well, Roberta Marinelli is head of the Office of Polar Programs.

ROBERTA MARINELLI: It wasn't surprising to me to hear some of the stories that we heard. It's certainly disappointing.

PALCA: Marinelli says one of the things she thinks will improve the situation is to make it easier and less fraught for people to report incidents of harassment.

MARINELLI: But more important than that is we have to create an environment in which this kind of behavior just isn't tolerated.

SHAPIRO: Those sound like the right words, but is there the will to actually do something?

PALCA: Well, who can say for sure? There are some structural issues that make it difficult to make changes in the Antarctic. I mean, there's the military that transports people, their contractors, their scientists who have their own rules and institutions - the rules they have to live by. So coming up with a strategy that's going to be acceptable to everyone is going to be a challenge. But at the end of the day, this is NSF's responsibility.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Joe Palca. Thanks, Joe.

PALCA: You're welcome.

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