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Sexual harassment and assault during fieldwork

Reports find that attacks on women are a serious problem at scientific stations in Antarctica, while workshops advise on how to better plan expeditions to prevent assaults

Francesco Carta / Getty Images

Sexual harassment and assault are chronic and persistent threats to women working at research stations in Antarctica, according to two reports released in the USA and Australia. The National Science Foundation (NSF)—the USA’s leading basic research-funding agency—announced the results of a survey that involved interviews and focus group discussions, as well as questions answered online by scientists and support staff who worked at the country’s research stations on the frozen continent from 2018 to 2020. In the poll, 72% of women cited sexual harassment as a problem in the community, compared to 48% of men. Regarding sexual assault, the rates were 47% for women and 33% for men. The report includes quotes from the statements given by respondents, without revealing their names. “Every woman I knew down there had an assault or harassment experience,” said one.

In 2013, a code of conduct was instituted at US stations that expressly prohibits physical and verbal abuse, bullying, hazing, and intimidation. But the perception is that the rules are not always enforced: only 26% of women and 46% of men said that offenders are held accountable. Most complaints were registered at the McMurdo Station, which receives 1,000 researchers in the summer. “The report is more shocking than I expected,” Helen Fricker of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, who has been to the region several times, told Science. “I mean, literally, people talked about being raped.” Roberta Marinelli, head of the NSF’s Office of Polar Programs, told Science the agency was surprised: “We are still working to try to understand how we got to this point and how we move forward.”

Another survey, commissioned by the Australian Antarctic Division and released in October, reached converging conclusions. Produced by sociologist Meredith Nash of the Australian National University, the 32-page document contains reports of sexual harassment, unwanted physical contact, sharing of offensive or pornographic material, sexist jokes, and more at the country’s four research stations. It also highlights problems experienced by women during their periods, such as a lack of privacy and poor distribution of sanitary pads. In a statement, David Fredericks, secretary of Australia’s Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water, described the report’s findings as “disappointing and unacceptable” and said that some of Nash’s recommendations were now being implemented, such as increasing the number of women working at the stations.

The complaints from Antarctica follow a familiar pattern for episodes of sexual harassment and assault on scientific expeditions in remote locations, where scientists and students spend 24 hours a day together and the boundaries between work and personal life often become blurred. In 2016, American paleoanthropologist Brian Richmond resigned from his position as curator of the Human Origins section of the American Museum of Natural History in New York after being accused of attacking a student at a hotel in Florence and allegations of inappropriate behavior during fieldwork in Kenya (see Pesquisa FAPESP issue no. 251). In 2021, a BuzzFeed article recounted the testimonies of 16 women who worked at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute on Barro Colorado Island, Panama, a laboratory in the middle of the jungle where more than a thousand people carry out studies on climate change, biodiversity, and evolution. The reports, which detailed sexual harassment by scientists in senior leadership positions, included names such as evolutionary biologist Egbert Leigh and ecologist Edward Herre. Benjamin Turner, former head of the institute’s geochemistry lab, was accused of rape in 2011 by Sarah Batterman, now at the University of Leeds, UK. Turner told BuzzFeed that all the relationships he had with colleagues were consensual.

In an effort to curb sexual harassment and assault, stricter behavioral standards for expeditions to remote locations and channels for reporting misconduct are being created. But there are suspicions that many cases are never reported. A 2014 study in the journal PLOS ONE by Kathryn Clancy, an anthropologist at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, USA, was based on online interviews with 666 students and researchers, mostly women, who took part in fieldwork in several areas. Almost half of the participants were anthropologists, but there were also archaeologists, biologists, geologists, and others. Of the 512 women involved, 70.5% responded that they had experienced sexual harassment. But only 67 respondents said they had reported it.

New approaches to tackling the problem are based on improved expedition planning to prevent situations of vulnerability and training on how to deal with possible cases. “People have no clue what to do,” said marine ecologist Melissa Cronin, director of Building a Better Fieldwork Future (BBFF), an initiative that offers workshops and training on the topic, in an interview with Undark magazine. “The goal of our training is to empower participants to create a positive environment in their field settings.” Since 2018, BBFF has carried out more than 300 training sessions involving some 5,000 people. The workshops last 90 minutes and emphasize the importance of properly organizing expeditions and discussing co-living rules in advance. The topics covered range from logistical issues, such as how dormitories or tents are organized to avoid making anyone vulnerable at night, to establishing communication protocols to encourage people to watch out for one another and ask for help if they need it. Other recommendations include the adoption of rules related to privacy and to the use of alcohol and drugs.

The workshop presents a list of situations that could lead to sexual harassment or assault, encouraging discussions on how to prevent or react to them. In one concrete example, participants are invited to reflect on what to do if someone drinks too much at a party on a research ship, loses consciousness, and is then privately helped by a person with whom they are not friendly or familiar. In another, they are asked to imagine a researcher on an expedition to a remote location comes to them crying at night, claiming to have been raped by the group’s leader. While stressing the importance of preventive strategies, the workshops give recommendations on how to deal with critical situations, such as ensuring there is an emergency protocol for helping rape victims and preserving evidence for a criminal investigation.