Takeaways from AP’s investigation into sexual harassment and assault at Antarctica’s McMurdo Station

by Madison Thomas
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Key Findings from AP’s Inquiry into Sexual Harassment and Assault at McMurdo Station in Antarctica

Numerous female employees stationed at McMurdo Station, the principal research facility for the United States in Antarctica, have come forward to shed light on a distressing reality: the secluded setting and a prevailing culture of masculinity have created an environment conducive to the proliferation of sexual harassment and assault.

In 2022, the National Science Foundation, the body overseeing the U.S. Antarctic Program, released a report that divulged unsettling statistics: a staggering 59% of women reported instances of harassment or assault while stationed on the frigid ice. Yet, as The Big Big News has unearthed, the issue is far more intricate than the incidents of harassment themselves. Extensive analysis of court records, internal correspondence, and interviews with over a dozen present and former personnel conducted by AP unveiled a recurring pattern. Many women revealed that their complaints of harassment or assault were trivialized by their employers, a disregard that often resulted in heightened risk and peril for the victims or other individuals.

For the first time, a number of Antarctic workers have publicly recounted their harrowing experiences to the AP. Among them, mechanic Liz Monahon recounted a chilling incident from 2021 in which a male coworker at the base made threats against her. However, Monahon found little protection from her employers and resorted to carrying a hammer at all times. Her rationale was stark: should he approach her, she would be prepared to defend herself. Subsequent investigation revealed the man had a criminal history in New Zealand and had previously violated a protection order. Faced with this danger, the workers collectively took action, ensuring Monahon’s safety by deploying her on a mission over the sea ice. In due course, the individual departed Antarctica.

In an official interview, a representative from human resources disclosed to Monahon that problems rooted in the base’s drinking culture had been ongoing for years, underscoring a systemic concern.

Monahon’s case, distressingly, was not an isolated occurrence. In 2019, a female food worker confided in her superiors about a distressing incident of sexual assault involving a colleague. Astonishingly, two months after the disclosure, she found herself terminated from her position. Similarly disconcerting is another instance in which a woman who reported a senior colleague’s unwelcome advances was subsequently compelled to work alongside him.

Another deeply unsettling revelation pertains to a woman who disclosed being raped; however, the incident was erroneously categorized by her employer as mere harassment.

In response to these revelations, the National Science Foundation conveyed improvements to Antarctica’s safety measures in the preceding year. This included a mandate for the prime contractor, Leidos, to promptly report instances of sexual harassment and assault. Furthermore, the NSF established an office dedicated to handling such grievances, introduced a confidential advocate for victims, and initiated a 24-hour helpline.

Leidos, the prime contractor, testified before Congress in December and committed to installing peepholes in dorm room doors, restricting access to master keys, and equipping field teams with additional satellite phones to bolster security.

Regrettably, the torrent of allegations did not abate following the NSF’s report. Five months subsequent to its release, another female worker stationed at McMurdo came forward, asserting she had been assaulted by a male colleague. This case is scheduled for a trial in November.

Monahon ardently hopes that by sharing her own ordeal, it will catalyze a sense of heightened accountability among contractors operating in Antarctica, thereby shaping a more secure and respectful future for all those engaged in this challenging environment.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about misconduct

What is the main focus of the AP investigation?

The main focus of the AP investigation is to uncover and shed light on the prevalent issue of sexual harassment and assault at McMurdo Station, the primary U.S. research facility in Antarctica.

What did the National Science Foundation’s report reveal?

The National Science Foundation’s report disclosed that 59% of women at McMurdo Station reported experiencing harassment or assault, highlighting the severity of the problem.

How does the AP investigation go beyond the statistics?

The AP investigation delves beyond the statistics by analyzing court records, internal communications, and interviewing current and former employees to reveal a pattern of minimization of harassment claims, leading to increased danger for victims.

Can you provide an example of the unsafe environment mentioned?

Mechanic Liz Monahon’s case illustrates the unsafe environment. She was threatened by a male colleague, and when her employer offered little protection, she carried a hammer for self-defense. The man had a criminal history and breached a protection order.

How did workers address safety concerns?

In the case of Liz Monahon, workers took matters into their own hands by sending her away from the base on a mission over the sea ice to ensure her safety. This collective effort mitigated the threat posed by the individual.

How were harassment complaints handled by employers?

Many women reported that their harassment complaints were minimized by employers, often leading to victims being put in further danger. Instances included firing victims who reported assault and requiring victims to work alongside their harassers.

What measures were taken to address the issue?

The National Science Foundation implemented safety improvements, including requiring prompt reporting of incidents, establishing a dedicated office for complaints, providing a confidential advocate, and creating a 24-hour helpline.

Did the misconduct persist despite these measures?

Yes, the misconduct persisted even after the National Science Foundation’s report. Five months later, another female worker reported assault by a male colleague. The case is scheduled for trial in November.

What does Liz Monahon hope to achieve by sharing her story?

Liz Monahon hopes that her story will prompt increased accountability among contractors in Antarctica, leading to a safer and more respectful environment for all workers.

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