CHRISTCHURCH – Many women who work at McMurdo Station, the main United States research base in Antarctica, say the isolated environment and macho culture have allowed sexual harassment and assault to flourish.
The National Science Foundation, which oversees the U.S. Antarctic Program, published a report in 2022 in which 59% of women said they’d experienced harassment or assault while on the ice.
But the problem goes beyond the harassment itself, The Associated Press found. In reviewing court records and internal communications, and in interviews with more than a dozen current and former employees, the AP uncovered a pattern of women who said their claims of harassment or assault were minimized by their employers, often leading to them or others being put in further danger.
Several Antarctic workers spoke publicly about their experiences to the AP for the first time.
GRABBING A HAMMER
Mechanic Liz Monahon told the AP a man at the base threatened her in 2021, but her employers did little to protect her. So she grabbed a hammer and kept it on her at all times.
“If he came anywhere near me, I was going to start swinging at him,” Monahon said. “I decided that I was going to survive.”
It turns out the man had a criminal record in New Zealand and had breached a protection order before he’d deployed, a judge later found. Workers said they took matters into their own hands and kept Monahon safe by sending her away from the base on a mission over the sea ice. The man later left Antarctica.
In a recorded interview, a human resources representative told Monahon that problems with the base’s drinking culture had been going on for years.
A PATTERN OF PROBLEMS
Monahon’s case wasn’t an anomaly. A food worker in 2019 told her bosses she’d been sexually assaulted by a coworker. Two months later, the woman was fired.
In another case, a woman who reported that a man in a senior role had groped her said she was made to work alongside him again.
Another woman said she was raped, but the incident was later misclassified by the man's employers as merely harassment.
The NSF said it improved safety in Antarctica last year. It now requires Leidos, the prime contractor, to immediately report incidents of sexual assault and harassment. The NSF said it also created an office to deal with such complaints, provided a confidential victim’s advocate, and established a 24-hour helpline.
Leidos told Congress in December it would install peepholes on dorm room doors, limit access to master keys that could open multiple bedrooms, and give teams in the field an extra satellite phone.
But the complaints of violence did not stop with the NSF report. Five months after its release, a woman at McMurdo said she’d been assaulted by a male colleague. His trial is scheduled for November.
Monahon said she hopes her story prompts contractors in Antarctica to face more accountability in the future.