Investigators travel to McMurdo Station Antarctica over sexual assault claims

Investigators will travel to American research stations in Antarctica in response to longtime allegations of sexual misconduct there – described as a “pervasive problem”.

Agents from the watchdog office that oversees the National Science Foundation (NSF) are expected to arrive at the continent’s largest research hub, McMurdo Station, on Monday.

The trip comes more than a year after a damning NSF report that exposed a culture of sexual harassment and assault within the US Antarctic Program – one victims said was allowed to flourish because of the station’s isolated environment and macho culture.

Findings, based on surveys of 880 current and recent employees at McMurdo as well as the South Pole Station, Palmer Station and other US research vessels in Antarctica, showed 59 per cent of women had a negative experience with sexual harassment or assault during the program. Ninety-five per cent of respondents, meanwhile, said they knew of someone who had been assaulted or harassed within the program.

“Every woman I knew down there had an assault or harassment experience that had occurred on ice,” one interviewee told the report’s authors.

Another woman called the experiences “a fact of life” in Antarctica.

An Associated Press investigation, published in August, shed further light on the situation. It uncovered a pattern of women at McMurdo Station who said their claims of harassment or assault were minimised by their employers, often leading to them or others being put in further danger.

One woman who reported she’d been groped by a male colleague was then made to work alongside him.

Another, who told her employer she was sexually assaulted, was later fired; while a third woman said that her rape allegations against a colleague were downgraded by management to harassment.

Mechanic Liz Monahon told the publication she kept a hammer with her at all times – either looped into her overalls, or tucked into her sports bra – to protect herself from the man she feared would kill her after months of harassment.

“If he came anywhere near me, I was going to start swinging at him,” the 35-year-old said of the man who aggressively harassed her for months.

“I decided that I was going to survive … No one was there to save me but me. And that was the thing that was so terrifying.”

In addition to the arrival of investigators, the NSF announced on Friday it was furthering its own efforts to address the issue by appointing a special assistant to the NSF director to focus specifically on the prevention of and response to sexual harassment and assault.

NSF director Sethuraman Panchanathan said he was delighted to welcome Renee Ferranti, who has over more than 25 years of experience in sexual assault prevention.

“Addressing this pervasive problem remains a top priority for me and the agency, and with Renee’s expertise we will continue to adapt and further accelerate our efforts to address the evolving landscape of sexual assault prevention and response,” Mr Panchanathan said in a statement.

Ms Ferranti said she hoped “to make a meaningful impact to advance NSF’s progress in addressing sexual violence”.

Originally published as ‘Pervasive problem’: Investigators travel to Antarctica over sexual assault accusations