Women Say Culture Is Toxic at Antarctica Post

AP conducts a lengthy investigation of sexual harassment, assault at a very remote outpost
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Aug 28, 2023 4:45 PM CDT
In Antarctica's Toxic Culture, Women Left to Fend for Selves
Liz Monahon takes a selfie on McMurdo ice shelf in Nov. 2021. The AP found a pattern of women working in Antarctica who said their claims of sexual harassment or assault had been minimized by their employers.   (Liz Monahon via AP)

The howling winds and perpetual darkness of the Antarctic winter were easing when mechanic Liz Monahon at McMurdo Station grabbed a hammer. If those in charge weren't going to protect her from the man she feared would kill her, she figured she needed to protect herself. So she kept the hammer with her at all times, either looped into her Carhartt overalls or tucked into her sports bra. "If he came anywhere near me, I was going to start swinging," Monahon says. "I decided that I was going to survive." Monahon, 35, is one of many women who say the isolated environment and macho culture at the US research center in Antarctica have allowed sexual harassment and assault to flourish. The National Science Foundation, which oversees the US Antarctic Program, published a report in 2022 in which 59% of women said they'd experienced harassment or assault, and 72% of women said such behavior was a problem in Antarctica.

But the problem goes beyond the harassment: 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. Kathleen Naeher, the COO of the civil group at Leidos, told a congressional committee in December that they 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. Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Calif., said the proposed fixes left him flabbergasted. "This should have been done before we sent anyone down to Antarctica," he said.

The NSF report triggered a Congressional investigation. In a written response to Congress contradicted by its own emails, Leidos, the prime contractor, said it received "zero allegations" of sexual assault in Antarctica during the five years ending April 2022. The AP notes that there are typically 200-300 people at McMurdo during the winter and more than 1,000 in the summer; typically 70% are men. Law enforcement falls to a single deputy US Marshal. Among the cases reviewed by the AP:

  • A woman reported a colleague had groped her was made to work alongside him again.
  • A woman who told her employer she was sexually assaulted was later fired. She has since settled a wrongful termination claim.
  • Another woman said that bosses at the base downgraded her allegations from rape to harassment.

story continues below

Monahon met New Zealander Zak Buckingham in 2021; he eventually became so openly threatening that a bartender at one of McMurdo's two bars called the station's 911 number. Monahon's supervisor sent her on a dangerous eight-day resupply mission to get her off base and away from Buckingham. "To protect her, they put her in a dangerous situation," says one official. Monahon and all but one of the workers quoted in this story are speaking publicly for the first time. Trapped in one of the most remote spots on Earth, the women say they were largely forced to fend for themselves. Monahon was determined to keep working at Antarctica and returned in 2022, but has decided to skip this season. "It's that mentality of don't let them win," she says. "But I do think they are winning right now." Click for the full story. (More Antarctica stories.)

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