A woman has to be brave to work at a remote research station

I wonder if NSF regrets making their logo so prominent in these photos of the McMurdo research station in Antarctica. I can see where there is some pride.

Antarctica’s ancient ice sheet and remoteness make it ideal for scientists studying everything from the earliest moments of the universe to changes in the planet’s climate.

The population at McMurdo, the hub of US operations, usually swells from 200-300 in the southern winter to over 1,000 in the summer. Typically, around 70 per cent are men.

Funded and overseen by the NSF, the US Antarctic Programme is run by a tangle of contractors and subcontractors, with billions of dollars at stake. Since 2017, Leidos has held the main contract, now worth over $200 million per year. Subcontractor PAE, which employs many of the base’s workers, was bought last year by the government services giant Amentum.

Money, isolation, lots of men, it does look like an opportunity for research, but you’d think someone would recognize that it’s also an opportunity for men to behave badly, and that precautions would be taken to protect all the workers there. They weren’t.

The National Science Foundation, the federal agency that oversees the US Antarctic Programme, published a report in 2022 in which 59 per cent of women said they’d experienced harassment or assault while on the ice, and 72 per cent of women said such behaviour was a problem in Antarctica.

But the problem goes beyond the harassment, 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 minimised by their employers, often leading to them or others being put in further danger.

In one case, a woman who reported a colleague had groped her was made to work alongside him again. In another, a woman who told her employer she was sexually assaulted was later fired. Another woman said that bosses at the base downgraded her allegations from rape to harassment. The AP generally does not identify those who say they have been sexually assaulted unless they publicly identify themselves.

72%! That’s a rather significant number. You’d think that would be enough to prompt major changes in policy and enforcement. Nope. Instead, it encouraged denial.

Buckingham was hired by PAE. Amentum didn’t respond to questions from the AP. Leidos senior vice-president Melissa Lee Dueñas said it conducts background checks on all its employees.

“Our stance on sexual harassment or assault couldn’t be more clear: we have zero tolerance for such behavior,” Dueñas said in an email. “Each case is thoroughly investigated.”

Those are words that put me on edge: you’re saying “zero tolerance,” but when you’ve got a strong majority of women reporting harassment, that says you’re pretty tolerant. “Thoroughly investigated” sounds more like “thoroughly covered-up.”

I’ll spare you the many personal accounts of sexual abuse documented in the article. I’m most appalled by how the contractors who profit from McMurdo respond to the reports. Here’s how a woman, Liz Monahan, who was assaulted, was dealt with.

With her employers doing nothing to address her concerns, Monahon’s immediate boss and co-workers came up with their own plan, according to two employees familiar with the situation.

Monahon was told to pack her bags, and the next morning joined a group trying to navigate a safe route across the sea ice over eight days to resupply a tiny US outpost. The crossing is risky because the ice can crumble in the spring.

“To protect her, they put her in a dangerous situation,” said Wes Thurmann, a fire department supervisor who had worked in Antarctica every year since 2012.

But they all felt it was safer than her remaining at McMurdo.

It’s a pattern of neglect, denial, and protection of the abusers.

The woman told her bosses she’d been sexually assaulted by a coworker. Her performance was subsequently criticised by a supervisor, who was also the girlfriend of the accused man. Two months later, she was fired.

Many of the woman’s colleagues were outraged. Julie Grundberg, then the McMurdo area manager for Leidos, repeatedly emailed her concerns to her superiors in Denver.

“The fact that we haven’t come out with some sort of public statement is making the community trust our organisation even less,” Grundberg wrote.

Supervisor Ethan Norris replied: “We need your help to keep this calm and be a neutral party, as you have only one side of the story at this point.”

Wow. Leidos has been contracted by the NSF to manage the station since at least 2017; their contract expires in 2025. It’s part of the problem that their incompetence didn’t get them immediately terminated.

The deeper pattern here is that our scientific organizations are setting up remote research stations in places like Antarctica or the tropics while neglecting basic social obligations. They’re building cozy little cabins free of accountability that draw in rapists and abusers.


  1. birgerjohansson says

    Keeping people safe must be implicit in whatever goddamn contract they have. Terminate the contract pronto, and sue their asses.

  2. Allison says

    This reminds me of your stories about sexual harassment and assault of post-docs, grad students, etc., by senior faculty at universities, esp. famous universities, to the point that in fields where field work is a necessity, women are basically shut out.

    It’s the same old story. Women being treated as prey by the powers-that-be in the scientific/academic establishment.

    And of course it goes all the way down. It’s why the percentage of women in the technical (STEM) track, gets lower and lower the higher you look in the track, starting in high school or even middle school (teachers saying stuff like “girls can’t do math) and going on through tenure. Reminds me of the story about the medical school in Australia where women could not go through training in surgery unless they slept with (=allowed themselves to be fucked by) the senior faculty.

  3. Allison says

    numerobis @2

    NSF would have to care.

    But why would they? I’m sure the NSF is run by men, i.e., people who belong to and identify with the values of the predator class.

  4. anxionnat says

    This is not a new problem. I remember when I was a grad student in Ecology back in the late 80s/early 90s. I was told by other female grad students that it would be unsafe to do research at certain field stations. Note: this was other female grad students who warned incoming female grad students. Our faculty advisors said nothing to anybody, nor were the warnings conveyed to students outside Ecology. (I just realized how long ago that was! I’ve got no current information if that almost-40-year-old problem is still a problem–and still denied–today.)

  5. invivoMark says

    @Allison #2

    I’m sure the NSF is run by men

    Not really. Their National Science Board (their internal group that directs agency policy and strategy) currently has 10 women out of 26 members – a minority, but not by a lot.

    NSF has been talking about the problem for a while (it’s why they commissioned the report on sexual harassment), and they are definitely looking for real solutions, not a band-aid.

    The problem is they’re a bureaucracy, and they move at a glacial pace. They also have very limited bandwidth, because Congress doesn’t give them enough money to work on everything they want to. If issues like this matter, NSF is fairly receptive to input. You can reach out to their policy offices, or tell your member of Congress to get them to light a fire under them on your behalf.

  6. Artor says

    It seems like more than a few of the men at McMurdo need to be staked out on the ice overnight.

  7. Jazzlet says

    shermanj @9

    No, just no, women should not have to resort to violence to protect themselves, that is another form of assault, expecting women to engage in behaviours that they wouldn’t otherwise. I know some women would, as some men would, but one should not expect or demand it.

  8. says

    @10 Jazzlet said: women should not have to resort to violence to protect themselves,
    I reply: I totally agree. My statement was just meant to be a play on words. The ‘penal code’ of course, is the body of laws that should protect everyone. As I have often commented, I am so tired of violence being the preferred choice of action by so many.

  9. birgerjohansson says

    Necessary force in this case would range from “pepper spray” and “a big fat slap in the face” over to “inflicting the appropriate surgical procedure on the appropriate part of the offender”.

  10. Jazzlet says

    WMDKitty — Survivor @12
    I am not saying that women shouldn’t defend themselves, I am saying that for many of us resorting to any form of violence is not our natural initial response, and we don’t want it to be either. Putting us in a position where the choice is to be sexuallly assaulted or be violent to stop the person trying to sexually assault us is in itself an assult on us. I may not be explaining this well, but I don’t want to have to be violent to stop a sexual assault, I stopped using my fists to solve arguments when I was a child, I learnt to use my words, not just to scream at infuriating people; I don’t want to be forced back to that level of immaturity.

  11. Artor says

    I had to get violent with someone a few weeks ago. The last time I hit someone in anger I was 14. I almost made it 40 years without being in an altercation, and it was not fun to break that streak. It didn’t have to happen and I wish it hadn’t. There are certainly times when it is justified, but there is never a time when it is a good thing.

  12. rwiess says

    At least they got to go there. In the late 1960’s the Navy ran the research station on Fletcher’s Ice Island north of Alaska. My major professor had a research project there. The Navy did not allow women on the Island. None.