‘Gobsmacking’ report unveils ‘predatory’ Antarctic base culture

Mary-Anne Lea has gone on Antarctic expeditions for 30 years and has grown accustomed to working in environments of isolation and extremes.

But the marine predator ecology expert hopes it is about to become a more habitable place after a shocking review revealed reports of sexual harassment and a male-dominated culture at Australia’s antarctic base.

“There are lots of ripple effects around the world and across the Antarctic right now but not every ripple has arrived yet,” she told TND.

“A lot of the people who go to study in Antarctica or the Southern Ocean, whether they’re men or women, are greatly impassioned by the work that they do and so they are significantly motivated to work in these environments.

“They shouldn’t have to work under conditions that aren’t supportive, or even worse. The drive to work in these environments has meant that people, often women, have put up with situations that are often quite challenging, if not harming so much longer, for than they should.

“Organisational reviews such as this one, by Professor Meredith Nash, are really critical to shifting that culture.”

Professor Lea was one of three women in a research station of 100 people on a French sub-Antarctic island when she completed her PhD.

She was also part of a team of researchers blending Antarctic science with gender research to make a rigorous catalogue of the barriers to women scientists undertaking remote fieldwork published in 2019.

That in turn led to Australian Antarctic Division commissioning the workplace review whose findings about workplace culture shocked Australia on Friday.

But she hopes it brings an awareness of the barriers to safe workplaces for women in the Antarctic that are a problem in science more generally.

“I think [with] today’s report, one of the key elements that it uncovers is the importance of organisations driving safe cultures for all members of the workforce [and] so striving for inclusive and diverse cultures in their organisations, which helps to break down a lot of those barriers and, and improve systems.”

‘Blokey’ and ‘predatory’

The Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) has now pledged an overhaul of its workplace culture after an explosive report on Friday drew a line under “predatory” behaviour at the remote base.

The full report ran for 32 pages. But the department of Environment and Water, which oversees the AAD, only publicly released a seven page summary due to privacy concerns.

University of Tasmania Associate Professor Meredith Nash was tasked with the independent report, which involved interviews with dozens of current AAD employees over the course of 15 months.

Women who participated in the report described AAD’s culture as “blokey”, “predatory”, and homophobic.

They reported harassment, including unwelcome sexual advances, inappropriate jokes and gestures, and displays of offensive pornographic material.

The AAD had proudly embraced a gender equity approach just 12 months ago, with it since achieving a 50-50 split in men and women in the leadership program.

But the report says the AAD failed in accomodating its female workforce.

Many respondents described difficulty in having their voices heard in meetings – often “talked over, ignored, or treated with disrespect”.

Concerns about the drinking culture on stations also arose, according to the report. Guidelines for alcohol consumption had shifted to reflect some of these concerns, the report noted.

Professor Nash questioned the ethics of sending female workers to such remote environments when their safety cannot be assured.

“I think on some level, it is unethical for us to continue trying to encourage women to enter a male-dominated field if we are not confident that organisations can keep them safe,” she told the ABC.

Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek said on Friday that she was “gobsmacked” by the report.

“Let me be absolutely clear: there is no place for sexual harassment or inappropriate behaviour in any workplace,” she said in a statement.

“The Australian Antarctic Division is no exception. Our remote stations in Antarctica are no exception.”

Tip of the iceberg

The report also acknowledged faults in the current process for reporting sexual assault and misconduct, recommending a major overhaul of the AAD’s operations.

In the case that sexual harassment did occur, the report found the AAD’s reporting process to be largely inadequate.

It found that women would often withhold making a complaint out of fear of losing their positions or being stigmatised.

And even in the case that a person made a complaint, due to the intensely remote environment, the victim would be stuck working alongside their alleged assaulter for months on end.

“Or, because of the power dynamics, they are not in a position to make a complaint or get support immediately as they would do back home,” she told the ABC.

In a statement to TND, head of the AAD Kim Ellis acknowledged that the findings in Professor Nash’s report were likely merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

“It doesn’t matter how many people may have experienced this behaviour – we know that under-reporting is almost certainly a factor – the fact that anyone at all experiences this treatment is not OK,” he said.

Hygiene complaints

Concerns about women’s reproductive health were also highlighted in the report, with many workers going to “great lengths” to conceal their menstruation.

While sanitary products were available in AAD locations, they often had to be obtained via a gatekeeper, using a voucher-by-request system. The lack of availability also meant that women were made to “improvise” menstrual products when none were available.

Inadequate facilities and infrequent toilet stops meant women were often unable to change menstrual products without sufficient privacy or adequate sanitation.

This meant many kept tampons in their bodies longer than recommended, putting themselves at risk of developing toxic shock syndrome.

AAD  orders internal review

Professor Nash made 40 recommendations for the AAD, which encompasses concerns for culture, recruitment, infrastructure and sexual harassment prevention.

The AAD, which maintains three permanently staffed stations in Antarctica, stated it will implement all 40 of Professor Nash’s recommendations.

David Fredericks, the secretary of the Climate Change, Energy, Environment and Water Department, had already ordered another internal review.

The review, which will be handed down on December 12, will provide an assessment on the AAD’s culture, provide advice on best practices, and assist with its sexual assault reporting system.

The release of Professor Nash’s report comes one month after a similar report was published in the US, which shed light on issues within its own Antarctic program.

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