A recently released report has unveiled widespread sexual harassment and sexist discrimination in Australian Antarctic stations. The report included allegations by women on expeditions of unwanted physical contact, displays of pornographic material, and a lack of adequate menstruation provisions.
Senior adviser to the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD), Associate Professor Meredith Nash, led the inquest. Dr Nash is the Associate Dean at the Australian National University. Her investigations uncovered reports by women at Australia’s bases of unwelcome requests for sex, displays of offensive material, uninvited physical contact, sexist jokes and homophobia.
Dr Nash said she was concerned that women “have to work in the field with their abusers for weeks at a time because they simply can’t leave.”
Women forced “to make their menstruation invisible”
Another concerning finding of the report was the stressful and inadequate circumstances through which menstruating women have to go through. Interviewees reported feeling pressure to hide menstruation to be seen as professional.
Women had to change period products without privacy or adequate sanitation, carry used products in the field, improvise products due to a lack of fresh supplies, and keep products on their bodies longer than recommended.
The report made 42 recommendations, which the AAD says they will implement in full. Alcohol has already been banned at Australian stations, and free period products made available.
The report also called for the elimination of a “voucher-by-request system which requires expeditioners to go through a gatekeeper to access free menstrual products”.
Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek said she was “gobsmacked” by the report, noting that the work the AAD does is “far too important to be tainted and diminished by prejudice and harassment”.
Australia currently manages three permanent research stations in Antarctica – Mawson, Casey, and Davis, as well as Macquarie Island in the sub-Antarctic. In summer, up to 500 expeditioners may be dispatched to the bases, with numbers dwindling to the dozens in winter. Key workers will spend about a year living at a station.
“Everyday sexism” was “evident in the artefacts on the walls”, noted the report, fostering a “predatory and objectifying” culture, and “widespread, low-level sexual harassment that permeates stations”.
Overt displays of pornography, like the ‘Sistine Ceiling’ in the old carpenter’s hut at Mawson, have been part of the history of Antarctic Stations as male-dominated spaces. The Sistine Ceiling was only destroyed in 2005, to the disappointment of some.
Antarctica – the ultimate boys’ club?
The report’s findings are, unfortunately, not much of a surprise, given Antarctica’s patriarchal history. A similar report emerged in August with parallel findings about the experience of American women at US Antarctic bases.
The first Antarctic expedition to include women occurred in 1947, with two wives of male expeditioners accompanying their spouses – Edith ‘Jackie’ Ronne, and Jennie Darlington.
Darlington reflected on the experience, “Antarctica symbolized a haven, a place of high ideals and that inner peace men find only in an all-male atmosphere in primitive surroundings.”
“My job was to be as inconspicuous within the group as possible,” she wrote. “I felt that all feminine instincts should be sublimated.”
The first American women to actively participate in scientific fieldwork in Antarctica did so in 1969, while the British Antarctic Survey only fully integrated in 1996.
The first Australian woman to winter at all three of our bases was my grandmother – a feat she only accomplished in 2000.
As scholar Christy Collins writes, “the AAT was, and remains, a space onto which fantasies of an idealised Australian masculinity have been projected: the final frontier awaiting penetration”.
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