Australia Antarctic expeditioners complain of 'predatory', widespread sexual harassment as minister, division urge change
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Australians sent to work in Antarctica have complained about a widespread and predatory culture of sexual harassment with unwelcome requests for sex, taunting, displays of offensive pornography and homophobia.
An external review of the culture at Antarctic research stations, commissioned by the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD), revealed some women felt compelled to hide their periods while on field missions because they feared men may judge them as incompetent.
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In some cases, improvised products were used when tampons were not available to them, or kept inside their bodies for longer than recommended because there were no appropriate facilities.
Professor Meredith Nash, who wrote the report completed earlier this year, said some women do not believe the Antarctic stations are safe and that it may be unethical to continue sending women to them until their safety can 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," Professor Nash told the ABC.
A de-identified summary of Professor Nash's report found "participants observed that women experience a range of harassment including uninvited physical contact or gestures, unwelcome requests for sex, sexual comments, jokes or innuendo, intrusive questions, displays of offensive or pornographic material and sex-based insults or taunts and unwanted invitations".
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"Participants also described a homophobic culture on stations," the summary said.
Professor Nash, who is an associate dean at the Australian National University, told the ABC that women "have to work in the field with their abusers for weeks at a time because they simply can't leave".
"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," Professor Nash said.
The report's summary, circulated among AAD staff on Thursday, said some women needed to "go through a gatekeeper to access free menstrual products".
"Women in this study described their attempts to practically conceal menstruation in Antarctica in environments where the infrastructure for them to do so was absent or inadequate," the report read.
It told the government that women "go to great lengths to make their menstruation invisible because menstruation is not considered to be an important operational concern in Antarctic fieldwork arrangements".
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"They change their menstrual products without privacy or adequate sanitation; carry bloody menstrual products around with them in the field for long periods of time; improvise menstrual products when none are available; keep menstrual products in their bodies for longer than recommended because they are not provided with adequate toilet stops," the report said.
"Whilst women in this study found a range of ways to individually cope, the more concerning issue is that people who menstruate feel compelled to uphold a male-dominated field culture in which menstruation is concealed and controlled to meet masculine cultural norms."
Minister says complaints should be taken seriously
Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek said she was "gobsmacked" by the report and demanded cultural change.
"As a minister, I take a zero-tolerance response to sexual harassment in any workplace I am responsible for," Ms Plibersek told the ABC.
"I was actually gobsmacked to read some of the reports here talking about pornographic material up on the walls (because) I really did think that we had eradicated this thing from Australians decades ago.
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"I have been very clear with the department. We need to make sure that every person working either at head office or in the Antarctic feels safe and if they make a complaint, they can make that complaint without any fear of victimisation."
"I hope the report will be a catalyst for further change."
In a statement to all staff, the director of the Australian Antarctic Division said behaviours needed to improve and urged people to report concerns.
"I am deeply concerned by the experiences it describes at our workplaces where people have been sexually harassed, discriminated against and excluded," Kim Ellis said.
"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."
Mr Ellis told the ABC there was "a level of embarrassment and discomfort" about the report's findings, but he wanted to confront the cultural issues.
"I think this lets the light in and gives us real authority to make change in the organisation," he said.
Ms Plibersek said some people who contributed to the report did not feel confident speaking up because they "feared they would be targeted or not invited back for future expeditions".
"The most important change we can make is to reassure people who have a complaint to make that it will be taken seriously and properly investigated and there will be no retribution," Ms Plibersek said.
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"That is the change I really want to see at the Australian Antarctic Division."
Ms Plibersek said training guides were being updated to include "basic stuff" like menstruation.
Report recommends sweeping overhaul of culture
The report made 42 recommendations on how to change the culture at the stations, including the creation of an "equity and inclusion task force", which is already being planned.
Professor Nash said overhauling the culture in Antarctica would take many years, but she believed the division was taking the issue very seriously.
In his email to staff, Mr Ellis said significant changes had already been made.
Alcohol was banned on stations many months ago, and free sanitary products are now available.
"If you feel you can call out inappropriate behaviour, please do it. It's a powerful intervention," Mr Ellis told staff.
All recommendations will be accepted by the division.
The report also made some specific recommendations for stations.
"Eliminate voucher-by-request system which requires expeditioners to go through a gatekeeper to access free menstrual products," the report recommended.
Professor Nash said there needed to be radical change to make sure people felt safe.
"Part of it is acknowledging people's experiences straight away to rebuild trust in the community, but also rethinking how they address sexual harassment," she said.
"People need to have multiple pathways, both informal and formal, to make their concerns heard."
The report also noted cultural issues at the department's headquarters in Hobart, although these existed to a lesser extent.
"Women described feeling devalued in the context of AAD headquarters," Professor Nash said.
"Women also describe some experiences of everyday sexism like inappropriate jokes or gender-based insults."
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