‘Homophobic culture’ on Australia’s Antarctic stations

Antarctica: One of Australia's Antarctica research stations.
Image: Australian Antarctica Division

Australian women working in Antarctica have reported a widespread and predatory culture of sexual harassment, sexism and homophobia on research stations.

The Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) maintains three permanently manned stations on the frozen continent.

An external review commissioned by the AAD revealed women overwhelmingly described Antarctic research stations as “blokey”, with a permeating culture of sexual harassment.

“Given the under-representation of women (especially during winter) some women also described the culture as ‘predatory’ and objectifying,” a summary of the study reads.

“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.

“Participants also described a homophobic culture on stations.”

The review heard from women who said they had to “practically conceal” their menstruation without privacy and improvise menstrual products when none were available.

Existing procedures in place to report inappropriate behaviour on the Antarctica stations were often onerous.

AAD director says ‘significant progress’ made on recommendations

The review and report, by ANU’s Professor Meredith Nash, made 42 recommendations on changing the culture. The AAD accepted all of them.

AAD Director Kim Ellis said the Division had already made “significant progress” on implementing the recommendations.

Responding to the findings, he said “we know that under-reporting is almost certainly a factor”.

“I’m deeply concerned by the experiences it describes at our workplaces where people have been sexually harassed, discriminated against and excluded,” Ellis said.

“It doesn’t matter how many people may have experienced this behaviour… The fact that anyone at all experiences this treatment is not okay.”

Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek said the accounts from the workers were “shocking and disappointing”.

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

“Just this week the government introduced the Respect at Work legislation.

“This legislation backs in our commitment to safe and respectful workplaces, everywhere.

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

Plibersek said she was aware the AAD had already begun a process of cultural change but “more change is needed”.

“The work the division does is critical. For our national interest, for science and the environment, for the future of this planet,” she said.

“It’s far too important to be tainted and diminished by prejudice and harassment.”

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