Women working in Antarctica say they were left to fend for themselves against sexual harassers


 (AP) — The howling winds and perpetual darkness of the Antarctic winter were easing to a frozen spring when mechanic Liz Monahon at McMurdo Station grabbed a hammer.

If those in charge weren’t going to protect her from the man she feared would kill her, she figured, she needed to protect herself. It wasn’t like she could escape. They were all stuck there together on the ice.

So she kept the hammer with her at all times, either looped into her Carhartt overalls or tucked into her sports bra.

“If he came anywhere near me, I was going to start swinging at him,” Monahon says. “I decided that I was going to survive.”

Monahon, 35, is one of many women who say the isolated environment and macho culture at the United States Research Center in Antarctica have allowed sexual harassment and assault to flourish.

The National Science Foundation, the federal agency that oversees the U.S. Antarctic Program, published a report in 2022 in which 59% of women said they’d experienced harassment or assault while on the ice, and 72% of women said such behavior 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 minimized 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.

The complaints of violence did not stop with the NSF report. Five months after its release, a woman at McMurdo told a deputy U.S. marshal that colleague Stephen Bieneman pinned her down and put his shin over her throat for about a minute while she desperately tried to communicate she couldn’t breathe.

Bieneman pleaded not guilty to misdemeanor assault. He was fired and sent back to the U.S., court documents show, and his trial is scheduled for November. His lawyer, Birney Bervar, said in an email to the AP that it was “horseplay” initiated by the woman and the evidence didn’t support “an assault of the nature and degree she described.”

The NSF report triggered a Congressional investigation. In a written response to Congress that is contradicted by its own emails, Leidos, the prime contractor, said it received “zero allegations” of sexual assault in Antarctica during the five years ending April 2022.

Kathleen Naeher, the chief operating officer of the civil group at Leidos, told a congressional committee in December that they would install peepholes on dorm room doors, limit access to master keys that could open multiple bedrooms, and give teams in the field an extra satellite phone.

Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Calif., said the proposed fixes left him flabbergasted.

“This should have been done before we sent anyone down to Antarctica,” he said at the hearing.

Monahon and all but one of the workers quoted in this story are speaking publicly for the first time. Trapped in one of the most remote spots on Earth, the women say they were largely forced to fend for themselves.

“No one was there to save me but me,” Monahon says. “And that was the thing that was so terrifying.”

Monahon believes she only escaped physical harm in Antarctica because of her colleagues, not management.

She met Zak Buckingham in 2021 at a hotel in Christchurch, New Zealand, where McMurdo workers were quarantining against COVID-19 before going to Antarctica. It would be Monahon’s second stint in Antarctica, a place that had fascinated her since her childhood half a world away in upstate New York.

At the hotel, Monahon says, male colleagues bothering her and a friend backed off when Buckingham — a plumber and amateur boxer from Auckland, New Zealand — sat with them.

Buckingham, now 36, was intimidating and a bit wild, but funny and charming. One night, Monahon says, she and Buckingham hooked up.

What Monahon didn’t know was that Buckingham had a history of what a judge described as alcohol-related criminal offending in New Zealand.

Three months before deploying, Buckingham breached a protection order taken out by his former partner and the mother of his three children, according to court records the AP obtained after petitioning a New Zealand judge. He’d texted his ex-partner demanding oral sex. She told him to stop being inappropriate.

“No, I will not stop being inappropriate,” he’d replied, and demanded oral sex again, according to the judge’s findings. She again told him to stop. He responded, according to the records: “You need to be f----- like a slut.”

A week later, he sent her 18 texts, court records show. She warned him she’d call the police.

“Continue to threaten me and you’ll need to,” he’d replied.

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