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Dec. 5, 2023

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

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McMurdo Station is photographed from the air on Oct. 27, 2014. The Associated Press found a pattern of women working in Antarctica who said their claims of sexual harassment or assault had been minimized by their employers. The AP investigation came after the National Science Foundation published a report in 2022 in which 59% of women said they'd had a negative experience of harassment or assault while on the ice.
McMurdo Station is photographed from the air on Oct. 27, 2014. The Associated Press found a pattern of women working in Antarctica who said their claims of sexual harassment or assault had been minimized by their employers. The AP investigation came after the National Science Foundation published a report in 2022 in which 59% of women said they'd had a negative experience of harassment or assault while on the ice. (National Science Foundation via AP) Photo Gallery

CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand (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.”

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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.”

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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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Antarctica’s ancient ice sheet and remoteness make it ideal for scientists studying everything from the earliest moments of the universe to changes in the planet’s climate.

The population at McMurdo, the hub of U.S. operations, usually swells from 200-300 in the southern winter to over 1,000 in the summer. Typically, around 70% are men.

Funded and overseen by the NSF, the U.S. Antarctic Program is run by a tangle of contractors and subcontractors, with billions of dollars at stake. Since 2017, Leidos has held the main contract, now worth over $200 million per year. Subcontractor PAE, which employs many of the base’s workers, was bought last year by the government services giant Amentum.

There is no police presence or jail at McMurdo, and law enforcement falls to a sworn on-site deputy U.S. marshal.

Buckingham was hired by PAE. Amentum didn’t respond to questions from the AP. Leidos Senior Vice President Melissa Lee Dueñas said it conducts background checks on all its employees.

“Our stance on sexual harassment or assault couldn’t be more clear: we have zero tolerance for such behavior,” Dueñas said in an email. “Each case is thoroughly investigated.”

The NSF and Leidos declined to answer questions about Buckingham or other cases. Leidos said sharing specific details wasn’t always appropriate or helpful.

The NSF told the AP it improved safety in Antarctica last year. The agency now requires Leidos to immediately report any significant health and safety incidents, including sexual assault and harassment, it said in a statement. The NSF said it also created an office to deal with such complaints, provided a confidential victim’s advocate, and established a 24-hour helpline.

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On the ice, with limited options for socializing, many head to one of McMurdo’s two main bars: Southern Exposure or Gallagher’s.

Neither has windows, workers say, and they smell of body odor and decades of stale beer that has seeped into the floor. In the summer, when the sun shines all night, people walk out of the bars and are dazzled by the light.

One night at Southern Exposure, Monahon told the AP, Buckingham began laughing with buddies about who was going to sleep with her and her friend. Next thing, he was forehead to forehead with another man, she says. Buckingham, reached by phone in New Zealand, declined to comment and hung up.

Monahon says she repeatedly told Buckingham she didn’t want to speak with him. Soon after, she heard Buckingham was angry at her.

Worried, she says, she told PAE’s human resources she feared for her safety. They took no action. A week later, Buckingham rushed up to her in Gallagher’s, shaking with anger, shouting and threatening her, she says.

“You’ve been talking s— about my mother,” he yelled at her, she says, leaving her baffled. “People who talk s— about my mother deserve to die.”

Monahon says she was shocked to the core. “Snitches will get stitches,” she says Buckingham snarled as others intervened.

Cameron Dailey-Ruddy, who bartended at Gallagher’s, witnessed the commotion. He ordered everyone but Monahon to leave and called 911, which connects to the station firehouse. From the dispatcher, Dailey-Ruddy got the numbers for the Leidos station manager and PAE’s HR representative and asked them to come to the bar.

“It was kind of an open secret at that point that that guy had been harassing her,” said Dailey-Ruddy. He added that Buckingham was at the bars most nights, sometimes drank in public areas and harassed women.

Monahon says the managers brought her to a secret room and told her she could skip work the next day.

It was the last time she would feel supported by management.

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After a night in her new room, Monahon met with PAE’s HR representative, Michelle Izzi.

Monahon claims Izzi discouraged her from reporting what happened to the deputy U.S. marshal, in part because it would create jurisdictional headaches and even an international problem, as Buckingham was a New Zealand citizen. Monahon also says Izzi told her she needed to carefully consider how filing charges might affect her personally and impact the entire U.S. Antarctic Program.

In a later recorded meeting, Izzi denied that she discouraged Monahon and said she had in fact instructed her to call the marshal. Izzi did not respond to the AP’s requests for comment.

The next night, Dailey-Ruddy says, Buckingham was back at the bar. The night after, according to another person familiar with the situation, Buckingham got into a physical altercation with another man.

Dailey-Ruddy wasn’t surprised by the lack of action against Buckingham.

“It seemed like par for the course in terms of the culture, and sexual harassment, and how women’s safety was addressed on the station,” he says.

Meanwhile, Monahon had taken the machinist’s hammer to defend herself. In a statement to PAE’s HR department, she wrote: “Zak Buckingham is a danger to me. He has threatened my life. He is capable of hurting me and he wants to hurt me. … I have been living in fear for the last two days.”

With her employers doing nothing to address her concerns, Monahon’s immediate boss and co-workers came up with their own plan, according to two employees familiar with the situation.

Monahon was told to pack her bags, and the next morning joined a group trying to navigate a safe route across the sea ice over eight days to resupply a tiny U.S. outpost. The crossing is risky because the ice can crumble in the spring.

“To protect her, they put her in a dangerous situation,” said Wes Thurmann, a fire department supervisor who had worked in Antarctica every year since 2012.

But they all felt it was safer than her remaining at McMurdo.

Thurmann, who was also notified when Dailey-Ruddy called 911, says he was introduced to McMurdo’s misogynistic culture when a group of men recited a list of women they considered targets for sex. Often, Thurmann says, the NSF and Antarctic contractors blamed such behavior on alcohol.

But the bosses wouldn’t ban booze, he says, because it would make deployments less attractive.

___

Monahon’s crisis on the ice wasn’t an anomaly. In November 2019, another incident involving a food worker pushed the NSF to launch its investigation. The food worker didn’t respond to a request for comment, but her case is outlined in internal emails obtained by the AP.

The woman told her bosses she’d been sexually assaulted by a coworker. Her performance was subsequently criticized by a supervisor, who was also the girlfriend of the accused man. Two months later, she was fired.

Many of the woman’s colleagues were outraged. Julie Grundberg, then the McMurdo area manager for Leidos, repeatedly emailed her concerns to her superiors in Denver.

“The fact that we haven’t come out with some sort of public statement is making the community trust our organization even less,” Grundberg wrote.

Supervisor Ethan Norris replied: “We need your help to keep this calm and be a neutral party as you have only one side of the story at this point.”

Norris did not respond to a request for comment from the AP.

The case prompted some of the women to form their own support group, Ice Allies. More than 300 people signed a petition calling for better systems for handling sexual assaults.

The food steward settled a wrongful termination claim for an undisclosed amount, people familiar with the situation told the AP. Leidos later fired Grundberg, in a move many workers believe was retaliatory.

Another food steward, Jennifer Sorensen, told the AP she was raped at McMurdo in 2015. Initially, she didn’t tell anyone.

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“On station, I had no advocate to speak on behalf of my needs and protection, no jail to protect me from my rapist, and no knowledge of any present law enforcement personnel,” Sorensen said in a written account to the AP.

Still haunted 21 months later, Sorensen wrote to the man’s employer, GHG Corp., about what had happened. GHG later wrote back that it had investigated her claims with Leidos and wouldn’t hire the man again.

“We have concluded that you were a victim of sexual harassment,” wrote GHG President Joseph Willhelm.

Sorensen says it was shameful that GHG and Leidos downgraded what she says was rape to harassment. GHG did not respond to a request for comment. Sorensen also contacted the FBI, which did not file criminal charges and refused to release details of its investigation to the AP.

Britt Barquist, who worked as foreperson of the fuel department, told the AP she was attending a safety briefing with co-workers in 2017 when a man in a senior role reached under the table and squeezed her upper leg.

“It was a lingering hand on the inside of my thigh, like as close as you can get to just grabbing my actual crotch,” Barquist says.

Her boss at the time, Chad Goodale, told the AP he saw what happened and called his supervisor. He said the outcome was the man was taken off a joint project and told to avoid contact with Barquist. Yet upon returning to Antarctica in 2021, Barquist says, she was forced to work with the man again.

“It was humiliating. And awful,” she says. “I would try to not make eye contact with him, or acknowledge him at all. … Towards the end, he would talk to me about things, and I would just be wanting to throw up.”

When Barquist returned to Antarctica last year, she took a job as a cook, working alongside her husband at a tiny satellite camp rather than at McMurdo.

“I just wish I had been more protected,” she says.

___

Shortly before Monahon returned from her expedition, Buckingham was taken to a plane to go home early. The woman who normally drives people to the airfield refused to transport him.

“With my supervisor, we just decided it’s not safe, and station management can drive him out themselves,” says Rebecca Henderson.

Izzi, PAE’s HR representative, called Monahon into a meeting. Izzi’s superior, Holly Newman, was on the phone in Denver. Monahon recorded the conversation.

“The investigation was completed. We took appropriate action,” Newman says in the recording. She doesn’t specify what action was taken other than to say the person was no longer on the ice. She adds that sometimes they get reports that aren’t true.

Newman couldn’t be reached for comment.

In the recording, Newman then says problems with alcohol and people “hurting other people” have been occurring in Antarctica since “way before” she first visited in 2015.

“Why does it happen? Why doesn’t it stop?” Newman asks. “Those are big questions and there are not really any answers that I sit on that are satisfactory yet.”

___

In March 2022, Buckingham was sentenced to 100 hours of community service and 10 months of supervision after pleading guilty to two charges of breaching a protection order for his ex-partner.

“This is … the first time you have been before the court on any offending of this nature,” Judge Kevin Glubb concluded. “It has to be the last, Mr. Buckingham, you understand that? You come back again, all bets are off.”

Buckingham never faced any legal action or consequences for what Monahon said happened in Antarctica. He is now living back in New Zealand.

Monahon hopes her story prompts the contractors in Antarctica to face more accountability. And she wants the NSF to do more than potentially replace Leidos as the lead contractor when its contract expires in 2025.

“What are they going to do to make sure that this next contractor doesn’t do the same thing?” she asks.

Monahon was determined to keep working at Antarctica and returned in 2022, but has decided to skip this season.

“It’s that mentality of don’t let them win,” she says. “But I do think they are winning right now.”

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