clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

There is not a continent on planet Earth without sexual harassment

Boston University has concluded a member of its faculty sexually harassed a graduate student while conducting remote fieldwork in Antarctica.

Planet Observer/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Brian Resnick is Vox’s science and health editor, and is the co-creator of Unexplainable, Vox's podcast about unanswered questions in science. Previously, Brian was a reporter at Vox and at National Journal.

As we’ve seen in the last several weeks, Harvey Weinstein’s pattern of abusing women he had power over isn’t rare. Powerful men harass and intimidate women in all industries, in all corners of the world. It even happens to women working in the most remote and desolate places on Earth.

On October 6, the day after the New York Times broke the story of Weinstein’s long history of allegedly paying off women who accused him of sexual harassment, Science magazine published a disturbingly similar story of intimidation and abuse taking place in a fieldwork station in Antarctica beginning two decades ago.

In the article, several women accused David Marchant, a prominent geologist and climate change researcher at Boston University, of physically and sexually abusive behavior while conducting fieldwork under him in Antarctica. Two had filed formal complaints with BU. A third provided a supporting letter to BU, corroborating their accounts and documenting personal experience with verbal abuse. Science reporter Meredith Wadman corroborated their accounts with witnesses.

And now, as Wadman reports November 17, Boston University has concluded in their investigation there is a “preponderance of the evidence that Dr. [David] Marchant engaged in sexual harassment ... by directing derogatory and sex-based slurs and sexual comments at you during the 1999-2000 field expedition to Antarctica.”

Among the allegations:

Jane Willenbring, now a professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, says Marchant routinely assaulted, taunted, and humiliated her while she was working under him in close, remote quarters. Each day, Marchant told Willenbring, “Today I’m going to make you cry,” and he routinely called her a “slut” or a “whore.”

Among the most disturbing allegations: Willenbring charges that Marchant regularly pelted rocks at her while she was urinating. “She cut her water consumption so she could last the 12-hour days far from camp without urinating, then drank liters at night,” Wadman writes. He also allegedly blew volcanic ash into her eyes to hurt her.

Boston University’s conclusions only pertained to Willenbring’s charges during 1999 and 2000. They “did not find credible evidence to support the remaining allegations regarding Dr. Marchant’s behavior.”

But there are other allegations from former students and witnesses.

Another former graduate student, Deborah Doe (a pseudonym), told Wadman, “he repeatedly called me a ‘c--t,’ among many other insults (bitch being the most common) that were invoked on a daily basis or more. … He would crow that he could say absolutely anything he wanted to because we were ‘in his domain.’”

The third woman who filed a formal complaint with BU against Marchant for harassment, Hillary Tulley, described her experience in a letter: “His taunts, degrading comments about my body, brain, and general inadequacies never ended.” She also told Science that Marchant tried to beat her down so much that she would leave Antarctica: “Every day was terrifying.”

These women were working in isolated camps, in harsh subzero temperatures, in close contact with their alleged abuser. For weeks at a time, their only communications were via radio with other researchers stationed in Antarctica. Harassment that occurs in remote workplaces like this is particularly difficult for women because they may not be able to escape the place or their abuser for weeks or months.

“The nature of field work can amplify the damaging effects of sexual harassment,” Marina Koren writes at the Atlantic, “particularly at very remote sites, where there’s little to no communication to the outside world. The distance from reality can become both physical and emotional. The feeling of helplessness that comes with abuse is magnified.”

Women (especially women of color) still often don’t feel welcome in science

And it leaves a scar on careers. Doe left academia after conducting fieldwork with Marchant. Willenbring waited years (some of alleged abuse occurred in the 1990s) until she secured tenure in her job before speaking out. She did so “for fear of professional reprisal from Marchant before she had established herself as a scholar,” Wadman writes.

Wadman’s reporting is worth reading in full. (Among other details, she has accounts from other women who worked with Marchant and reported they’d never been harassed by him.) But know it’s just one example of sexual harassment that pervades scientific research and just about every other work environment.

A 2014 PLOS study found 26 percent women in a survey reported experiencing sexual assault while conducting scientific fieldwork. And 40 percent said they either “regularly” or “frequently” heard inappropriate or sexual comments. More than 90 percent of the women targeted by these actions and comments said they were trainees at the time.

Science is still more broadly an unwelcoming place for women. A recent survey in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets found that “18 percent of women of color, and 12 percent of white women, skipped professional events because they did not feel safe attending, identifying a significant loss of career opportunities due to a hostile climate.” A full 40 percent of “women of color reported feeling unsafe in the workplace as a result of their gender or sex.”

These findings have consequences: While around 47 percent of STEM degrees PhDs are awarded to women, the STEM workforce is only 28 percent female, as Dara Lind has explained. “It's hard for people to stick around in fields where they're told they don't belong,” Lind wrote for Vox.

Wherever powerful men work and have influence over young female up-and-comers, there’s potential for abuse. That’s true everywhere on planet Earth.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.