Updated: Nov 16, 2020
A third of the way through an Arctic voyage in October 2020, on the Russian research vessel, the Akademik Fedorov, a crew member announced a new dress code to four women journalists.
“No leggings. No crop tops. No ‘hot pants.’ Nothing too tight or too revealing.”
When the reporters asked why the sudden change in dress code, Katharina Weiss-Tuider, the communications manager, said that tight clothing created a “safety issue.” This seemed rather suspicious since safety issues usually involve things that can get caught in machinery, such as scarves. When Weiss-Tuider kept repeating the fact that most of the expedition members were male who would be on the ship for a long time, the women realized that she was talking about a different sort of “safety issue”: sexual harassment.
One of the women, Chelsea Harvey, heard an underlying message from Weiss-Tuider: “the idea that women’s bodies are a distraction in the workplace and that women are responsible for managing the behavior of men.” In other words, if the women did not dress modestly, they “would risk being harassed — or worse — by men on the ship.” This message alarmed the women, and they quickly decided to don loose clothing for the remainder of the trip.
The women were aboard the Akademik Fedorov as part of the largest international polar science expedition in history: MOSAiC, affiliated with the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research. A third of the participants were women—mostly educators and students. Only a few of the scientists and engineers were women. The dress code was later announced to other women.
This was not a surprise to Chelsea Harvey, who noted that “Polar research has kind of perpetuated this archetype of the white male explorer, and that really has come at the exclusion of women until very recently. And I think that this episode on this particular ship kind of illustrated a lot of the types of events that still today are common on polar research expeditions.”
Of the two poles, the Arctic has always been more accessible to women. In the 1890s, American Josephine Peary accompanied her husband, Admiral Robert Peary, to the Arctic and birthed a child less than thirteen degrees from the North Pole. In contrast, the first woman to explore Antarctica was a Norwegian, Ingrid Christensen, who first traveled there with her husband in 1937.
A British woman had been excluded from an Antarctic expedition because “there were no facilities for women in the Antarctic, i.e., there was not a separate toilet, there were no shops, there were no hairdressers…”
In the 1950s, Admiral George Dufek, head of U.S. Antarctic programs, claimed that women would “wreck the illusion of being frontiersmen going into a new land and the illusion of being a hero.” As a result of this attitude, the first all-female scientific expedition to Antarctica in 1969 was described as “an incursion of females” into “the largest male sanctuary remaining on this planet.”
Dufek also stated, “women will not be allowed in the Antarctic until we can provide one woman for every man,” implying that women should be treated as commodities or chattel. A 2019 survey by sociologist Meredith Nash collected anecdotal evidence from women who worked in Antarctica, dubbed “sexual hard-grenades.”
In the polar regions, women have been dubbed “sexual hard-grenades.”
Nash’s survey confirmed that “women are watched and scrutinized as potential sexual partners.” Experienced women polar explorers warn newcomers that they will need to cope with male predatory behavior. Sixty-three percent of women surveyed had been exposed to inappropriate comments. Seventy percent did not report the sexual harassment.
Back aboard the Akademik Fedorov, the journalists viewed the timing of the new dress code with suspicion. A few days before the new dress code was implemented, several women had reported to Thomas Krumpen, the chief scientist, that they had been sexually harassed. Although the captain prohibited the offending men from coming into contact with the women, Krumpen claimed that the new rules were not precipitated by the harassment. Instead, he said that he was simply enforcing the safety rules already in place because the women had repeatedly violated them. The Alfred Wegener Institute issued the following statement: “Sexual harassment, misconduct and discrimination, in any way, shape or form and regardless of when and where, are not tolerated by us or anyone acting on our behalf.”
The student participants in MOSAiC issued a statement rejecting “the implications that: (1) women’s dress may invite or justify experiencing harassment or misconduct; (2) women cannot perform — or are less capable at — certain jobs because of their gender.” The latter was a reference to the last-minute exclusion of women students from helicopter flights to transfer containers. Krumpen excluded the women because some of the containers exceeded the limit that women could safely carry. The students pointed out that, according to the same standards, the containers exceeded the weight limit for men.
Sociologist Meredith Nash notes that female scientists in remote polar areas are tolerated, not accommodated. When harassment occurs, it is difficult to address: “The ship is owned by one country, the crew comes from another, you’re from one particular country — what jurisdiction are you complaining in? So a lot of women just think, forget it, it’s all become way too complicated.” One woman aboard the Akademik Fedorov, complained:
“I was disappointed that the only conversation we ever had on the ship about women’s physical safety or harassment — isolated as we were in the middle of the Arctic Ocean without any law enforcement — was one where women were told we should be dressing differently.”
There was one silver lining to the incident: a week after the new dress code was announced, the MOSAiC participants showed up for the weekly “bar night”, which featured alcohol, wearing identical blue jumpsuits. It was a show of solidarity and, perhaps, a message to the male crew members that the women participants are not objects for the men's sexual pleasure.
The Akademik Fedorov incident is not an aberration. For other examples of sexism and sexual harassment in the field, read other posts in this series: