Think Out Loud

Female polar scientists from Oregon State University face continued barriers

By Sage Van Wing (OPB)
June 28, 2023 4:28 p.m.

Broadcast: Wednesday, June 28

A 2022 National Science Foundation assessment of the U.S. Antarctic Programs found that “sexual harassment, stalking and sexual assault are ongoing, continuing problems.” These issues can be particularly problematic when researchers are isolated on ships or polar research stations. Three female scientists from Oregon State University join us to discuss the barriers they have faced, and how the field is changing.


The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. The National Science Foundation released a bleak assessment of US Antarctic programs last year. It found that sexual harassment, stalking, and sexual assault are ongoing problems. These issues can be particularly problematic when researchers are isolated on ships or on polar research stations. And they come at a time of accelerating climate change, when polar research has never been more important. I’m joined now by three female scientists who are all professors in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University. Kim Bernard is a biological oceanographer, Erin Pettit is a glaciologist, and Laurie Juranek is a biogeochemist. It’s great to have all three of you on the show.

Erin Pettit: It’s great to be here. Thanks for having us.

Laurie Juranek: Hi, Dave.

Miller: Before we get to the topic of harassment, I just want to start briefly with your actual research. What do you focus on and where does it take you?

Pettit: So, I study glaciers, and I study glaciers all over the world, but dominantly in Antarctica and Alaska and Greenland. And I study how they grow and shrink, or flow and fracture in response to climate change, atmospheric change, ocean change. I also look at the climate history records that are stored in ice cores. I do a little bit of both of those, and that does take me mostly in Antarctica, and then also I have projects in Alaska and Greenland.

But the one thing that I wanted to mention is that I sometimes work on some really big project teams. I’m on the leadership team for the Thwaites Glacier Collaboration, this is the glacier that’s been called the Doomsday Glacier lately. And we’re really trying to figure out how much that glacier is going to contribute to sea level rise in the near future.

And the other big team that I’m in a leadership position of is COLDEX, which is the search for the oldest ice in Antarctica. And the reason that I mentioned these leadership positions is that I think leadership plays a huge role in creating that more positive work environment in the future.

Miller: There’s a lot more to get into in terms of, of what you mean by that, and I think also the failures of leadership in the past, which is the flip side of that.

Laurie Juranek, what about you? What do you study, and where do you normally work?

Juranek: Broadly speaking, my work entails trying to understand how Arctic ecosystems are responding to climate change. I’m an oceanographer, so most of my work is research vessel based. I spend a lot of time on ships in the Bering Sea, and north of the Bering Sea in the Chukchi Sea, and even last year I went to the North Pole on the Coast Guard ice breaking vessel. So I spent a lot of time on ships collecting my data and working in and out of remote ports in Alaska.

Miller: And Kim Bernard, you’ve actually been on the show before. The last time was almost exactly four years ago, the winter solstice of 2019 when you were at the Palmer Station. Are you there right now?

Kim Bernard: I am. And yeah you are correct, it was about four years ago.

Miller: Can you remind us what you study for people who didn’t hear that conversation?

Bernard: Absolutely. I’m a zooplankton Ecologist. Zooplankton is the name that we use to describe the small animals that drift in the oceans. They range from microscopic all the way up to 6ft or more as the big large jellyfish. I mostly study a type of zooplankton called krill, which is an essential part of the marine food web throughout the world’s oceans. And I’m studying how climate change is affecting these organisms, primarily in Antarctica, but also off the coast of Oregon, and I have some students working in the Eastern Bering Sea as well.

And similar to Laurie, I do a lot of my research from vessels, and also obviously at Palmer Station. And so in the last 20 years of conducting research on Zooplankton, I’ve spent over 70 weeks at sea, and coming up to 38 months at Palmer Station.

Miller: Years of your life.

Bernard: Yes.

Miller: Can you give us a sense for the layout on these ships or research stations? I imagine cramped quarters.

Juranek: Definitely cramped quarters. One of the ships I most commonly sail on in the Arctic basically can carry about 50 people, that’s crew and science. It’s about 240 feet in length, and you’re doubled up in these smaller than dorm style rooms and sharing bathrooms, they call them heads between multiple rooms. So it’s very tight quarters. Not a lot of personal space, definitely have to be respectful of people because there’s nowhere to hide out.

Miller: You have to be respectful of people. But obviously, the reason we’re talking today is that, with alarming frequency, that doesn’t happen, in a very gendered way. Kim, can you give us a sense for the kind of harassment that you have experienced while at work?


Bernard: The experiences that I’ve had have kind of varied over the years. I started going to sea when I was 21, and I’ve had a lot of the more overt sexual harassment, with men coming into my cabin in the middle of the night, obviously unwanted and uninvited. I’ve had a situation on a Russian research vessel where I really felt concerned for my safety and I had to get out of a situation quite quickly. And then more recently, as I’ve sort of grown in experience and in my position, also in terms of leadership roles at sea, I see the more subtle undermining and experience a lot of that, including bullying and intimidation. As I get older and see this more and more, I’m also becoming much more aware of the things that I’ve experienced when I was younger because I’m starting to see it now in many of the young women that I bring with me to Antarctica.

Miller: Has seeing other women, early career scientists experience this harassment of various kinds changed the way you see this behavior?

Bernard: Absolutely. I think when I was younger, 20 years ago or so, it wasn’t talked about as much as it is now. And so I think for the large part, I just felt like I had to be tough and not complain. I felt so lucky and privileged to be there in the first place, so I just sort of thought it was part of the parcel and I just had to learn how to deal with it and move on.

But now, I have these amazing young women working under me, and I just can’t bear to see them going through any of that. And so it’s made me much more aware. It’s actually made me more aware of what I’ve experienced too, because I think I buried a lot of that. It’s a lot more important to me now to say something, to ensure that it doesn’t happen. I have reported incidents quite recently, and I think even though it’s really challenging and it is very stressful submitting a report like this because it’s not just a short thing that happens and then it’s done, it’s a whole long drawn out process and you have to keep reliving the experience.

But I think it’s been so critical because, for one, it has shown the young woman that I work with that it is possible to have a good outcome from a report, and it’s not that everyone will just ignore you or think you’re being silly. And to me it’s important to show them, the young women that I work with and others who I get to be at sea with or in the field with, that this sort of behavior is absolutely not acceptable. That it’s fully within their rights to do something and say something about it.

Miller: Erin Pettit, what about you? Can you give us a sense for what you have experienced yourself or what you’ve seen?

Pettit: Yeah, I can echo a lot of what Kim has seen. And a lot of it I did suppress as well over the years, it was just part of the job, and we had to prove ourselves, and we had to accept the joking and teasing, and we had to accept the bullying because there wasn’t a pathway towards getting around it. If we wanted to stay and do our jobs, we were expected to just deal with it. And I’m really happy that now at least there’s a bit more. And I feel a similar responsibility to be a role model and a support, and to help the younger women and non-binary people that are on our teams.

I’ve had outright sabotage of some of my experiments, where I’m told one thing is gonna happen and we plan for it, and then somebody just pulls a key piece of equipment at the last minute and is sort of like “oops, sorry, you can’t do that today,” and destroyed a whole bunch of data that we were trying to collect.

And then often the assumption is always that I’m not in charge. So even when I am the principal investigator, whoever the men are on my team are often the first ones that get asked questions or they’re the ones that the person is talking to. And so I have to look to my teammates to have them turn and say “no, Erin’s the lead on this, she’s the one that’s gonna answer.” And sometimes they’ll have to regularly do that.

Miller: In that scenario, if I understand correctly, the distinction would be members of the scientific team, and members of the crew. And it might be the members of the crew who would, who would undermine your authority, or assume because you’re a woman that you’re not in charge of the science.

Pettit: Right. I work mostly on land, so this would be at sort of some of the remote stations, bigger and smaller, like McMurdo Station, and then at other country stations where we’re going through and we’re trying to organize logistics or working with pilots or working with cargo to try to get our stuff out to our small remote site. And even if my team wholly believes in my authority, they sometimes have to be there to point and say “Erin, what do you think, you’re the one in charge here.” And often when the person on my team is my age or even a senior male, and he knows I’m in charge, that doesn’t mean everybody else does.

Sometimes that’ll be done outright, and other times it’ll be done in kind of a sort of backhanded way where I just won’t be sent the email, or a secret conversation will happen that goes directly to the other person on my team who’s not in charge because everybody just assumes they are. And usually I pick and choose my team members so that I know that they have my back and they will not let those things happen. But that’s not always something that is easy to do.

Miller: It’s also one more thing that you have to then keep in mind, as if the research, the science, the logistics aren’t complicated enough. Another thing that you have to pay attention to is your own safety, or making sure that the people you’re working with respect your authority as you’re putting a team together. It’s one more thing to keep that you have to do.

Pettit: Yeah, it’s definitely one more thing. And keeping an eye out, as Kim said, for the other people, the more junior people on the team. Things as subtle as little jokes or comments that are just inappropriate, but not recognized, or they think they’re being funny. And those just sap your energy over time, and they take away from the work that you’re actually trying to do out there.

Miller: Laurie Juranek, you’ve spent over 600 days at sea, my understanding is often serving as the chief scientist. What have you experienced from male crew members or male colleagues?

Juranek: All of the above. I would say frequently in that leadership role exactly the things Erin was talking about, where implicitly you’re not assumed to be in charge, even if you are on paper and designated the person in charge of making the big decisions. There are situations where other people on the science team or crew members will go to male colleagues and and hatch a plan that doesn’t include you when you really need to be in those conversations. As you mentioned, it just adds to the energy that’s required. We’re there to make the science successful, and it just detracts from that.

Miller: Kim Bernard, I’m curious if you’ve ever worried that by giving prospective researchers who are women an accurate sense of what they might experience, you could inadvertently discourage them from pursuing their goals? I guess I’m wondering how you balance the truth with not wanting to implicitly give people the message that that is going to be too hard for them.

Bernard: That’s such a great question Dave, and it’s something that I have struggled to figure out the balance. I think it’s really critical that they do know ahead of time, and that they are aware of what they’re getting into. But what I really emphasize is that there are avenues to report things, and that any form of sexual harassment or any harassment at all is completely unacceptable. With my teams before a field season, we’ll sit down and have conversations about this. I’ll make sure it’s very clear that I do not tolerate it, and if they are experiencing anything, they should feel welcome to come and speak to me about it. And I also suggest other people who they could speak to, if for whatever reason they’re not feeling comfortable talking to me about it.

It’s sometimes a difficult conversation to have, especially for people who may have already had some sort of trauma in the past, because it can be quite triggering. But I think it’s really essential that they know and are going into it with their eyes open. I will give examples of things that have happened and things that we have reported and have had a successful outcome from as well.

I would prefer that they know ahead of time rather than are blindsided by it and end up deciding to leave science. Because I have seen it in the past, where a female student has experienced sexual harassment in the field, but isn’t actually aware of the processes and the steps that they can take to report that, and for that person to be removed from the situation, and ultimately they end up deciding to leave science. And I think that that is a far greater loss. I prefer to just tell them the truth.

Miller: Erin Pettit, I want to go back to where you started, with leadership. Because more than anything, what we’re talking about seems like a failure from the top, a failure of leadership to change culture. Do you see a willingness to make that change now?

Pettit: I see a willingness among some leadership teams, or some people in leadership. In places like Antarctica, for example, there are many leaders who have influence over this. There’s the leader of your direct field team, then there’s the leadership of the base or station that you’re on, or at the camp that you’re in. And then it goes up towards the leadership of the entire US Antarctic program, and on up. And the leadership at every level has this responsibility, because the tone that is set from the person that’s in charge of all of the ongoing at McMurdo station, if they set a tone of respect and inclusive behavior, then that will feed down to the whole community. And so I do see some places where they want to change. But there’s still a lot where it could happen.

We specifically try to build that leadership knowledge among the teams on these big collaborative projects. We really sit down and talk through what’s gonna happen in the field. Every field team, if I’m not on it, is going out with somebody else in charge. And so we make that an explicit conversation to have. And I feel like with the two big big research teams I’ve been on, we’ve been successful for the most part within our research teams. But then we have to go into the station environment where we don’t have control over that culture in the same way.

I agree with Kim that having the conversations ahead of time can help prepare people. We don’t want to scare them away, but I feel like the most vulnerable moment is when they’re alone in some kind of an individual place, and that they don’t know that they have all these allies around them, and they’re experiencing things that they don’t understand, they don’t quite know what the boundaries of inappropriateness might be, or they don’t know who to talk to if it does. We can set them up with a team of allies so that they know exactly who’s there to support them. And again, that’s part of the role of the leadership, to help them set up and know where that support structure is.

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