Arctic expedition’s dress code raises concerns about sexism in science

By Derrick Bryson Taylor

The dress-code policy of a prominent polar research institute in Germany has provoked criticism and outrage after it was recently made public, with some experts saying it underscored the problem of sexism in the sciences.

The policy, set by leaders aboard the Akademik Fedorov, a Russian icebreaker and research vessel, prohibited passengers from wearing “thermal underwear” because it was a “safety issue,” said Chelsea Harvey, a journalist who was on the ship and whose story about the policy raised awareness of it last month.

The science institute leading the expedition, the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, denied in a statement that it had applied a dress code to a specific sex. It said that all of the participants on the trip were made aware of its policies at the beginning of the expedition and that the dress code was raised again because of “repeated violations” of it and other rules.

“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 statement said.

The Fedorov was contracted by the institute to carry extra supplies and instruments for the Polarstern, the institute’s flagship vessel, which last year embarked on the largest and most ambitious climate change research expedition ever in the Arctic. The Polarstern, which left Norway in September 2019 and has spent the past year drifting through the Arctic Ocean, is scheduled back in Bremerhaven, Germany, later this month.

About two weeks into a six-week mission, leaders aboard the Fedorov brought up a strict dress-code policy to journalists, students and scientists on board, Harvey said. The next day, she said, in a smaller meeting with other journalists, it was explained that, as a “safety issue,” leggings, very tightfitting clothing, short shorts and crop tops were not permitted.

The woman holding the meeting was “careful not to come right out and connect the dots,” Harvey said. “She did not say, ‘We are concerned that the men on board this ship will harass you if you dress a certain way,’ but she pointed out repeatedly there were a lot of men aboard this ship.”

“The immediate reaction to our meeting was sort of shock and disbelief,” Harvey said, adding that there was widespread resentment and some alarm on the ship.

After the meetings, women on the ship changed the way they dressed, she said, choosing to wear jeans and other loosefitting clothing.

“The implication that many people took from those meetings was that women should change the way they dress in order to manage the behavior of men aboard the ship,” she said.

Harvey later discovered in her own reporting that there was an incident of sexual harassment on the ship, she said.

The institute said in its statement that some of its regulations prohibited wearing work or “sport clothing” in public areas. Such rules were intended to ensure that people adhered to hygiene and safety standards in public areas like the mess halls and the ship’s bridge, it said. The dress code was discussed again in the context of other rules, the institute said, adding that there was no connection between harassment and “repeated admonitions to adhere to the dress code.”

The institute added, “Women and men participate in our polar expeditions as equals and are equally supported in their work by the ship’s crews and aircraft crews that we employ.”

As Harvey’s account spread on social media, it drew outrage among scientists and science journalists, who said it fit with a broader, long-standing pattern of unequal treatment.

Although the inequities faced by women in science-related fields are widely recognized, there is not much research on the topic. A 2019 study on how gender bias affects women in science by the American Society for Microbiology found that, in 2015, women made up half of the college-educated U.S. workforce in science but held 28% of jobs in those occupations.

A 2014 survey of academic field experiences by PLOS One, a peer-reviewed open access journal, found that, of the more than 500 women who participated, 71% had been sexually harassed and 26% had been sexually assaulted. Female trainees were the primary targets, the survey said, and perpetrators were usually senior to them within a research team. Not many participants were aware of how to report such episodes, it said, and most who did report episodes were unsatisfied with the outcome.

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