The director of a prominent Arctic research institute says dress codes that prohibit female participants from wearing tight-fitting clothing are not meant to be sexist.
Antje Boetius, the director of the Alfred-Wegener-Institut, which spearheaded the year-long MOSAiC polar research expedition, said recent controversy over the policy came as a surprise.
“These clothing regulations are so normal for people joining expeditions, and they are existing on research vessels worldwide,” she told CBC. “It would have not occurred to me that this was linked to gender.”
The MOSAiC Expedition, billed as the world’s largest and longest polar research mission, embedded scientists in Arctic sea ice for a year to make groundbreaking observations about the changing climate.
But as the mission was entering its final phase, a report in environmental news outlet E&E News said female participants aboard the mission’s support ship on its maiden voyage to the pole 11 months previously had been told wearing tight or revealing clothing could pose a “safety risk” with men at sea for an extended period.
The report by journalist Chelsea Harvey raised concerns that the dress code aboard the Akademik Fedorov, announced days after an incident of sexual harassment on the ship, placed blame on female passengers and made sexist demands they dress modestly to manage the behaviour of men.
Media reports ‘scandalize and sexualize’ regulations
The Alfred-Wegener-Institut did not initially comment on Harvey’s reporting when it was first published in September.
Boetius said the institute had initially refrained from commenting because they hoped the story would not generate much comment. Reached by CBC last month, they issued a short statement saying the policy was “repeatedly emphasized” to participants both before and after the incident of harassment.
But amid growing reaction to CBC’s reporting on the story, the institute released a lengthy statement accusing the CBC and Harvey of “scandaliz[ing] and sexualiz[ing] gender-neutral regulations that are perfectly commonplace on commercial and research vessels.”
The statement reiterated that the policy had always been in place and was communicated to participants “independently of the incident.” It said “a few first-time participants apparently paid insufficient attention … and in some cases failed to comply with the rules,” prompting the reminder.
It would have not occurred to me that this was linked to gender.– Dr. Antje Boetius, director of Alfred-Wegener-Institut
Harvey said no one with the Alfred-Wegener-Institut has contacted her since her story published last month. In her reporting and in interviews with CBC, she said participants were only made aware of prohibitions on wearing tight-fitting or revealing clothes partway through the voyage.
“We were told there are a lot of men on board this ship … and some of them are going to be on board this ship for months at a time,” Harvey told CBC last month. “In my meeting … what we were told was this was a ‘safety issue.'”
Harvey’s story for E&E also notes a statement signed by 18 members of the MOSAiC School, a training program aboard the ship, saying that “policies made on this cruise, or at least the communication of those policies” implied that “women’s dress may invite or justify experiencing harassment or misconduct.”
Director says dress codes commonplace
Boetius, a participant in 50 expeditions herself, said it is normal for ships to implement dress codes that require participants to refrain from wearing dirty work or exercise clothes in certain areas like the mess hall.
“All of these rules have nothing to do with gender,” she said.
But the rules are unwritten, decided by the ship’s captain at the time of the voyage and not by the institute. As such, the institute could provide no written record of the policies implemented aboard the Akademik Fedorov, or when they were communicated.
Boetius said aboard the main research vessel, the Polarstern, participants were told not to wear dirty work clothes into the mess or go outside if not properly dressed.
You just have to respect rules that are put forth on board.– Dr. Antje Boetius, director of Alfred-Wegener-Institut
That’s a far cry from the policy Harvey said was discussed aboard the Akademik Fedorov partway into their journey, which she described as “no leggings, no very tight-fitting clothing — nothing too revealing — no crop tops, no hot pants [and] no very short shorts.”
Boetius said implementing a common, written dress code would be too difficult, as the mission partners with multiple shipping companies and would need to secure their approval.
“You just have to respect rules that are put forth on board,” said Boetius. Communicating the policy orally “should be enough for grown-ups,” she said.
Boetius suggested the reasoning for the policy may be to prevent participants from going directly from exercise to the mess hall without changing their clothes, or protect them from “getting a cold” from going outside while improperly dressed.
She said after the clothing policy was breached “very often,” the safety officer “asked the chief scientist to make sure the scientists would behave.”
‘More important issues to address’
Boetius said providing a safe and inclusive environment is still “very important.” The institute’s statement says they improved their communication of clothing policy after hearing complaints following the initial journey and heard of no further issues.
Sexism is widespread in the sciences and in polar research in particular, even though many leading polar institutions are led by women. Multiple studies show large numbers of female researchers experience some form of harassment in their careers.
But Boetius was perplexed that the clothing policy described by Harvey could be perceived as sexist.
“We think there are many more important issues to address,” she said.
Boetius said women face barriers related to child care and work-life balance that are far greater than those posed by dress codes or harassment.
“It is not my experience that the glass ceiling comes from sexual causes,” she said.
“For all the struggles we fight, to think that coming with clean clothes to a mess room, that this is a gender issue,” she said, “this is not the fight we need to fight.”