A thousand women are challenging the boys’ club of science by making a research expedition to Antarctica to raise awareness for climate change.
Antarctica is a giant, untamed wilderness. Home of the geographic South Pole, it has no nations and no indigenous population. The continent is almost entirely covered by ice, with an average depth of 2.16 kilometers. Although this southernmost continent was thought to exist as early as the 1st century AD, its icy shores were not actually broached until the 19th century.
Today, the whole of Antartica is designated as a nature reserve, devoted to advancing science and peace. No one lives in Antarctica permanently, and few brave the winters in this frozen wonderland that average a bone-chilling -49°C. Working residents include an eclectic group of a few thousand international scientists and support staff who look after the continent’s 75 research stations.
You might think that sexism would not be a big issue at -49°C, but you would be wrong. This frozen Wild West was for most of the 19th and 20th century an exclusive fraternity of male scientists; they banned women from their expeditions, citing everything from weak constitutions to a lack of female toilets on the continent. As late as the 1960s the British Antarctic Survey dismissed female applicants, telling them they wouldn’t like it there because there are no shops or hairdressers. The United States Congress didn’t lift its ban on women working in Antarctica until 1969, when newspapers mocked these pioneers as “powder puff explorers.”
FOR BOYS ONLY
A lot has changed since then: Today, women make up 55% of the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists.
However, gender bias remains a hot topic among scientists. Women are estimated to hold less than a third of jobs in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) worldwide. Studies show that women in science tend to receive less mentoring than their male counterparts, are less likely to be trained in elite laboratories and are frequently seen as less employable.
Bias against women in field research is especially troubling. Long working hours, alcohol and isolated locations, create conditions where discrimination and abuse are hard to control. In a 2014 survey of field scientists, 70% of women interviewed said they had experienced sexual harassment during their fieldwork and 26% reported that they had experienced sexual assault. The majority of those affected were trainees.
Antarctic fieldwork has been no exception. It entered the #MeToo debate when Science magazine ran a story about David Marchant, then an assistant professor at Boston University, accused of verbal and sexual abuse of former students during research expeditions in Antarctica in the 1990s. The victims waited to go public, they now say, out of fear of damaging their careers.
FIXING A BROKEN CULTURE
Increasingly, women look for female mentors to help further their careers, using avenues that were previously open only to men.
One group trying to catalyze this cultural shift is Homeward Bound, an initiative that is working to heighten the influence of STEM women in scientific decision-making, most notably in the area of climate change. The aim: to bring 1,000 STEM women from around the world to Antarctica within a decade.
The brainchild of Australian social entrepreneur Fabian Dattner and Antarctic marine scientist Jess-Melbourne Thomas, Homeward Bound was launched in 2016 with 76 women, the largest female expedition to Antarctica to date.
One of this year’s participants is Vienna native Dr. Daisy Hessenberger, a nature-based solutions support officer at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in Switzerland. “You can see the most drastic effects of climate change in Antarctica,” the Cambridge–educated scientist told Metropole.
“By seeing these effects with our own eyes and then working with local researchers, we can then bring this knowledge to every nook and cranny of the globe.” The goal, says Hessenberger: “is to influence policy to curb the effects of climate change.”
Homeward Bound participants like Hessenberger are taking part in a yearlong program, primarily online, that includes coaching initiatives, leadership development and science communication training by female STEM leaders. Each participant gets one-on- one training to push them beyond their comfort zone and into the limelight.
The program culminates with an in-person meeting in Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world, followed by three intense weeks on a ship in Antarctica. This year’s cohort is departing December 31, 2018.
Although the program has some notable sponsors, participants are required to raise some of the costs of the trip on their own. For the 2018 group, this amounted to about €14,000 per participant.
“You can pay for this out of your own pocket, but Homeward Bound does encourage you to try to raise part of it through public funding,” says Hessenberger. “This serves as a part of your training but also helps provide exposure to the program and your participation in it.”
Hessenberger is funding her trip through corporate sponsors as well as a crowdsourcing campaign, where donors can receive anything from a postcard from Ushuaia to a video “thank you” of Hessenberger doing the polar plunge in the freezing Arctic waters, called “Dunk-a-Daisy.”
Scholarships are also being developed by the program to help bring in women from low- and middle-income backgrounds who are unable to secure outside funding.
The program has big ambitions and hopes to inspire more women to professional alliances in a way that has been historically more open for men.
“It is not just the one thousand women. Each woman to me represents 1,000 additional contacts,” says Hessenberger, “a growing network that can support and train the next generation of female STEM leaders around the globe.”
Still, there have been treacherous waters, including five women who filed claims of sexual harassment and bullying in connection with the 2016 inaugural voyage. To Homeward Bound’s credit, several of these women are now participating in efforts to reform the program to make future voyages safer for participants.
Beyond the headlines, Homeward Bound gives its participants a story to tell.
Stories, says Hessenberger, are how you reach people. “Picture 80 women who meet for the first time on a boat in the choppy Antarctic waters; that gets people hooked. It gives you a framework to talk about things like climate change or gender equality that engages people in a way that the facts alone can’t.”
The effect of a program like Homeward Bound on women in STEM will reveal itself only with time. But if there is one thing that the #MeToo movement has shown, it is that women are now pushing for cultural changes in all fields, including science.
“When 1,000 women say one thing, it is not just a voice, it is a megaphone,” says Hessenberger. “This is the start of a big, slow-moving cultural change.”