Even in Antarctica, women are experiencing sexism

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A 2019 study found not even the frozen continent is untouched by gender barriers and misogyny. Ahead of International Women’s Day, female scientists tell us why they persevere in such challenging conditions.

Antarctica’s challenges are greater than just the ice.

Poorly-fitted clothing which makes fieldwork more difficult; male colleagues who are reluctant to take on cooking and cleaning tasks; and a research vessel nicknamed ‘The Love Boat’ due to the expectation of on-board hook-ups.

According to a study published earlier this year by researchers at the University of Tasmania (UTAS), these are just some of the barriers facing women who work in Antarctic research.

Homeward Bound
The first all-female Homeward Bound Antarctic voyage in 2016.
Dr Meredith Nash

Lead author Dr Meredith Nash, who is deputy director of the Institute for the Study of Social Change, told SBS News: “I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was. Although I was very familiar with gender barriers in STEMM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine], it hadn’t crossed my mind that there are specific physical and cultural barriers to conducting Antarctic fieldwork.”

“It was during a [female only] Homeward Bound journey to Antarctica in 2016, when I spoke to women who had been conducting fieldwork for decades, that I started to think about the issue more deeply.”

I was grabbed on the behind during a voyage … some colleagues had other experiences with the same person. But none of us mentioned it further. 

One researcher quoted in the UTAS study noted: “With the small ratio of women to men it was tiring having to put up with all the men circling. It doesn’t help that over summer all the animals are breeding and some of the humans just seem to follow suit.”

Another said, “I was grabbed on the behind by one of the crew during a voyage … I mentioned it to some colleagues and they had other experiences with the same person. But none of us mentioned it further. The hassle of reporting it and not being believed, being dragged through disciplinary meetings (if it ever got that far) and reading about other researchers’ experiences in reporting behaviour far worse, made the prospect of reporting it not seem worthwhile.”  

Left out in the cold

There is a long tradition of men working in Antarctica: black and white images of heroic masculine figures battling their way through the snow to ‘do science’ are pervasive, even today. When Ernest Shackleton advertised for fellow expeditioners in 1914, he rejected the three women (or as they referred to themselves, “three sporty girls”) who had applied to join him, and it was only in the 1980s that the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) first allowed women to stay on research stations.

Efforts from universities and research organisations in recent years have seen the community of Antarctic researchers slowly begin to diversify. But even as the number of women entering the field has increased – nearly 60 per cent of early career polar researchers are women – many of the barriers to their participation in remote fieldwork remain.

For Dr Hanne Nielsen, a former president of the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists (APECS), and a researcher specialising in representations of Antarctica in cultural production, part of the problem is the narrow perception of what constitutes legitimate polar research.

Dr Hanne Nielsen
Dr Hanne Nielsen at New Zealand Antarctic research facility Scott Base.
Supplied

Although Dr Nielsen has spent time in Antarctica as a tour guide and during a Postgraduate Certificate in Antarctic Studies, she stresses that spending time ‘on the ice’ isn’t essential.

“For me one of the biggest challenges is trying to reframe what Antarctic research actually is. The work that’s done by people back home, like modelling and data analysis, is just as valuable. The important work doesn’t have to take place in Antarctica itself.”

The lingering view that researchers need to visit Antarctica for their work to have credibility is one that particularly disadvantages minority groups, and not just because of the challenges involved with sourcing funding.  

“Scientific methods should be protected from biases, but what’s glaring about STEMM is that it hasn’t dealt with identity politics,” Dr Nash said. “Women of colour face the most hostile working environment in STEMM, and polar science has a particular problem with how white it is. In the questions we asked for the survey, women were also reluctant to ID their sexuality so it feels like there’s still a stigma around minorities.”   

Women of colour face the most hostile working environment in STEMM, and polar science has a particular problem with how white it is.

-  Dr Meredith Nash

And with women still bearing a disproportionate responsibility for caring duties, it remains much harder for them to balance family commitments and career expectations.

Professor Emma Johnston AO is dean of science at UNSW. Her work in marine ecology and ecotoxicology has seen her undertake voyages to Antarctica of up to three months, but when she became a mother her ability to spend long periods on the ice stopped.

“A year after returning from my first major voyage I had my first child. From that point onwards, my Antarctic research had to be conducted via my students, postdoctoral researchers and collaborators. They got to go south. I got to write the grant applications and design the projects.”

Jasmine Lee
Jasmine Lee on the sub-Antarctic Macquarie Island.
Supplied

Even for those researchers who haven’t yet reached a point where they have carer’s commitments, there’s an awareness that it may become an issue in the future.

Jasmine Lee is a third year PhD student at the University of Queensland, whose work focuses on conserving biodiversity in the Antarctic. She told SBS News: “I do sometimes worry about having children and how it will impact my ability to keep up career progression – a challenge faced by all women in STEMM – and also about how it will impact my ability to undertake fieldwork, which I love more than words can say.”

Breaking the ice

The good news is that a cultural shift does seem to be taking place. When the data in the UTAS survey was broken down by decade, it was revealed that 69 per cent of women working in Antarctica in the 2010s reported no gender differentiation compared to 52 per cent in the 1990s and 2000s.

More women entering Antarctic research and progressing through the leadership hierarchy means there are more role models and mentors, more formal and informal support networks, and more women with fieldwork experience who are willing to talk openly about their experiences – both good and bad.

Mindful of the difficulties she faced conducting fieldwork after becoming a parent, Professor Johnston is now a founding director of the Antarctic Science Foundation (ASF), which has been established to provide funding for research projects.

“The building of runways in Antarctica is opening up research for people who are primary carers. Being able to get away for a two-week field trip makes the whole endeavour more manageable.”

But it’s also clear that there is significant work still to be done, and that while some individuals have adopted a more inclusive, intersectional approach to their work, the change within major institutions has been slower to happen.

Dr Kimberley Norris is a consultant clinical psychologist with the AAD who provides training in mental health for doctors travelling to Antarctica, along with intervention and support for researchers conducting remote fieldwork.

Research undertaken by Dr Norris has demonstrated that the biggest predictor of how well people transition to an extreme environment like Antarctica – especially women – is the support and training they receive before, during and after their time on the ice: not just at the individual and organisational level, but at the familial level too.

“What we see in Antarctica is not too different from what we’d see in any work situation, but being geographically removed means that you feel socially more isolated and problems become amplified. Simple things like missing a birthday have a higher impact than they would if you were in your normal working environment. Knowing that your family is happy is very important because that allows you to focus on your work.”

Being geographically removed means that you feel socially more isolated and problems become amplified.

- Dr Kimberley Norris 

Working towards improved pre-departure training on how to deal with a range of situations that researchers might encounter during fieldwork is also a priority for Dr Nash.

“It’s important to have conversations not just about harassment procedures, but about challenges like working alongside scientists from other international programs who have different backgrounds and cultural values. Those sessions need to be properly resourced and I’m feeling hopeful but it’s a long road ahead.”

Dr Narissa Bax
Dr Narissa Bax.
Supplied

The question of whether it’s worthwhile confronting inappropriate behaviour that takes place during fieldwork seems to be a common one.

Dr Narissa Bax, a researcher at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, who has participated in five collaborative Antarctic field seasons over the last 10 years, says “The expectation to ‘just get on with it’ when you’re working in remote areas is strong, and I would argue necessary at times (you can’t easily get back and re-sample), but it shouldn’t come at the expense of personal safety and wellbeing to continually prove yourself – that you’re capable as a woman should be readily implied and I hope we’re at that point.”

Passion for polar

While there may not be complete agreement on the extent of the problem of sexism, or the single best approach for dealing with it, there’s one thing that women working in Antarctica do agree on. For those who overcome the obstacles to forge a career in polar research, the professional and personal rewards are immense.

The remoteness and extremeness bring people together.

- Jasmine Lee, PhD student 

“You will undoubtedly form friendships and collaborations that will last a lifetime,” PhD student Ms Lee says. “There is something about an experience like seeing an Adélie penguin colony for the first time that you just can’t create in a typical work setting. The remoteness and extremeness bring people together.”

Dr Bax agrees.

“As you’re travelling through the ice-floes, whales are swimming, and remote operated vehicles are recording deep biodiversity never seen before … the predominant feeling for me and many of the people I work with has always been comparative insignificance. The research becomes so much bigger than any of us and as a community we work together to be most effective.”

Kim Ellis, director of the Australian Antarctic Division, said women make a “significant contribution” to Australia’s Antarctic program.

The number of female participants in the program is increasing, he said, and the division “acknowledges there have been issues in the past around gender equity and will be creating a gender action plan to ensure we have a balanced and respectful workplace into the future”.

International Women’s Day will be marked on Friday, 8 March.

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