Despite lingering historical barriers, women increasing presence in Antarctic research

Despite lingering historical barriers, women increasing presence in Antarctic research
Related Topics:
Oceans, Science Communication

By Wyatt Mosiman

Explorers — nearly all of them men — first sighted Antarctica some 200 years ago in 1820 and put up barriers to deter any women who hoped to join them.

In 1914, famed British explorer Ernest Shackleton told three women his expedition has “no vacancies for the opposite sex,” in what was hardly an isolated incident of discrimination. It took a prolonged struggle, but today, women are a growing presence among the scientists and explorers in Antarctica.

One place the evolution of this presence can be seen is at McMurdo Station, the main U.S. research station on the southern continent.

“When I first started going there, it was a military base, so it was highly male,” said Brenda Hall, a professor and researcher at the University of Maine, whose first season in Antarctica was in 1990.

McMurdo was first established as a military outpost, though control was transferred to the National Science Foundation by 1998. The U.S. Navy first allowed a woman biologist — Mary Alice McWhinnie — on a research vessel in 1962, but didn’t allow women at the base until 1969. That year, a four-woman team was allowed to research in the McMurdo Dry Valleys. Since then, integration of women researchers in Antarctica has been slow, but steady.

Hall’s research, primarily on the paleoclimate clues of glacial history, takes her to many of the rockier parts of the continent, including across the whole length of the Transantarctic Mountains and to the Antarctic Peninsula. Understanding Antarctica’s past is an important factor in interpreting what might lie ahead as the Earth’s climate heats up.

“The Antarctic ice sheet is the major control on global sea level today, and in the future, most likely,” Hall said.

In recent years, one of Hall’s students accompanied her to Antarctica. She is Laura Mattas, 23, who went during her junior and senior undergraduate years at the University of Maine. Mattas started as a field assistant and then became a research assistant, working with Hall to use a technique that looks at the quartz on rocks to determine when they were deposited in the terrain—left ice free by a retreating glacier. The isotopes in the quartz act as a time machine that can show a history of glacial melt.

“We like to make maps because it’s a little bit more intuitive and easier to communicate to people who might not be really up to date with our studies,” Mattas said.

For the vast majority of the time, Hall and Mattas remained isolated in the field, at a location that required a helicopter ride to reach. During the time they spent at McMurdo, the gender ratio at the base was a stark contrast to when they were with their all-female field team.

“When I was on base, it’s very, very male dominated,” Mattas said. “I wouldn’t say it was a problem. But I would say that the fact I was a woman did not go unnoticed by the copious amount of men who were, I would say, ‘lonely.’”

But even for someone as young as she was, Mattas said she felt her position as a scientist was respected. Still, there were times she felt “a little weird,” and in one instance was harassed by construction workers, she said. The majority of the population at McMurdo aren’t scientists, but support staff, such as construction crews, administrators, pilots, and food service workers.

“All the women on base look out for women on base,” Mattas said.

Chris Carr, another woman scientist who’s spent time at McMurdo and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, echoed Mattas’ sentiment that the McMurdo base provided an uncomfortable environment with men making frequent advancements toward women. She felt this less while at her field locations.

“I haven’t personally had to deal with anything of that nature while I was in the field in Antarctica. But you know that it’s there and you know the history of women who’ve been coming there and what they’ve had to deal with, and with being excluded,” Carr said.

For Carr’s Ph.D., she’s studying a dramatic feature of Taylor Glacier in Antarctica called Blood Falls, a frozen waterfall that’s fed by water from underneath the glacier that has a high brine content. When the iron-rich brine water hits the air outside the glacier, it essentially rusts, giving the falls a reddish sheen.

“For me personally, I’m really interested in what sorts of seismic signals these brine release events might generate, and so I’ve been using some different seismic detection methods to see if we can notice anything unusual at times that brine was coming out of the glacier,” Carr said.

Mattas and Carr are part of a younger and much more diverse generation of polar scientists. According to the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research, the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists (APECS) had a membership that was 55% female in 2018.

Carr is a board member of the USAPECS, the United States branch of the organization. The group helps scientists early on in their careers studying the Arctic or Antarctic network and find resources.

USAPECS is also taking steps with the intention of supporting underrepresented groups in polar research, including women but going beyond just women. Later in an email statement, Carr explained that the organization hosted a diversity and inclusion panel, is working to make its website more screen-reader friendly and is actively reaching out to Indigenous researchers and policymakers for the website’s blog, owing to the fact that almost all arctic research is done on Indigenous land.

Marilyn Raphael, chair of the Antarctic Sea Ice Processes and Climate group (ASPeCt), thinks a key to improving representation in the sciences is having scientists visible in the field who younger people can look to and see they look like them.

“Women see other women doing science in this area, and they think they can do it too,” Raphael said.

She explained that this applies not only to women, but all underrepresented groups. Raphael, a Black woman who is originally from Trinidad and Tobago, is currently a professor at the University of California Los Angeles. This position means she’s often one of those people visible to minority students looking to see themselves in the sciences.

Raphael works to diversify the next generation of scientists through this role, as well as with her other work. She will sometimes reach out to APECS when in search of a junior scientist for a position and encourage people of underrepresented groups to apply.

While this diversity work is important to Raphael, ultimately, she says she is a scientist, and generally doesn’t see the need to make a distinction about her race or gender.

“When you say ‘scientist’ it should mean everybody,” Raphael said, referring to the fact that additional descriptors such as “woman” or “Black” are often unnecessary.

When it comes to her Antarctic work, she focuses on how sea ice and the atmosphere affect each other. Raphael enjoys linking observations to find patterns, but her methods don’t necessarily take her all the way to the South Pole.

“I don’t do the observations, satellites do the observations,” Raphael said.

For some, getting more women to Antarctica isn’t just the goal, but a step on the way.

Homeward Bound, an Australian-based initiative, is designed to “heighten the influence and impact of women in making decisions that shape our planet,” according to the website. Starting in 2016, the program has taken around 100 women in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, math and medicine) every year on a voyage to Antarctica, teaching them leadership skills along the way. The program focuses on a handful of core principles, called streams, such as ‘Science’ or ‘Visibility.’

Though they were forced to move this year’s event online due to the ongoing pandemic, the ultimate goal of Homeward bound remains to create a network of 1,000 women in ten years with strong leadership skills to diversify global leadership positions.

Joanna Young is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Her studies focus on the glaciers in Alaska and how their presence and accelerating melt affects the communities nearby. Young has never researched in Antarctica, but was a part of Homeward Bound’s first cohort of participants in 2016.

Though Young said it was a wonderful experience, she wished there had been more of a focus on systemic issues women face, rather than on individual transformation.

“I think there was a little bit of discord between what the, maybe, lead faculty members, who were leading the program were delivering versus what participants expected they might get out of the program,” Young said.

In an email statement, Homeward Bound Communications Manager Louise Johnson explained that the organization believes building leadership and collaboration skills is needed to deal with the problems facing the planet.

“The program has changed in many ways since the first voyage, with intensive feedback from participants incorporated into every stream, including the addition of a ‘Wellbeing’ stream that runs online and onboard,” Johnson said.

Additionally, in 2019 women from three of the Homeward Bound cohorts worked together to publish a research paper identifying barriers facing women in STEMM. Implicit biases, discouragement from studying STEMM and lower salaries and retention rates for women relative to men in their fields are a few of the numerous obstacles they found hindering women on these career paths.

Young thought that there were likely many reasons Antarctica was chosen as Homeward Bound’s destination.

“I think that one was to just provide a really inspiring once-in-a-lifetime experience for a lot of the women on the ship, especially those who don’t work in polar sciences,” Young said.

She also mentioned that because Antarctica is a place where the effects of climate change can already be seen, so some of their learning was centered around that. And then, of course, there’s the ever-present Antarctic glass (or perhaps ice) ceiling, with its cracks widening every day.

“Sending a ship full of women to that place is kind of a way to subvert or challenge that notion of Antarctica being a place where only men go,” Young said.

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