My name is Associate Professor Meredith Nash, and I’m a Senior Advisor for Inclusion, Diversity and Equity at the Australian Antarctic Division.
My story begins in 2016. I’m on a ship to Antarctica as a sociologist to study a group of 77 women who are about to embark on a 3-week leadership program for women in STEMM.
These women worked in all different scientific fields – there were mathematicians, evolutionary biologists, geologists, pharmacologists, forest rangers, astronomers, and engineers.
Up until this point, as a sociologist, I had basically never thought about Antarctica, women in STEMM, or just how seasick you can get from a 4-metre swell.
But this voyage was important… because it was the largest non-scientific expedition of women to Antarctica in history.
Women have been heading south to Antarctica in a range of capacities for decades, but the thing is – the icy continent has historically been a place for men to do research and exploration.
During my three weeks in Antarctica, I pondered this question… how had our expedition had come to be such a big deal?
And it was… there was even a film made about it.
How had Antarctica come to be so dominated by men? Where were all the women?
And the answer to my question had been there all along, on a map on the wall of the ship where I looked every morning to see where we were headed
On one of these mornings, I spotted Marguerite Bay, on the Western Antarctic peninsula.
Aha, I thought, so there were women here, at least symbolically, ages ago.
Antarctica has been mapped geographically since ancient times, but its human history is relatively new.
And for the most part, when we talk about Antarctica’s human history, we are talking about heroic white men who explored the continent.
But who was Marguerite…?
Her name reached the Antarctic because her husband, Dr Jean-Baptiste Charcot, leader of the French Antarctic Expedition, discovered a bay and named it for her in 1909.
So there she was, symbolically, as were many of the other women to Antarctica — names on maps.
More than 200 places in Antarctica are named after women.
In 1931 two Norwegians, Ingrid Christensen and Mathilde Wegger were the first women to visit Antarctica, and they stayed on the ship.
They arrived on the Thorhaven. Ingrid’s husband was a shipping magnate and he owned the Thorhaven.
A coast was named in Ingrid Christensen’s honour.
Australian explorer Douglas Mawson, also landed in Antarctica in 1931, and he got quite a shock when he saw Christensen and Wegger on a ship and reported his ‘astonishment’ to the Sydney Morning Herald.
It’s entirely possible that women visited Antarctica earlier, but their stories were never recorded.We do know, when Ernest Shackleton advertised his 1914 Antarctic expedition, “three sporty girls” begged to join. He replied: “regrets there are no vacancies for the opposite sex on the expedition.”
Caroline Mikkelson was the first woman to set foot on Antarctica in 1935.
She arrived a century after men. A few women over-wintered in Antarctica in the 1940s but it really wasn’t until 1956 that things started to change when it came to women’s involvement in science.
Russian geologist Maria Klenova landed in Antarctica to make the first Soviet Antarctic Atlas.
Now not only were women on maps of Antarctica, but they were also literally in Antarctica making maps.
Nel Law was the first Australian woman to set foot on the continent, at Mawson in 1960-61.
Nel accompanied her husband Phil Law on the Magga Dan.
Phil was the Director of the Antarctic Division and leader of the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions (ANARE)
Nel was an artist and some of her paintings from the voyage can be seen here at the Australian Antarctic Division.
When Phil Law decided he wanted to take Nel to Antarctica, he had to smuggle her on to the ship in Perth.
When Nel was discovered by the crew, it caused quite a stir and she could stay because they thought it would cause too much negative publicity for the voyage.
In the end, it was a great boon for ANARE and led to increased support for the wives of expeditioners.
In fact, the Danish-built icebreaker MV Nella Dan was later named in Nel’s honour
Then in 1969 an American group of all-women scientists led by Lois Jones landed in Antarctica. They wanted to collect their own samples from the McMurdo Dry Valleys but had been prevented from doing so up until this point.
The significance of this expedition was noted by Walter Sullivan in the New York Times, when he described the 1969 expedition of US scientists as “an incursion of females” into “the largest male sanctuary remaining on this planet.”
Following these developments, The Australian Antarctic Division and the British Antarctic Survey allowed women to stay on research stations and conduct land-based Antarctic fieldwork, starting in the 1980s.
Now, today, women are more fully integrated into National Antarctic Programs and women often lead field teams.
Nearly 60% of early career researchers in polar science internationally are women.
Yet there is still work to be done which is why I’m here at the Australian Antarctic Program as Senior Advisor – Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity.
For example, while women’s participation in the Australian Antarctic Program is increasing, women still comprise only 24% of expeditioners… the US Antarctic Program and British Antarctic Program, report 33% and 30%, respectively.
Antarctica is a diverse workplace and as such, we need to continually reassess our processes and procedures to ensure that a polar career is safe and accessible for all people.
Considering changing social norms and recent movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, the AAD has acknowledged, there is a need to rethink equity and inclusion in the context of polar research, and to address the structural inequality that underpins science more broadly.
A key question for us is whether we are going to interrupt or disrupt gender inequality in the AAP.
Interrupting is recognising that inequality exists, but we aren’t holding ourselves accountable.
Disrupting inequality is about ending inequality – we commit to holding systems and people accountable.
Disruption requires a mindset of vulnerability – it is a recognition of the fact that change is hard – and long – there are no shortcuts. We might make mistakes along the way but that’s okay.
So my aim is to use insights from social science to spark a conversation about what disrupting inequality looks like in the Australian Antarctic Program and how we can bring about systematic change within Antarctic research.
For example, this year I’m focusing on how we can update the image of an Antarctic scientist so that it is more inclusive of under-represented groups like women, people of colour, and LGBTIQ+ folks.
I’m also working to ensure that here at the AAD we are regularly engaging our community in issues of diversity and equity – like celebrating international days of recognition like NAIDOC week and recognising Polar Pride.
This will enrich the diversity of the scientific community and have flow on effects for the quality of Australia’s Antarctic science.