"Ice Queen" melts gender bias in Antarctica

SYDNEY (Reuters Life!) - In the 1980s, an era when women struggled to carve out their role in the corporate world, Diana Patterson overcame rejection and gender bias to become the world’s first female to run an Australian Antarctic Station.

In 1987, after battling what she called “the boy’s club” of the Australian Antarctic Division for almost a decade, Patterson finally headed out to Mawson Station in East Antarctica, with the nickname “Lady Di.”

Patterson, who began her days as a physical education teacher, worked in welfare and conservation within the Australian government for years before she decided to take on the Australian Antarctic Division, another government body.

She applied to the panel four times before she was finally accepted at the age of 38.

Patterson, who retired from the government, now travels on the Antarctic cruises and leads tours into the camp set up by Sir Douglas Mawson’s 1911-14 Australasian Antarctic Expedition at Cape Denison in East Antarctica.

She describes her journey in a recently published biography, “The Ice Beneath My Feet, My Year in Antarctica,” which details life in one of the world’s harshest environments.

She spoke to Reuters recently about Antarctica and why she waited 20 years to tell her tale.

Q: It took you 8 years between applying for the job and getting it. Why so long?

A: “The main reason is, when I first applied, there weren’t any Australian women working on the Antarctic continent. In fact only two women (American and New Zealander) had worked on any Antarctic research base and I wanted to go as a boss so it was a big leap.”

Q: The Australian Antarctic Division rejected your application several times. Did you ever feel like giving up?

A: “No, I just thought it’s a matter of time. Even when I did get knocked back I thought ‘I’ll reapply’. The Antarctic Division had to get used of the idea and I thought I was good enough.”

Q: When you were finally accepted what did it feel like to be the world’s first female leader?

A: “At the time, the world’s first wasn’t really a concern. It wasn’t about the ego as much as realizing a long held ambition. I was over the moon, I was really, really excited. To be one of the group and be accepted for my skills and my ability and not to be treated as a token women was very important to me. I found once I did become part of a working team with the guys, it was incredibly rewarding. We were dependent on each other and I think we all came away with more respect because we’d seen each other in -40 degrees and the wind blowing at 50 knots.”

Q: Describe some of the highs and lows of your experience.

A: “The high part was the dog sledging because it was one of those opportunities that so few people have in Antarctica and will never have again because the dogs have been removed. So traveling on an epic journey round the coast of Antarctica over the sea ice was amazing. It was the toughest thing I’ve ever done. I loved being there every day, there wasn’t a time I didn’t want to be there but I think the low was the injuries from being tossed off the dogs sleigh on the ice. The pain when you got up... but you overcame that.”

Q: So what was the most frightening part of the experience?

A: “To have the carpenter cut your hair. Our carpenter was one of our hairdressers at Mawson Station. One day, one of the guys came out and his hair looked perfect from the front but there was a big diamond cut in the back of his head and so I never went to the carpenter for a hair cut after that.”

Q: How did you keep morale up and pass the time at the Station?

A: “Because we worked six days a week and you’re in this isolated environment that you’re working hard for 12 months without a real holiday, Saturday nights once-a-month became very special so we’d have a party. The most amazing one we had was when we turned the mess into a train and we went on a train trip around Antarctica. Our chief had worked out what food he would cook that depended on the stations we went to. When we pulled into the station we had all the sound effects of the brakes and the carpenter would run past the window holding a sign whether it was the Russian or the Japanese Station we came into. It’s amazing how with just 25 people you can create your own fun: I always say one of the keys to leadership that’s not mentioned is being ability to throw a good party to ensure people laugh.”

Q: Why did it take you 20 years to tell your story?

A: “There are two reasons: one is I believe it would have been career-limiting if those same managers in the conservation area had read not only some of the epic things I’d done but more the outrageous things. Also I was very busy, and when you’re a senior manager to sit down and write a book requires a lot of time. When I started working on the cruise ship, people were really intrigued by the stories and what it was like to live there and said why haven’t you written a book, so finally I shared a cabin with a woman who made sure I did.”

Q: After proving leadership qualities in one of the world’s most hostile places, was it easier to get senior management positions when you returned?

A: “I thought after the Antarctic experience the doors would be open, but the boys still kept them closed. I did get the senior positions but I found that I would not get them by confrontation; charm was a much more successful strategy.”

Reporting by Pauline Askin, Editing by Miral Fahmy