Largest all-female expedition braves Antarctica to fight inequality, climate change

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The largest all-female expedition to Antarctica, comprising 76 scientists, is due to set sail from Argentina on Friday in a quest to promote women in science and highlight the impact of climate change on the planet.

The international team will brave sub-zero temperatures to undergo a 20-day bootcamp on the frozen continent aimed at developing their leadership skills and challenging male dominance of senior scientific roles.

Women make up only 28 percent of the world’s researchers and are particularly under-represented at senior levels, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) says.

Yet greater female leadership is needed to fight climate change, which disproportionately affects women, according to Fabian Dattner, co-founder of the Antarctica initiative, Homeward Bound.

“Mother Nature needs her daughters,” said Dattner, an Australian entrepreneur and leadership coach.

Many of sub-Saharan Africa’s smallholder farmers - one of the groups hardest hit by more frequent and worsening drought linked to climate change - are women.

In other parts of the developing world, women and girls face the prospect of walking further to gather water as a result of climate change drying up riverbeds and groundwater supplies.

Natural disasters, which are expected to worsen with climate change, are also likely to kill more women and girls than men, a 2007 study from the London School of Economics showed.

Dattner said she decided to set up the initiative after hearing a group of polar scientists joking that candidates had to have a beard to land a leadership role in Antarctic science.

“The message of Homeward Bound is to bring together this intelligent, capable group of women who are not seen, not recognized, and in large part somewhat sidelined,” Dattner told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.

Many scientists on the expedition have experienced some form of sexual harassment, discrimination and misogyny in their careers, she added.

British marine ecologist Raeanne Miller said there was solidarity among colleagues as they swapped stories of the difficulties they were facing in their careers and the challenge of striking a work-life balance.

“In science sometimes it is hard to pull yourself out of your research focus and broaden your prospective,” Miller told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Often you feel as if you are the only one experiencing what you are experiencing.”

Dattner hopes more than 1,000 women over the next 10 years will take part in the initiative to create a network of female scientists.

“We have to recognize that as women we are stronger together,” Dattner said.