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How Female Researchers Fought to Work with Men in Antarctica

For decades, women in science from around the world have fought to explore Antarctica. Stereotypes about the way women behave previously barred them from polar exploration until 1956. Up until then, women made many attempts to join their male counterparts.

The first expedition to Antarctica was fully executed in 1914 by Ernest Shackleton, who had tried and failed to do the same thing in 1902 with Robert Scott. Three women wrote to Sir Shackleton, seeking a place in the crew of his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. In their letter, they wrote, “we do not see why men should have all the glory and women none.” Still, they were not permitted to come along.

In 1937, 1,300 women applied to join a proposed British expedition and all were denied. Finally, in 1956 Russian geologist Maria Klenova became the first woman to conduct research in the Antarctic with the Soviet expedition. Argentine scientists didn’t reverse their formal ban until 1968, followed by the U.S. in 1969, and Australia in 1974.

Even after Klenova broke the ice ceiling in 1956, the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) turned down an application in the 1960s, citing that “there [were] no facilities for ladies in the Antarctic,” meaning a separate toilet, shops, and hairdressers. Women were turned down based on stereotypes of what men thought women would want to have while away from home.

Geologist Sudipta Sengupta became one of the first Indian women to set foot on Antarctica in 1983. The group’s mission was to set up the first Indian station in the Antarctic, and Sengupta played many crucial roles in this mission that were both mentally and physically demanding.

“You have to consider yourself equally capable as a man in everything you do,” said Sengupta who had to fight for men to see her as more than just an ornamental part of the team.

In 1984, Dr. Monika Puskeppeleit began appealing to Germany’s polar research institute, but was initially turned down because they didn’t want to have mixed-gendered teams on an Antarctic base. Since women and men were not allowed to mix, Puskeppeleit led the first all-female team to Antarctica in 1989. The team spent 14 months isolated in brutal weather with Puskeppeleit as the base leader and medical doctor.

The last male-only field opportunities were finally opened to women in 1996, and progress continues to be made in women’s fight for equality in the field of science. BAS is now led by its first female director, Jane Francis. Dr. Jess Walkup, the base leader at Rothera Station on the Antarctic Peninsula, reports that no one treats her any differently, even as the only woman on the team.

Still, women are less likely to overwinter in Antarctica, but Walkup feels that it is due to the nature of the support roles necessary to keep the base running in harsh conditions. Mechanics, plumbers, and engineers all come from male-dominated industries, but many feel that the opportunities for women have improved. After the long road of women trying to gain access to research in Antarctica, they finally have opportunities, but there is still an uneven gender distribution. Hopefully, the next generation will see Antarctic science as a gender-inclusive field.

Featured Image by Andreas Kambanis on Flickr

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