76 women on a glacier are changing the world
“We’re going to keep fighting to ensure climate progress is made.”
The women of Homeward Bound. CREDIT: Anne Christianson
By Molly Taft
Heidi Steltzer’s job, as she puts it, is “hiking where no one else will go.”
As a mountain and polar ecologist studying rare plants, she’s accustomed to traveling to breathtaking Arctic vistas to chase flora along mountain ridges.
But watching glaciers calve on her first trip to Antarctica last December was a one-of-a-kind experience for the scientist. “You kind of want to see it,” she said.
“Even though you know it’s not a good thing, you kind of want to be there.”
As she watched the great icebergs float by the boat in Neko Harbor, another member of Steltzer’s trip waved her arm at the scene, as if summoning a force to shave the glaciers surrounding them.
“Can you imagine if any one of us had that kind of power to see ice calve when you wanted to see it?” laughed Steltzer. “But at the same time, we knew, collectively — we do have that power.
You can’t say these specific glaciers are definitively calving because of human action.
But these events continuing to happen is consistent in that system, and consistent with what we know about human activity and climate change.”
Steltzer’s colleagues were more knowledgeable than your average gaggle of tourists.
The travelers on her trip were all scientists, and several of them focus specifically on climate change.
What’s more, her 75 companions on the three-week trip were all women, bound together on the largest-ever, all-female expedition to Antarctica.
The trip was the focal point of a year-long leadership development program called Homeward Bound, which aims to groom 1,000 women with science backgrounds over the next ten years to influence public policy and dialogue.
While women made up more than 50 percent of the US workforce in 2016, they represented only 24 percent of workers in STEM — science, technology, engineering, and math.
Representation in public policy is even worse: Women hold less than 23 percent of parliamentary positions worldwide, and less than 20 percent of Congress is female.
The founder of Homeward Bound told Reuters that inspiration came from the trip from hearing two scientists joke that a beard was a requirement to land an Antarctic research leadership role.
The problem of female leadership in STEM isn’t a new one. When Katharine Hayhoe, director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University and a leading U.S. climate voice, was a second-year undergraduate physics student, the head of the department called her into his office to ask how the program could help encourage her career as a female physicist.
“My mentors in science from day one have all been male,” she recalled. “I’ve learned a lot from them and I’ve been incredibly encouraged and supported by them. But at the same time, there have been differences between us.”
Lifestyle and family changes, Hayhoe emphasized, provide a particular sticking point between the genders in STEM. “As I got older, I started to realize how big the gap was between colleagues who basically had a spouse who managed everything full time,” she said. “They could just, at the drop of the hat, leap on an airplane and be off to a meeting, versus a mother who, before you do anything, you’ve got to do all the laundry, freeze the meals, figure out who is picking the kids up from schools. At this point, if someone asks me to do something at the drop of the hat, the answer is no — and this still happens to me today.”
Steltzer echoed similar experiences. “At one point in time, women were present in equal measures to myself at a peer level,” she said. “But now that I’m in my early 40s, an associate professor, in many environments I’m in there are fewer women. There are ways we can do better.”
She pointed out that the perception of “good old boys’ clubs” in male-dominated fields may just be men connecting with each other over shared experiences. Getting a group of female scientists together can create a collaborative, experience-based atmosphere that can be difficult for women to find at home. “Homeward Bound created for us women a space and a place where we feel connected to one another.”
For Anne Christianson, a younger Homeward Bounder, the trip took on special importance for her work. Christianson is completing a Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota, and her dissertation focuses on how climate change disproportionately affects women in developing countries. She points out that, while it was easy to see the consequences of climate change watching glaciers in Antarctica, it’s important to keep in mind how climate change threatens women around the globe.
“We have these cascading impacts [of climate change] on women that simply aren’t seen in men,” Christianson said. “Women generally don’t have enough capital to build our own resilience to climate change.”
Press link for more: Think Progress