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The women of Homeward Bound. Photo credit: Anne Christianson
By Molly Taft
Heidi Steltzer's job, as she put 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 Seltzer'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 Seltzer. "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."
Heidi Steltzer.Anne Christianson
Seltzer'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 10 years to influence public policy and dialogue.
While women made up more than 50 percent of the U.S. 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 women of Homeward Bound. Anne Christianson
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."
Katharine Hayhoe.Katharine Hayhoe
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."
The polar plunge at Neko Bay.Sarah Brough
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."
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