Breaking ice in Antarctica to inspire women leaders in STEM

Could Homeward Bound, a leadership program that includes a mission to Antarctica, help change the lack of women leaders in the STEM space?

The lack of women leaders in the STEM space is a well-documented problem. Could Homeward Bound, a leadership program that includes a mission to Antarctica, help change those numbers?

In December 2016, the largest expedition of female scientists to Antarctica set sail from Ushuaia, a city at the southernmost tip of Argentina, known by locals as el Fin del Mundo, the end of the world.

On board the MV Ushuaia were 76 science-trained women from eight countries, participants in Homeward Bound, an initiative that aims to increase the number of women in leadership positions in the STEM sector (science, technology, engineering and maths). 

Also aboard were Antarctic veteran team leader Greg Mortimer OAM, and Homeward Bound co-founder and leadership expert Fabian Dattner, on her first trip to the ice. 

The expedition sailed down the Beagle Channel, on to the Drake Passage and into the Antarctic Convergence, where the warm water of the northern oceans meets the cold southern currents. 

“You go into an impenetrable fog and the sea goes still, and sound is muted,” recalls Dattner. “In the space of two hours the temperature drops dramatically.”

On the other side of the Convergence lies an unfamiliar world of strange shapes and incredible colours, full of penguins, breaching whales and icebergs in their thousands. 

“Icebergs aren’t what you think they are. They’re behemoths. Your words vanish,” marvels Dattner. 

This beautiful backdrop was an ideal setting for bright scientific minds to discuss the future of humankind in an age of climate change, one of Dattner’s primary concerns. 

This beautiful backdrop was an ideal setting for bright scientific minds to discuss the future of humankind in an age of climate change, one of Dattner’s primary concerns. “If just the ice on the [Antarctic] peninsula alone melted, the ocean level would rise by a metre,” she says. 

Dattner, founding partner of Melbourne-based management consultancy Dattner Grant, is a leadership expert of 25 years’ standing. Her career has reached the heights of the C-suite and seen her consulting with organisations from TAFE Queensland and the University of Tasmania to engineering consultants Ch2M and food company General Mills. From this, she says the lesson that has resonated most deeply is the importance of diversity. 

She first thought good leaders were self-made, and that responsibility lay with women when their careers stalled. 

“I came from a belief that if you wanted to be a leader, if you wanted to get on in business, then you had to have the capacity to take feedback, listen to people, have a vision that made sense, understand strategy development and execution, [and] commit, and engage like-minded people.”

Leadership expert Fabian Dattner, co-founder of Homeward Bound.However, it soon dawned on her that the consistent absence of women at the leadership table was due to structural flaws in the system. 

“Something was causing women not to be present, or present in anything like a significantly influential number,” she says. 

One reason is women balancing their careers with family responsibilities. Women are more likely to work part-time and, as a result, are not even considered for more senior positions (see “What holds women back?” below). They are effectively bumped off the career ladder.

Figures from the Office of the Chief Scientist are stark. Just 12 per cent of Australia’s female STEM graduates make it into the top income bracket (earning above A$104,000 a year), compared to 32 per cent of their male counterparts, states its 2016 Australia’s STEM Workforce report.  

This happens despite the recognised advantages of having women in senior positions. “Organisations that have more women at the top of the table make better decisions, are more inclusive, and people enjoy themselves more,” says Dattner. 

“They’re more collaborative … [they are] more inclined to make decisions about money and people for the greater good.” 

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A different leadership journey

During a leadership course she was running with scientists from the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) and the Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies, Dattner was chatting with some women. The conversation quickly moved from joy to frustration and anger as they shared stories of budget cuts, misuse of funds, and being passed over for promotion to jobs that went to less-qualified male colleagues.

From that, Dattner dreamed up the idea for Homeward Bound, a year-long leadership and strategy program for women in science, which would culminate in a three-week voyage to Antarctica. The women would develop the skills and networks needed to influence policy and decision-making and create a more sustainable future. 

She consulted with marine ecologist Jess Melbourne-Thomas, “one of these amazing can-do women”, who encouraged her to submit a proposal to the AAD, where it was signed off by the then CEO Dr Tony Fleming. 

“He thought it was a brilliant idea,” says Dattner.

Three principles underpin Homeward Bound. “One, every woman participating must be better able to lead [on completing the course]. Number two, she must recognise we are stronger together. Number three, we have to have an impact in the world,” says Dattner.

The course covers five areas: leadership development, strategic capability, personal visibility and science communication, science collaboration, and reflective journalling as a tool to encourage critical analysis and the sharing of insights. Before the voyage, the women participate in monthly conference calls and work together on group projects.

Samantha Hall is an adjunct research fellow at Curtin University and holds a PhD in sustainable building. A member of the first cohort, Hall found the leadership diagnostics that preceded the expedition invaluable as she launched her start-up Rate My Space, a tool for creating healthier and more productive workplaces. 

For the first time, she learned to analyse her own leadership style, recognise her strengths and weaknesses, and detect unconscious biases in herself and others. It was a transformative year, she says. 

“My perception of leadership started to change and we brought that all together on the boat.”

Samantha Hall from Rate My Space.Like Dattner, Hall was awestruck by the Antarctic landscape. 

“It was beautiful but incredibly vulnerable as well. You could see the actual impact of climate change. We landed at a few science research bases and spoke with the scientists, and saw where the glaciers that they were tracking used to be and where they are now. That was incredibly confronting.”

Every morning, the expeditioners would either make a landing or venture out in Zodiac boats. Afternoons were spent on coursework aboard the ship. 

“It was incredible because we had no contact with the outside world. There were a couple of computers that could sometimes get an internet connection, but sometimes not,” recalls Hall. 

“You’re really focused on being there and being present.”

Hall’s experience aboard the ship gave her the courage to step away from academia to focus on her business venture. A strategy map realigned her vision, while praise from her shipmates strengthened her resolve. 

“Even if I fail, I hope that I can inspire other women to give it a try,” she says. “I realised that I needed to stop talking about women’s lack of confidence and actually needed to be brave myself and take that step.”

The next voyage

The second Homeward Bound voyage, set for February 2018, will take 80 women from 13 countries to Antarctica. Among them is Hong Kong student Wing Chan, who is completing a PhD in coral reef restoration at the University of Melbourne and the Australian Institute of Marine Science. Her ambition is to become an “impactful” marine scientist. 

“By impactful I mean someone that can make a difference to policy and raise public awareness,” she says. 

Mass bleaching events in the Great Barrier Reef have put reef restoration under the spotlight. 

“I believe my research can inform policy, but I need leadership and communication skills to make a difference,” she says. “Homeward Bound is a perfect opportunity to develop these skills.”

Ten women were offered scholarships to cover the US$26,000 ticket: six from China and four from “countries most able to contribute, least able to fund, most affected by climate change,” says Dattner.

While Homeward Bound is largely self-funded, it has received support from organisations including i-nexus, Human Synergistics, EB Psych, Kathmandu, Dattner Grant, About Learning, and Elmwood Studios. Some participants like Hall and Chan received financial help in the form of sponsorship, often from universities. Others have turned to crowdfunding to pay their way. 

Dattner’s goal is to see 1000 women complete the course over 10 years, and build an enduring international network. “We’ve already booked the third ship,” she says. 

She is eager to return to Antarctica with the 2018 expedition. 

“It changes everyone who goes there. You carry it etched into your soul,” she says. “You will have an inescapable craving to go back.” 

What holds women back?

The 2015 Survey of Women in the STEM Professions by Professionals Australia revealed that while about 33 per cent of STEM graduates in Australia were women, they tended to get stuck in lower and middle level jobs – “doing the grunt work”, as one respondent put it – and were under-represented at the most senior levels. 

One reason for this was the lack of part-time management roles. Women are more likely to balance work with family responsibilities by going part-time, and as senior roles are usually full-time, they’re effectively shut out of these jobs. Some women told the survey they were offered demotions when they returned to work after having a baby, as a way to accommodate them working part-time. 

This failure to offer flexible work arrangements “limits the talent pool from which an organisation’s workforce is drawn and, in turn, limits their diversity advantage (diverse teams have been consistently shown to outperform on innovation, problem-solving, flexibility, and decision-making)”, says Professionals Australia in its The Slower Track analysis of the survey results, released in 2016.

Workplace culture, lack of access to senior roles for women, and a paucity of job opportunities and career support were identified as other blocks to women reaching senior levels. 

This bias is also apparent in the academic sphere. In Australia in 2014, women made up almost a third of academic staff in the STEM areas (excluding medical science and health). Yet while nearly 42 per cent of junior academic staff were female, only about 14 per cent of senior STEM professors were women, according to figures published by Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE).

Unequal numbers

  • In Australia in 2011, 84 per cent of people with a STEM qualification were male. 
  • The STEM field with the most unequal gender mix was engineering, which was 93 per cent male.
  • Between 2006 and 2011, the number of females with STEM qualifications increased by 23 per cent.
Source: Australia’s STEM Workforce, Office of the Chief Scientist, March 2016

Read next: Powerful actions to promote women into leadership roles


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