Breaking the Ice: Women’s Role in Antarctica


Antarctica, once a domain dominated by men, is slowly seeing a cultural shift as women take on leadership roles, participate in expeditions, and engage in policy conversations. The trend has been driven by a combination of factors, including reports of sexual harassment and assault in predominantly male environments, recognition of women’s contributions, and efforts to overcome entry barriers.

Dr Hanne Nielsen, a lecturer in Antarctic law and governance at the University of Tasmania, said, “We need to decide what kind of future we want to see for Antarctica, and which people we want making decisions about that future. Then we can decide how we make sure that those people have – and retain – a seat at the table.”The first women to visit Antarctica did so with their husbands working on whaling vessels in the first half of the 20th century. However, attitudes to women’s participation in the region were slow to change. The first woman to conduct scientific research in Antarctica was Soviet geologist Maria Klenova in 1957. However, many Antarctic programmes argued that women’s presence could prove disruptive.

In 1969, an all-women scientific team deployed to Antarctica prompted a New York Times reporter to dub their work “an incursion” into the “largest male sanctuary remaining on this planet.” Nevertheless, diversity and inclusion still have a long way to go on Antarctica. One 2016 study found that 60% of early-career polar researchers are women, but retaining them in the field is another matter.

Dr Nielsen emphasized the importance of increasing the number of women working in Antarctica, as well as those from different geographic, linguistic, or disciplinary backgrounds. “The more perspectives you have, the richer that conversation can be – and the more likely we are to be able to respond to the huge challenges facing the polar regions,” she said.

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