Smashing The Glass Ceiling In Antarctica: Scientist’s Career Advice

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7 min read

Smashing the glass ceiling in Antarctica: female scientist’s career advice.  

Occasionally life presents you with a remarkable opportunity. This young scientist’s came in the form of a voyage to the loneliest place on earth. It changed her life and what she learnt could change yours too.

Taking time out from her busy schedule as Senior Research Fellow of Planning & Geography at Curtin University in Australia, Amanda Davies (37) explains why the lack of women in senior academic positions is commonly referred to as ‘The Leaky Pipeline.’

While 45% of PhD students in the sciences are women, take a wee peek further up the ladder and this number quickly dwindles. One in five Professors are female.

Smashing the glass ceiling in Antarctica: female scientist's career advice
Smashing the glass ceiling in Antarctica: female scientist’s career advice

Year on year more and more of the women Davies worked with gave up their academic careers because of long hours, poor job security and lack of flexibility to juggle family demands. Ten years on, she cuts a lonely figure as one of the few females at her level in her work group.

Recently, Davies and 75 female scientists from all over the world scaled the snow-covered peaks and melting glaciers of deepest darkest Antarctica. They were determined to discover ways to curb the flow of talent out of their sector and to see more women in leadership roles.

Davies shares her epic adventure plus five tips we can all use to halt the drip, drip, drip of untapped potential in our own industries.
Smashing the glass ceiling in Antarctica: female scientist's career advice
Smashing the glass ceiling in Antarctica: female scientist’s career advice
It can be tricky for women to move up the career ladder in traditionally male-heavy industries, how did you navigate your way?

Rising up the ranks has not been without financial cost and significant stress. I was able to steer around the structural barriers that cause many women to leave the sector with a lot of hard work and a little luck.

I allowed work to take over virtually every aspect of my life: the day after I gave birth, I received a phone call about a work-related matter. It was clear that the more I gave the more they would take so I decided then and there that if I wanted things to change it was up to me to change them.

I also wanted to be a good role model for my students, our future leaders.  I’m determined that they won’t have to run the same gauntlet that I did.

Women should have the opportunity to pursue leadership roles and be comfortable leading in their own style. So, naturally, I jumped at the chance to hash it out with my fellow scientists (and a few penguins) in Antarctica.

Smashing the glass ceiling in Antarctica: female scientist's career advice
Taking a polar plunge: Debora Pardo, Research Associate, Cambridge University – Smashing the glass ceiling in Antarctica: female scientist’s career advice
This was the largest all-female expedition to Antarctica. With 76 intrepid travellers on a little ship for 20 days…how did that go?!

Well, we started the trip off with a few ice-breakers…ha!

20 days on board the MV Ushuaia with 75 other women scientists was full on! I cannot tell you how much laughter there was – we had a whale of a time. With hundreds of years of research between us, Google was obsolete: no question about the creatures and the natural wonders of the surrounding environment went unanswered.

Enjoying a G&T topped with 3000-year-old ice was also pretty cool.

Penguins interrupted
Smashing the glass ceiling in Antarctica: female scientist's career advice
Smashing the glass ceiling in Antarctica: female scientist’s career advice

I travel quite a bit as a geographer, but Antarctica was unlike anything I have experienced before: physically embracing us as we sailed the expanse of white wilderness. Above us, channels of ice and ancient volcanic mountains towered like skyscrapers: the landscape was epic in scale. It was summer and the days were gloriously long.

Mornings kicked off with yoga sessions on deck, a quick breakfast followed by leadership and strategy coaching sessions. These sessions were as intense as the waters were freezing. We all dived straight in (literally) despite the temperature. The afternoons were punctuated by surreal experiences on land: the hubbub of hundreds of penguins going about their daily business; silently watching dozens of Humpback Whales feeding on blankets of krill; gazing into the dangerous depths of icy crevices; watching in awe as glaciers broke apart, pondering why; hiking up snow covered peaks and (in my case) speeding back down again on my butt.

Smashing the glass ceiling in Antarctica: female scientist's career advice
Smashing the glass ceiling in Antarctica: female scientist’s career advice
What an opportunity! Who organized it?

The program is the brainchild of leadership and entrepreneur doyen, Fabian Dattner. Her vision is to build a global collaboration of 1,000 women to “enhance the influence and impact of women in science to ensure the sustainability of our beautiful planet.”

76 women in science were selected from all over the world to develop leadership, strategic and scientific capabilities. We all have one thing in common: a belief that for a more sustainable, just and equitable world we need more women in leadership roles to shape policy decisions.

Smashing the glass ceiling in Antarctica: female scientist's career advice
Smashing the glass ceiling in Antarctica: female scientist’s career advice
You must have had some amazing conversations over the 20 days – what advice can you share with us about fixing the leaky pipelines in our own workplaces?
1. We are explorers  

You and I are explorers and pioneers. As you forge your career you are opening up new and broad career pathways for many other women who will now be able to follow in your footsteps. Give yourself a pat on the back for taking up this mantle. Without your drive for change, the world stands still. It’s not easy but I promise you, it will be worth it.

2. Emotional smarts – a high yield long term investment into you

We are all emotional beings – our emotions are at the heart of who we are and they are powerful. Recognising how they influence our reactions in different contexts and how they drive others’ responses to our actions is key. Emotional agility takes time to master – invest in it now and the dividends will flow in the form of confidence and authentic leadership, enhancing our effectiveness as change-makers. Here’s a great resource to get you started: Susan David’s Emotional Agility.

3. Networks & pipelines

We will all face unexpected challenges in our careers. It’s vital to have a solid network to keep things real when these setbacks arise: to bounce ideas off, share successes and uplift.

So, join an industry body, head to a conference, speak at a seminar and meet up with your BFF on the second floor for a coffee date. If I don’t have much time, Iris Lillian is a great community to go to touch base – even just for five minutes during lunch to remind myself that other women are still out there (my work group is almost entirely male), that it’s OK to want to achieve as a woman, and that it’s OK to be a woman!

4. Are you sure there’s an imposter in the building?

I’m certain that, at some point, all of us have thought at least one of these:

‘Do I know enough to be speaking on this subject?’

‘Am I qualified enough to lead this group?’

‘Am I talented enough to run my own business?’

‘Should they have appointed me to this role?’

‘They are going to figure out I can’t do this!’

This is signature imposter syndrome and 100% normal. It’s going to happen but when it does be ready for it: recognise it, don’t inflate it (it’s not the end of the world), challenge it (you’re CV and your skill set are incredible, lady) and back yourself.

When we took the ‘polar plunge’ into the icy cold waters in Antarctica, we knew the water would be nippy (the floating sea ice gave that way) but we all came prepared with backup in the form of friends to share our triumph – and to pluck us from the icy depths should something go wrong. Don’t be afraid to take the plunge: you are prepared, you are highly capable, you can do it and there’s a raft of people out there who have your back.

5. The sky is roomy, we can all fit

We are not in competition with each other. If you win, I win. If you succeed, so do I. There is a lot of room at the top, and if it starts getting crowded, we can make more room. So take the time to bring others with you: sponsor and mentor a colleague, be vocal about your own and others’ achievements, champion open and authentic leadership traits and challenge stereotypes. Take the time to develop your network – both up and down the ladder. We can all do something to plug those drips.

In a land of untouched wilderness, behemoths of ice and surreal landscapes, stark beauty and peaceful solitude, life abounds with thousands of penguins, seals, whales and albatross thriving. I now realise that, with the right environment, we can all thrive. No plumbing required.

Do you want to see more women in senior leadership positions in your workplace? Or are women well represented at these levels? We would love to hear about your experience in the comments below or click here to compare notes with other like-minded goal-getters in the Iris Lillian squad.

Smashing the glass ceiling in Antarctica: female scientists’ career advice.

Smashing the glass ceiling in Antarctica: female scientist's career advice
Smashing the glass ceiling in Antarctica: female scientist’s career advice

Smashing the glass ceiling in Antarctica: female scientists’ career advice.

Cover photo: Renate Egan

Photo credit: Amanda Davies

7 Comments
  1. Nikita Hall says

    Love the comment about how Google was obsolete on the ship. And also re networking; I’ve found this to be so immensely beneficial to my career progression. Once you get over the initial fear it’s quite fun!

    1. Iris Lillian says

      Hi Nikita, I’m so glad you enjoyed the article. Yes, networking can be really awkward at first but after a while you find your groove. Do you have any tips for making it less awkward?

      1. Nikita Hall says

        If you can find a networking buddy to for the first few, that helps. But if not then just jump in the deep end! Having a positive attitude and making sure you bring something to the table is all you need to do. And of course be will to learn to admit when you don’t know something.

        1. Iris Lillian says

          Some great tips there, thanks Nikita! How about business cards. Do you hand them out?

          1. Nikita Hall says

            I used to hand them out as if they came free in a box of cereal, but am a lot pickier now about who gets one. But yes, I would recommend handing them out to most people you meet (when appropriate of course) at the start.

  2. Victoria Koning says

    Love this project! Deborah spoke about it in our little village last Friday. I hate seeing how women hurt each other through meaningless competition. Positive collaboration is what the world needs. What we need. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    1. Iris Lillian says

      You’re very welcome Victoria! I’m so glad you are all for positive collaboration. Have you collaborated with anyone recently?

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