Canberra women face some cold, hard truths

Antarctica-bound women in science, from left, Susan Scott, Madeline Mitchell, Nicole Fetchet and Aparna Lal. Photo by Tulitha King

FOUR Canberra women have been accepted into Homeward Bound, a global leadership program taking 100 women in science to Antarctica this month for training in leadership and sustainability.

Nicole Fetchet, Aparna Lal, Madeline Mitchell and Susan Scott will be among 100 other women from all over the world travelling by boat for three weeks from Argentina to Antarctica on February 15.

The group will observe how climate change and human impact are changing the world’s most isolated continent.

“It’s an intensive three weeks, there will be 100 people on this boat for 22 days,” says Nicole.

“There will be a focus on leadership strategy and visibility, science communication, content around climate change, STEM, gender and a few other themes,” says Madeline.

Homeward Bound’s slogan, “mother nature needs her daughters”, “resonates with a lot of us,” says Nicole.

“Women make up 50 per cent of the population but our voices aren’t given an equal voice. We can all relate to the stories being told of harassment, isolation or being marginalised.”

Homeward Bound is a 10-year outreach program with the aim of creating a group of 1000 female scientists with the skills needed to care for the future of the planet. 

This trip to Antarctica concludes a year of leadership training with Homeward Bound as the program now enters its third year with a new intake of women for 2018.

While a range of sponsors provide in-kind support to the program, participants are generally expected to raise funds to cover their time on the ship.

Nicole says that Homeward Bound aims to increase the visibility of women in science, “so that we have females as models and mentors,” says Nicole.

“There are women who have discovered the BRCA gene, and the link between HIV and AIDS, but we don’t hear about that.”

There is optimism, however, says Susan, who believes “we’re going to make a difference as a cohort.”

Climate change is a strong focus of the program, but Nicole says they’re not throwing around “climate change” as a term.

“It’s about the relationship between people and the planet, about protecting mother nature and the future,” she says.

“It’s emotive, but you should have an emotional connection to your planet and the environment that you live in.”

Like others in the program, Nicole, Aparna, Madeline and Susan work in fields that cover a range of scientific disciplines.

Nicole is a science communicator, working at Questacon.

Aparna has a background in ecology and now works as a researcher at the ANU where she says she examines the way extreme climatic events can affect health outcomes in affected populations.

Madeline says she turned to science as she “wanted to do something practical”. She works at CSIRO researching plants and says she’s interested in sustainable agricultural production.

Susan Scott was the first female professor in physics at the ANU and was part of the team that discovered gravitational waves in 2016. She says she now runs a research group called OzGrav where they can consolidate and expand their research activities so that they can pursue other sources of gravitational waves.

“I’d hate to be working on something that I could totally, potentially solve, it’s good to be driven on toward something,” she says.

All four agree that there are still hurdles to women pursuing careers in science, saying that expectations to maintain full-time volumes of work while also raising children, supporting a partner and working part time are sometimes not accounted for.

“Working parents need more flexible pathways for career success that allow for competing demands,” says Aparna.

The women say their knowledge of climate change has expanded since their involvement in Homeward Bound, and “even if that’s not what we work on, it’s what we care about,” says Susan.

 

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