Empowering Women to Save the Planet, One Expedition at a Time

This initiative sent 76 female scientists to the southernmost continent

By Drew Higgins

March 8, 2017


Members of the 2016 Antartic expedition. | Photo courtesy of Homeward Bound

On International Women’s Day, let’s celebrate women going way international.

Last December, 76 women journeyed to Antarctica with Homeward Bound, a global leadership and science initiative for women. It was the largest ever all-female Antarctic expedition.

Started just two years ago by Australian activist Fabian Dattner, Homeward Bound empowers women with scientific backgrounds to shape decision-making and policy as it relates to our planet. Over the next 10 years, the initiative intends to take 1,000 women from diverse backgrounds to the southernmost continent, forging a global network of female leaders in scientific arenas.

“Mother Nature needs her daughters,” the project coordinators proclaim in their video.

The inaugural crew came with an array of scientific backgrounds, from ecology to engineering to education, and from all different points in their careers. Aboard their ship the MV Ushuaia, they undertook a rigorous schedule, spending half of each day in leadership, strategy, and visibility training, and the other half exploring the remote landscape ashore.

“Everyone on that ship, whether they were young or old, was incredibly intelligent, incredibly accomplished, very driven, and very motivated to do what they could to affect change and make a difference,” said Dyan DeNapoli, penguin expert, TED speaker, and author. “Just learning from each other was fantastic.”

The program selected the icy continent as a classroom because climate change most rapidly affects polar regions. For environmental scientist Heidi Steltzer, the desire to learn how to best communicate those stories of global change motivated her to join the program.

“From the time I started as an undergrad to now, and I’m mid career, we have learned so much about where and how our planet’s changing,” Steltzer said. “But I don’t see that changing what we do, how we think, how we plan for policy, or how we lead. This was an opportunity to learn: what’s the next set of skills I need? Where and how can the stories I want to tell be told in the right way, and be more visible?”

Though females graduate with advanced scientific degrees at roughly the same rate as their male counterpoints, globally women only occupy 28 percent of research positions. This attrition means women are disproportionately excluded from conversations around climate change and our planet’s sustainable future.

“I’ve been on panels at the National Science Foundation where we’re deciding what projects to fund, and there’s twenty of us in the room, and only three woman,” Steltzer said.

Homeward Bound believes that amplifying female voices will not only positively affect the women themselves, but entire communities and decision-making processes.

“What I gained from the Homeward Bound process was a great belief in my abilities to lead,” Andrea Fidgett, Director of Nutritional Services at the San Diego Zoo, said. “My leadership skills are growing, and I can use them in service to my organization, my colleagues, my own management groups…It’s not just the women on board who benefitted, but many, many more people by association.”

The program stresses collaboration, with participants working together both in Antarctica and virtually throughout the year before the expedition. DeNapoli felt that establishing this robust network of women promises progress in and of itself.

“I’m sure what will happen moving forward is that we will collaborate on different projects, and maybe be able to create something bigger than I can do just on my own,” she said.

Steltzer agreed that the true impact of Homeward Bound will be felt later, as the women continue to reflect on their experience. “It’s easy to see the trip to Antarctica as the culmination, but it was the foundation from which we’re all growing now,” she said.

In the meantime, Homeward Bound has already selected participants for its second expedition to Antarctica in 2018.