Women and Antarctica

Mechanic inspecting a helicopter in Antarctica
Mechanic maintaining helicopter in Antarctica

It was not until 1959 that an Australian woman officially visited Macquarie Island as part of the Australian Antarctic programme.

In 1976 a doctor became the first Australian woman to winter at Macquarie Island, and in 1981 another doctor became the first woman to winter in Antarctica itself, at Davis station. Twenty years on, mixed groups are the norm. Women have been south as station leaders, scientists, doctors, communications officers, chefs, field training instructors, stores officers and a helicopter engineer.

But though the Australian Antarctic Division makes a conscious effort to encourage more women to apply for jobs in Antarctica, the ratio of wintering men to women remains at about eight to one and the profile of an average Australian expeditioner is still male, white and aged between 29 and 32. Many occupations, particularly the trade and technical positions, are fields traditionally dominated by men in the Australian community, and so it seems likely that the participation rate of women, particularly in wintering groups, will not increase dramatically unless the jobs change and women can take their children.

  • Students can discuss why it took so long for women to be accepted as bona fide members of Antarctic expeditions. Get them to come up with reasons why women should not go. Then get them to come up with reasons why men shouldn't go. These discussions can be placed in the context of the massive changes to the role of women in the last 30 years, and issues of gender equity. (Robin Burns' Just Tell Them I Survived and Tim Bowden's The Silence Calling are particularly good sources.)
  • Read an account of the trips undertaken by Edith 'Jackie' Ronne, the first American woman to set foot on Antarctica.

Issue - Participation of women

The number of women going to Antarctica been has been stable at about 10% for the last decade, despite much encouragement from the Australian Antarctic Division. Why do you think the percentage of women joining Australia's Antarctic program is so low? Should more women be involved in Antarctic expeditions? If so, how would you encourage more women to go? What of the idea of allowing some families to go?

This page was last modified on July 1, 2014.