Women in Antarctica



At the tail end of December in 1959 Mary Gillham and 3 other female scientists became the first British and Australian females to join a research trip in the Antarctic. Today is our last blog about this trip as Project Volunteer Annie Irving reflects on Mary, Isobel, Susan and Hope’s legacy of opening the door (although just a crack) to female Antarctic researchers…


As I began to write this blog, I was horrified to read news articles detailing the incredibly sexist statements (that women vets are worth two fifths of men) by the Chancellor of Massey University, where Mary worked as an exchange lecturer in 1957. The Chancellor has since resigned but his statements served to highlight, if such was necessary, the obstacles women face when choosing the sciences as their career option.

As a woman beginning her career as a scientist in the 1950s, I’m sure Mary Gillham was even more aware of these obstacles. As we’ve noted in the introduction to this series of blogs, Mary and her three female colleagues were the first (two) British and (two) Australian women to be included in a research trip to the Antarctic region, a situation so previously untenable that their involvement was refused several times before the Australian Acting Minister for External Affairs finally made the decision to allow the women to join the expedition just three weeks before they were due to sail.

Though drunkenness and ribald behaviour was tolerated in the male expedition members, the performance and behaviour of the four women came under intense scrutiny, by the media, by their fellow ANARE crew members, by government, university and other institutional officials. If they had not acquitted themselves with complete decorum and undertaken their scientific research in an exemplary manner, it’s highly likely the future involvement of women in similar scientific expeditions would have been greatly hindered and delayed.

Sixty years on, sexism remains a major issue for women determined to make a career in science. Though more women now choose science as an option for university study, they remain under-represented in senior positions in the discipline; they continue to be paid much less than male counterparts with the same skills and qualifications; and only 15 women have won the Nobel Prize in a scientific discipline since the award was established in 1901.

In the field of Antarctic and polar research, women like Mary and her fellow female expedition members provided inspirational role models for women hoping to follow in their footsteps. In subsequent years, Isobel Bennett returned three times to Macquarie to conduct further research but it wasn’t until the 1970s that women spent more than a couple of weeks on the island: medical practitioner Zoe Gardner was the first to spend a year there in 1976.

Nowadays, women polar scientists regularly join expeditions in the Antarctic region and frequently over-winter on Macquarie Island and at the various research stations on the continent, though their presence can still surprise. As Jaimie Cleeland wrote at the end of her recent stint on the island, older visiting tourists are still ‘astonished to see so many women working on the island’.

The role of women involved in polar science remains under-recognised, so much so that a group of female scientists last year organised a Wikibomb to create and update ‘more than 100 biographies of high achieving women in Antarctic science’. As organiser Dr Jan Strugnell explained ‘some 60% of early career Antarctic researchers are women, with strong reputations in the scientific community, but only about 10% of awards, prizes and papers at scientific conferences were presented to, or given by, women’ so a ‘greater online presence of female Antarctic science role models is important and long overdue’.

The list of Antarctic women is long and impressive but the fact that a Wikibomb was even necessary in 2016 speaks volumes about the progress of women in science, or the lack of it, sixty years after Mary Gillham’s pioneering journey to Macquarie Island.

For an ‘on-site’ summary of life in the Antarctic with muses on the experiences of females en route to today’s ‘enlightened’ times, you’ll struggle to find a better read (and some glorious and less glorious pictures) than Eat Sleep Freeze Repeat’s blog: Girl Power in Antarctica.

So, that’s it for the Macquarie blogs! Thanks for joining us over the past three weeks, the project continues and we shall be writing more very soon!

Reference material and further reading:

Thanks to John Wilkins (MGAP volunteer) for coordinating this series of Macquarie blogs.

The Mary Gillham Archive Project is funded by HLF and managed by SEWBReC
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