Gender equality in Antarctic science

Antarctic science_insetLa Trobe University marine biologist Dr Jan Strugnell is organising a global ‘Wikibomb’ to change the perception that Antarctic science is a boys’ club.

The aim is to tell the world about many great and generally under-recognised female Antarctic research role models.

The Wikibomb will add to Wikipedia’s website profiles of about 100 top female scientists from 30 countries – 15 of them from Australia.

In an article published today in the prestigious international science journal Nature Dr Strugnell said: ‘It is important that senior women scientists are visible to younger female scientists so they know that careers in science are possible,’ she said. ‘You can’t be what you can’t see.’

The profiles she organised were officially unveiled at a meeting of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, from 22 to 26 August 2016.

Insights into ecology and climate change

Dr Strugnell and La Trobe Institute for Molecular Science’s Dr Thomas Shafee – a protein engineer and serious Wikipedian – have been co-ordinating a team of 27 international volunteers to research, write and upload the new Wikipedia biographies.

Dr Strugnell said 60 per cent of early career Antarctic researchers today were women. Many have strong reputations in the scientific community, but only about 10 per cent of awards, prizes and papers at scientific conferences were presented to, or given by, women.

‘Yet women have been playing an increasing role in Antarctic research since the 1950s. The time has come for them to gain far greater public recognition.’

Dr Strugnell said female scientists were initially prevented from working in Antarctica. For example, leading palaeobotanist Dr Marie Stopes was rejected for Scott’s historic 1910 expedition to the South Pole. Soon after 1,300 women applied for another British Antarctic Expedition. None were accepted.

Recognition is important and long overdue

‘There has been a lot of high-impact research by women in Antarctic science over the last ten years,’ she said. ‘For example Germany’s Institute for Polar and Marine Research and the British Antarctic Survey are both led by women. Korea recently appointed its first female Antarctic station leader.

‘So a greater on-line presence of Antarctic science role models ‘is extremely important, and long overdue’, she added.

‘Otherwise it’s hard for girls and young women to imagine cold climate science as a career choice.  We need to deploy our best brains to ensure Australia maintains excellence in research and development and gets the maximum return on what taxpayers spend on training women,’ Dr Strugnell said.

Dr Shafee said Wikipedia was now the world’s most widely viewed reference site, and many people turn to it for their information about science.

‘When Wikipedia began, less than ten per cent of scientists featured were women. Today that number is just over 16 per cent’, he said. ‘Despite such heroic efforts, it’s still an up-hill battle.’

The 15 Australian women Antarctic scientists nominated by the project include Patricia Selkirk, Leanne Armand, Dana Bergstrom, Justine Shaw, Elizabeth Truswell, Nerida Wilson and Dr Strugnell.

Other scientists included are from Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, China, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Morocco, Netherland, NZ, Norway, Pakistan, Poland, Romania, Russia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, UK and the USA.

The Wikibomb project is part of the global Athena Swan Charter for advancing the careers of women in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine.

More about Dr Strugnell’s research

Dr Strugnell is an internationally recognised geneticist. Her ground-breaking research has helped explain the origin and global distribution of deep-sea marine life. It has also provided critical insights into ecology and climate change.

Dr Strugnell was a member of a seven-nation scientific team that discovered more than thirty new species of Antarctic marine life in one of the least explored areas of the Southern Ocean. She was also a lead author of an international study that revealed how the genes of a sedentary Antarctic octopus provide clues to the risk of sea-level rise if world temperatures keep climbing.

Her genetic research also added fuel to the giant squid debate, finding that there may only be one species of giant squid, rather than the 21 previously described. These creatures, which can span up to 18 metres, capture the imagination of biologists and lay people alike.

Find out more about research at La Trobe.