Unique leadership course for women in science has a cool twist

Posted 23 January 2017

Group photoA group of women in science fields recently returned from a world-first leadership skills and communications course. What made this one so unique? It was held against the coolest backdrop on the planet: Antarctica.

Amidst glaciers, penguins and frigid waters, nearly 80 women participated in Homeward Bound’s maiden voyage, making it the largest all-woman expedition to Antarctica. 

This leadership development course aims to raise awareness about the lack of gender diversity in the scientific community, as well as the need for a more collaborative approach to solving the sustainability and environmental issues we currently face

Participants had full days of leadership training and professional skills development, interspersed with educational excursions and presentations. 

NSW Office of Environment and Heritage Environmental Water Planner Cristina Venables said what attracted her to the program was the opportunity to contribute to a collaboration of women all working towards a more sustainable world. 

“The content we went through made me think about how I operate as a leader, what drives me and how I can better collaborate with others across different backgrounds,” she said. 

CSIRO Land and Water Principal Research Scientist Deborah O’Connell said women are very underrepresented in science leadership positions and major decision-making processes

“If you are the only woman in the room, like I was for much of my career, it’s very off-putting and hard to put yourself forward – I felt like a square peg in a round hole in that environment,” she said.

About one-third of participants in Homeward Bound were senior level, one-third were mid-career and one-third were young professionals. 

“The program was a network model, so once we were on the ship it was like we were all the same level and working towards a common goal,” O’Connell said. 

“The whole idea is to build a critical mass of women across different disciplines, different locations and different levels.”

The program also emphasised the power of communication. 

“The world is not really listening to scientists at the moment, and part of that might be because we are trained to present the data and just put it on the table,” O’Connell said.

“But for the rest of the world, the data is not telling them a story. A really valuable part of this program was the segment devoted to narrative and how to tell the story of what you do.”

Participants had a Symposium at Sea, where each had to present their field of work, but with a narrative arc. 

“It became apparent that there is this huge need to connect the work we do as scientists to the broader public,” Venables said. 

It wasn’t all work, though. Daily expeditions to see local wildlife, geological features, permanent Antarctic bases and more were led by famous mountaineer Greg Mortimer. But even these were a chance for participants to share their knowledge and expertise with others. 

“Any question you had, chances were that someone on the ship was a world expert or had authored a paper on it,” O’Connell said. 

Both O’Connell and Venables said they plan to bring their learnings from this experience back to their respective organisations. They also said the knowledge and skills they learned during Homeward Bound will serve them – and others – for years to come. 

“This unique experience has now created strong networks between us that I know will continue to develop,” Venables said.

“I now have this support network of women that I can rely on to confront any issue that I might come up against – gender based or otherwise. And I plan to include women in science who I know in this network so it can continue to grow and contribute to sustainable solutions into the future.”

Homeward Bound plans to send 1000 women on the leadership course over the next 10 years. To learn more and apply for the next round, click here