Women in polar science: Navigating the ice maze

By Abby P. Metzger and Nancy Steinberg
Spring/Summer 2023

Women will not be allowed in the Antarctic until we can provide one woman for every man.

There were no facilities for women in the Antarctic, i.e., there was not a separate toilet, there were no shops, there were no hairdressers.

Don’t wear tight leggings on a ship.

What happens in the Arctic stays in the Arctic.

You’ll have to continually earn respect as a woman chief scientist aboard.

What makes you think you can do that?1

Generations ago, women were not allowed to participate in polar expeditions along with the intrepid men who explored the icy reaches of the globe. Thankfully, times have changed, and women participate in polar research in great numbers. But the messages that women in polar science receive, like the ones listed above, are often the same as decades past. These messages send a signal, intentionally or not, about who belongs and who doesn’t, who has status and who must earn it again and again. And historically, who belongs, and who has status, are white men.

The data might tempt us to think otherwise. Today, 57% of the members of the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists are women.2 But breaking in doesn’t mean fitting in. The field of polar science, with deep roots in patriarchy and colonialism, can feel frozen in the mold of explorers like Ernest Shackleton. Despite better gender parity and increasing participation by members of other historically excluded groups, the culture has been stubborn to thaw.

Case in point: A 2022 National Science Foundation assessment of the U.S. Antarctic Programs found that, “sexual harassment, stalking and sexual assault are ongoing, continuing problems in the USAP community.”3 These findings support earlier studies, such as one from 2014 that surveyed 150 male and 516 female field scientists from multiple disciplines, revealing that 64% of respondents said they had experienced sexual harassment, and more than 21% said they had experienced sexual assault.4 Other experiences, like being overlooked as the chief scientist or lead on a field project, can dismantle credibility and are downright exhausting.

In the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, the number of women faculty and students in polar science has increased over the past ten years, and the college has made a dedicated effort to grow its polar science program. “Here at CEOAS, we are interested in attracting the very best scientists and enabling them to be successful,” says Tuba Özkan-Haller, dean of CEOAS. “And it is important to ask ourselves: Are there barriers to participation unique to women and other minoritized identities? Do biases and bad behavior still prevent women from entering and thriving in polar science? Are we creating a culture free of harassment that will enable everyone to do their very best?”

We interviewed a variety of women within the college to dig deeper into their experiences in polar science, and to ask them what needs to change. They all shared overall positive experiences while at Oregon State and were eager to promote the field for up-and-coming researchers — polar regions are the epicenter of climate change, and this area of science needs rich perspectives and approaches to avert the most disastrous outcomes. In addition, new CEOAS programs are challenging status quo visions of able-bodied men trekking into the hinterlands.

But the women featured here all had stories to tell — about breaking in, about bias, about culture change. We asked them plainly: What will it take to achieve true equity? While they all emphasized that they spoke for themselves only, the commonalities in their stories illuminated the scope of the problem and pointed to some progress and potential solutions.

Navigating the labyrinth

If only it were a single icy layer that needs to shatter (or melt) for polar science to become more inclusive. Navigating the culture and power dynamics on a ship, in a research planning meeting or at a remote field station can feel like an icy labyrinth. Barriers may arise depending on who is in power or even where the science is being conducted. Sudden shifts in personnel can bring a freshet of new faces or throw the culture back to the ice ages. Understanding these barriers — both systemic and circumstantial — is the first step in identifying what must change.

One problem is the perception of who counts as a polar researcher. The archetype of a polar explorer as a rough-and-ready white man in a massive parka persisted as exploration in the late 19th century blended and morphed into modern polar science.

“The earliest Western [polar] expeditions were often undertaken in the tradition of naval exploration, in which male companionship was prized and women were perceived to bring dead weight at best, and disarray at worst,” Morgan Seag writes for the Arctic Institute. “Publications by early explorers popularized these ideas among Western audiences, who devoured tales of monstrous, feminized polar landscapes waiting to be ‘penetrated’ and ‘conquered’ by heroic men.”5

MacKenzie Jewell

MacKenzie Jewell

This archetype survives today. “I think generally people want to hear about scientists going out onto the ice and seeing polar bears. But there are so many other exciting kinds of research going on,” says CEOAS graduate student MacKenzie Jewell. “I feel that these depictions could contribute to implicit barriers to participation, limiting who feels like they could fit the mold of a polar scientist.”

Jenny Hutchings wearing a helmet looking out an aircraft window

Jenny Hutchings

Jewell started out as a physicist, finding her way to polar science just in time to go to graduate school to study with CEOAS Professor Jenny Hutchings. Jewell examines how winds and ocean currents cause sea ice to drift, processes that remain challenging but important to represent in climate models, especially as climate change takes hold of vulnerable Arctic ecosystems. Despite her deep fascination with the ice, Jewell has never been to the Arctic; she uses data collected by others in the models she develops. But she is no less a polar scientist than those who overwinter at Antarctica’s McMurdo Station or take an icebreaking ship to the North Pole.

Glaciologist Erin Pettit couldn’t agree more. She has participated in and led many polar expeditions in pursuit of understanding how glaciers flow and fracture in response to the atmosphere, the ocean and the land underneath them. Sure, polar environments are challenging, she says, but, “One of the reasons we lose women in glaciology is that the media still presents us as ‘badass scientists’ — I hate that. It’s this unhelpful, risk-taking, individualistic mentality.”

Erin Pettit in a polar region

Erin Pettit

Overt harassment and assault are still a problem, too. While training on sexual harassment prevention is required for those who work at U.S. Antarctic research stations and other institutions, it isn’t always effective.

Oceanographer Kim Bernard has spent multiple winters at Palmer Station in Antarctica, bringing teams comprised primarily of women scientists, including undergraduate and graduate students. She felt threatened enough on one ship many years ago to have to physically push a man aside (luckily, she has martial arts training). She was groped by the ship’s captain on another cruise. But one incident was beyond the pale: Bernard describes a time when a male support staff member on a research vessel harassed and bullied her and her female students. She filed a complaint, which she says led to the staff member being fired. “I think I’ve become a stronger fighter against that [behavior], but I refuse to put up with it being done to my students,” she says.

Kim Bernard in a frozen landscape

Kim Bernard

In addition to blatant harassment, more subtle barriers persist, varying widely by luck of the draw with respect to the individuals who make up a given cruise or expedition. While less obvious, these smaller issues aggravate longstanding problems and can cause enormous harm.

Almost every woman has a story of subtle exclusion. MacKenzie Jewell felt out of place at a conference where the behavior of some male attendees pointedly reminded her that women were in the minority at the event. Professor Laurie Juranek studies Arctic ecosystems, with most of her fieldwork done aboard research vessels. She has spent more than a decade at CEOAS, authored dozens of scientific papers and spent over 600 days at sea, serving several times as the chief scientist. Despite her experience, the ship’s crew will still ask male colleagues for direction. “When it’s a woman in charge [of the science program on a ship], the crew is often going to second guess you,” she says. Kim Bernard says this has happened to her, too.

Laurie Juranek on the frozen shore in front of a ship's hull

Laurie Juranek

The small incidents, the sly comments, the microaggressions add up for women. “It’s the kind of stuff that saps your energy over time,” Pettit says. “Those little comments. They think they’re joking, they think they’re being cute.”

Culture melt

Melting the culture of polar science will not be easy — it will take change from institutions to individuals, agencies to academia. Some women are taking matters into their own hands, making strides toward changing the culture from within. For example, they recognize the importance of mentorship for women entering and navigating the overlapping and complex cultures involved in conducting polar science.

“I feel like I have been tremendously fortunate in that some senior women have taken me under their wing,” Laurie Juranek says.

Allyship can be so powerful that many women naturally move to the mentorship role themselves for more early-career faculty and students. That was the case for Jenny Hutchings, Jewell’s advisor, who studies sea ice movement. Her decade at CEOAS and time in the field have allowed her to reflect on key people who have helped her and encouraged her to collaborate with younger scientists.

“I have a mentor in my field who gave me so much information,” she says. “And now I enjoy interacting with younger people. I feel like they have more to give than I ever had.”



Attitudes among women entering the field are shifting. Where once women felt compelled to conform, today’s students appear more eager to redefine the culture itself.

“I think women of my age tended to fit ourselves to belong,” Hutchings says. “What’s changed is that I think, rightfully so, women are less willing to bend to the field station being set up for a certain type of person, typically male. [This new attitude] changed the advice I give younger people, because I had always been of the camp, wear your overalls all the time, don’t draw attention to yourself.”

While institutions have been slow to change, they are making some strides. CEOAS is working to address the aspects of these problems that it can control, while acknowledging the tremendous challenges that remain.

Although the women quoted here, and others, are leading the way on much of CEOAS’ work in the cryosphere, the college lacks other kinds of diversity throughout, with respect to race, LGBTQ+ status and other identities. Representation matters, all of these women said, and students in particular would benefit from seeing people like themselves in scientific leadership positions.

A process is now underway within CEOAS to develop a comprehensive plan for improving diversity, equity and inclusion within the college. This initiative will solicit input from all students (undergrad and graduate), faculty and staff, but some students would like to see a better dialog on DEI concerns. “I have been impressed with how organized the student body is, how they are constantly working to improve conditions for students. But it is important for the faculty to demonstrate that they value these ideas as well,” Jewell says.

CEOAS is also directly confronting stereotypes of what counts as polar science, while fostering a culture of mentorship. The Authentic Research through Collaborative Learning program (a collaboration between the Oregon State University STEM Research Center and CEOAS) works to disrupt traditional paradigms by eliminating the requirement for field work, and developing faculty-student mentorship that emphasizes inclusivity. Inspiring Girls* Expeditions, founded by Erin Pettit, works to engage and empower girl-identifying and non-binary youth through tuition-free expeditions that interweave field work, science, art and backcountry travel.

Federal agencies are stepping up as well. The NSF report that found ongoing problems with sexual harassment and assault at Antarctic research stations represents a major milestone. But some would like to see the dialogue shift from simply reporting sexual harassment to preventing it altogether. As Erin Pettit asserts, change needs to come from leadership so the burden of reform is not on survivors.

“If you’re the leader, here is your responsibility,” she says. “You cannot ask the victims to take responsibility for changing the system or changing the culture.”

Beyond the labyrinth

Women in polar fields have grown impatient, as long-submerged bad behaviors have surfaced, and change is, shall we say, glacial. They have shared their stories with each other and with the powers that be, but problems remain. The women have changed. Will culture keep up?

Are DEI plans, reporting protocols and better mentoring enough?

Maybe creating a more inclusive cryosphere goes beyond change for women, encompassing instead a wholesale shift. In their 2016 paper, “Glaciers, gender, and science: A feminist glaciology framework for global environmental change,”6 Carey et al. argue that the entire field needs to be thought of differently — that gendered knowledge construction and the lack of other voices and perspectives are detrimental to everyone. They call for the field to move beyond gender equity, toward inclusion of people from all marginalized identities. They also advocate for incorporating other ways of interpreting polar landscapes — Indigenous understanding, artists’ work — into the fabric of cryospheric science. When systems are examined in all of these ways, they argue, better science results.

The scientists we interviewed agree. As Kim Bernard says, “I think now, more than ever, we need women in polar science, we need diverse voices, and we need diverse researchers. Not just women: LGBTQ people, people of color. I feel like as we start pulling down the barriers to entry [for women], there are still going to be barriers for other minoritized people. It’s up to us to recognize what they’re going through and try to break down those barriers and be advocates.”

CEOAS strongly believes that all individuals who are participating in university programs and activities have the right to do so free from sexual misconduct, discrimination and retaliation. Learn more about what we are doing to create a welcoming culture for everyone, and find Oregon State resources to report sexual harassment and misconduct

1These are messages about women in polar environments that have been broadcast in various ways over time. The first two are historical: The first quotes U.S. Navy Adm. George Dufek, the supervisor of U.S. programs in Antarctica in 1957; the second quotes a 1960 rejection letter from the British Antarctic Survey after a woman applied to the program (The Telegraph, 20 May 2012). The rest of the messages were heard by our interviewees in modern times.

2Personal communication, April 2023, Association of Polar Early Career Scientists.

3Results from the U.S. Antarctic Program’s Sexual Assault and Harassment Needs Assessment

4Clancy, K. B. H. et al. 2014. Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE): Trainees Report Harassment and Assault. PLoS ONE 9(7): e102172.

5Women in Polar Research: A Brief History

6Carey, M., Jackson, M., Antonello, A., & Rushing, J. 2016. Glaciers, gender, and science: A feminist glaciology framework for global environmental change research. Progress in Human Geography, 40(6), 770–793.

Please read our companion Story Map about the science conducted by all of the women profiled in this piece, from the North Pole to Antarctica and spots in between.

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