Women in Polar Science


By Katie Oberthaler and Nick Mott
Fall 2010


Photo 1: Six women researchers at the South Pole. From left to right, Pam Young, Jean Pearson, Terry Tickhill Terrell, Lois Jones, Eileen McSaveney, and Kay Lindsay. Photo credit: U.S. Navy.

On the rim of an Antarctic valley in 1975, the wind chill blasted at a negative 20 degrees. Gisela Dreschoff was running a sled full of equipment to measure gamma radiation after having just hauled its 300 pound weight to the valley rim while her colleagues huddled in the warmer valley below. For hours she withstood the cold. At the mess hall later that evening, she was warming up when two hefty construction men came in from outside.

“It’s cold out there!” one of them said.

“How long were you out there?” said the other.

“Thirty minutes!”

Dreschoff looked at her graduate student Karen Harrower, the only other woman in the room, and they smiled to themselves.

What seemed like a private joke was a smile with lots of mileage behind it. Dreschoff, University of Kansas Adjunct Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy, trekked to Antarctica and back just six years after women had first stepped onto the Antarctica continent for scientific research. Until that time, polar regions had remained gridlines on a map for women interested in science, despite the fact that they were designing and contributing to scientific experiments that men were carrying out in the field.

The introduction of women into polar fieldwork reads as a chronology of academic discrimination, personal attitudes, professional roadblocks, and arcane travel stipulations. Dreschoff came to KU from Germany to finish her PhD in physics in the late sixties. She remembers being appalled at the difference between the attitudes of European and American students. She had sailed through her European education without feeling excluded in any way, and the attitudes of her fellow students in the US shocked her.

“When I came here, I could not believe it. I got very angry. I was at the lab here, and what I learned quite rapidly was that young girls in high school, very intelligent, very good in math, if they wanted to have a boyfriend, be successful, they would have to suppress the knowledge that they are good at these things. It was the reverse in Germany. You could be proud of your accomplishments.”

Dreschoff attributes the difference to World War II, which she said in Europe created a strong female workforce that was expected to contribute equally to industry and science in the absence of men. In the US, Dreschoff tried to begin a recruitment program for high school girls but became discouraged. Instead, she began advising her college students to make a difference by continuing on to their PhDs and working hard at their jobs. She tried to lead by example, both through counseling her students and lugging sample rocks in Antarctica.

“I think I did my part by being out there and showing the men, ‘I am one of you, I can do it,’” she said.

Dreschoff managed to leverage her field experience and language skills into a position as an associate program manager with the National Science Foundation. Later, she served as a lecturer on cruise ships around the Antarctic Peninsula. Despite the fact that she was usually the only woman in groups traveling to the Antarctic, she said she never felt uncomfortable or disrespected in the field.

“I was totally happy with the guys. I must honestly say that. Many times there was the feeling that if there were more women, they would feel better. I never understood that,” said Dreschoff.

For others, the ascent to the poles wasn’t so linear. Irene Peden, University of Washington Professor Emeritus in electrical engineering, spent years as a co-Principal Investigator for a project seeking to study how waves could propagate around the earth using buried antennas at low frequencies in Antarctica. For years the National Science Foundation tried to send women like her into the field. The Navy opposed these propositions on the grounds that women would need separate travel consideration and would distract men on their ships. The Navy required her to make her proposal peer-reviewed before she could go with a team of graduate students, many of whom had gone in previous years instead of her. The Navy also stipulated that she could not design an experiment for a hostile environment unless she had experience there. This pigeonholed her into creating a peer-reviewed proposal, even though her male colleagues did not have the same requirement.

“I had to decide if I wanted to pursue this,” said Peden. “We knew we had to make short-term sacrifices for long-term goals.”

The policy delayed her trip by a year, but, in 1970, she became the first woman to conduct research in the Antarctic interior. Like Dreschoff, she found a mostly amicable environment among her colleagues on the continent and in the lab. Both women quickly point out that working hard dissipated gender expectations overall.

“It takes persistence,” she said. “Pick out something that you enjoy and go for it. You have to decide if you can cope with it.”

Dreschoff commented, “What it means is, if you truly want to do something, you can do it. I believe in that. We were interested in the science. We wanted that data. So you can overcome many things.”

Since Dreschoff and Peden began their careers, women have risen to numerous positions within polar programs. However, they still represent a minority of researchers who flock to the poles each field season.

Lora Koenig

Photo 2: Lora Koenig at Summit Camp in Greenland, 2009. Photo credit: Lora Koenig.

NASA glaciologist Lora Koenig is one of these women. Her current research focuses on accumulation rates in the West Antarctic Divide region. She plans to make her second trip to Antarctica on November 22nd. She has also spent three seasons in Greenland.

“I feel like women, specifically female scientists, doing fieldwork is increasing,” said Koenig. “The first time I was in the field, I was the only woman in camp, and on this traverse that we’re doing this year, there will be two women and three men.”

Koenig said that although women have certainly made advancements in polar field research over the years, conditions are far from perfect. A new mother, Koenig is leaving her baby with her husband for the six weeks that she will be in Antarctica conducting fieldwork.

“People certainly ask questions about that where I’m not sure they ask men as many questions about why they’re leaving their families and their children. I think that it’s not necessarily discrimination, but you certainly have to answer more questions,” she said.

On the other hand, Koenig said that she receives a lot of support simply because she is engaged in work that few other women pursue.

“I think it’s human nature sometimes to seek out similarities in our friends and the people that we associate with, and sometimes females have difficulty in the polar regions finding people who are a lot like them, when it’s male dominated,” she said. “And so as more women find people who are similar to them, I think they’ll be encouraged.”

Although female scientists like Dreschoff, Peden, and Koenig have made leaps and bounds in the past few decades, there remains a lack of female mentors for budding polar scientists to look up to. Koenig hopes that as more women enter the field, they will serve as mentors, fostering in another generation of female scientists. Koenig remains optimistic that more and more women will brave the icy polar winds in the future; she thinks the numbers of men and women in the field will become more equal over time.

“I generally talk about it in terms of diversity. The polar research field lacks diversity and I know that as we enrich diversity, more people will feel comfortable in that situation.”

Women at South Pole

Photo 3: Thirty-three women gathered at the South Pole on the fortieth anniversary of the historic day when the first women set foot on the Antarctic ice. Photo credit: Forest Banks.