Breaking the Ice: Reflections on Our Leadership Expedition to Antarctica With 99 Women in STEMM

Breaking the Ice: Reflections on Our Leadership Expedition to Antarctica With 99 Women in STEMM

Tammy Eger (Laurentian University, Canada) and Kirsten M. Müller (University of Waterloo, Canada)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-3618-6.ch011


The “leaky pipeline” has become a popular analogy to explain the gender disparity in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, medicine (STEMM). The reasons for the “leaky pipeline” are varied and continue to be addressed in the literature, and entire sections of the pipeline are missing for Indigenous women, LGBTQ2S+, persons with disabilities, racialized minorities, and women who experience other forms of marginalization. In 2019, the authors were selected for Homeward Bound, a 12-month international leadership program that culminated in the largest ever all-women expedition to Antarctica. They joined 97 women from 34 different countries around the world where they explored and reflected on their leadership in the context of personal values, strategic planning, visibility, and team building. In this chapter, they explore current statistics that paint a clear picture that the “pipe” is still leaking. They also share reflections from their journey to Antarctica and offer strategies to “break the ice” and create a system that will enable all women to thrive in academia.
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The Leaky Pipeline

A “leaky pipeline” analogy is often used to explain the widening gender gap in STEMM that continues to persist in academia (Grogan, 2019). Pipeline cracks are a metaphor for unconscious bias and systematic barriers facing women in STEMM and water leaking out is a symbol for women in the “pipeline” leaving academia or being stalled in their career progression. Therefore, the gender gap widens as women move from undergraduate, to graduate, post-doctoral fellow, Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, Full Professor, and senior leadership roles as Dean, Associate Vice-President, Vice-President, and President in the academy (Figure 1). For example, according to 2015 data, reported by UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics, women accounted for 53% of graduates at the Bachelor’s level, 53% at the Masters level, 43% at the Doctoral level and represent only 28% of researchers worldwide (Huyer, 2015). Globally the gender gap persists, as women hold less than 25% of the Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor positions in Universities or Senior Director positions at National Research Institutions in Brazil, Argentina. South Africa, Mexico, United States, and the European Union (Huyer, 2015).

Early strategies to close the gender gap have focussed primarily on outreach initiatives aimed at informing girls and young women about opportunities to study in STEMM fields in college and university, with the thinking that the gender gap would be addressed at all stages of the pipeline if there were more women or “water” added to the system. However, after several decades of focus primarily on recruitment, little change has been seen at the Associate and Full Professor levels and the gender gap at the senior leadership level has closed very little for women and even less for Indigenous women, racialized minorities, and persons with disabilities (Smith, 2019). Therefore, strategies aimed at simply getting more women to enter STEMM disciplines in college and university, need to be replaced with efforts to fix the pipeline including systemic barriers, and antiquated cultural thinking that have caused women to leave academia and, in some cases, abandon science altogether (Huyer, 2015).

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