Homeward Bound co-founder Jess Melbourne-Thomas shares the implications of the lack of women in science leadership and reflects on her own decision to not be onboard the first voyage to Antarctica

I’m sitting at my desk and thinking about 84 women and a few blokes on a boat about to encounter the Antarctic continent. And I know that I was a key part in making the dream of Homeward Bound a reality – and it feels good.

Let me tell you what Homeward Bound is all about from my perspective, and why it’s worth all the energy I’ve invested, without the bonus of getting to go to Antarctica again.

The current attrition rate of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields is higher than 60% in Australia. Have a look at the recent paper from office of Australia’s Chief Scientist Busting Myths about Women in STEM. At least some of the root causes and many of the direct consequences of the so-called “leaky pipeline” have also been documented: a perpetual lack of role models, obstacles throughout key development periods, discrimination, family-work (im)balances, and gender pay gaps.

But what are the broader implications of a lack of women in science leadership? One major consequence is that the voice of women in translating science into informed, sustainable decision-making is missing – or at least very, very soft. And why does this matter? Because it’s women who may stand to lose most from poor environmental decision-making.

The complex and intertwined problems of population growth, overconsumption, climate change, pollution, ecosystem destruction, disease and extinction that our world currently faces require more than novel scientific solutions. They require collaborative leadership, diverse thinking, and creative approaches. Lack of diversity in leadership is a handicap we can’t afford. I see Homeward Bound as part of a wave of emerging initiatives to help overcome this hurdle. Against the backdrop of Antarctica, the study of which provides critical insights into global-scale change and its drivers, Homeward Bound will elevate a broader societal conversation about the role of women in leadership for a more sustainable future.

I’m not on the ship, but my decision not to go has been totally empowering in it’s own right. I am thrilled and proud beyond measure of the women currently on the MV Ushuaia in the Southern Ocean. I’m also confident and content in my decision to stay and here’s what I’m doing instead. I’m launching back into my career after spending seven months full time with our little girl (she came to her first lecture with me at 2 weeks old), supported by a husband who is now full-time carer. I’m back in the space where I get to work at the exciting interface of science and policy. I’m feeling very lucky to be doing a job I love and I’m looking forward to hearing all the stories when the first Homeward Bound voyage gets back home. And I’m ready for the next big dream.

Most importantly – I know that all the people like me who are supporters of Homeward Bound and women in STEM, but not able to be onboard, are just as critical to facilitating change as those who are.

Jess Melbourne-Thomas is the co-founder of Homeward Bound. You can read more about Jess on our ‘Faculty’ page.

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