A ground-breaking program is empowering women leaders in STEMM to tackle the world’s environmental problems.
Homeward Bound, an Australian-born leadership initiative, was dreamt into reality by leadership expert and social entrepreneur Fabian Dattner, who was inspired after speaking to a group of female Antarctic scientists. “Whenever you talk to people who’ve been to Antarctica, the conversations start with joy and excitement and the magic of science and research that’s done in Antarctica,” Fabian says. “And then it suddenly starts to morph from excitement and joy to sadness and frustration to grief and anger.
“There’s this pervading sense of grief for what we’re losing [in Antarctica]. And, for women, also fury that they’re constantly passed over by less qualified men for the leadership roles, and fury that as scientists they’re not being listened to.”
After that session, Fabian had a dream, and the idea for Homeward Bound was born. “I was blissfully asleep when a picture of the front of a ship came into my head,” Fabian recalls.
“We were in Antarctica, and I could see the Homeward Bound banner, and a film crew behind me. I knew they were women with a STEMM background, and I knew exactly what content we were delivering: a more engaged and enlightened approach to leadership, strategic skills and science as it informs what happens to the planet. And that we were there for the greater good.”
Fabian went on to develop her idea in collaboration with Antarctic scientists Dr Justine Shaw, Associate Professor Mary-Anne Lea and Jess Melbourne-Thomas. Two years later, in 2016, the pioneering voyage of 76 female STEMM professionals departed Argentina, accompanied by documentary filmmaker Ili Baré and a small film crew.
“What if women leading in vast numbers is one of the most important solutions to the sustainability of the planet?”
The Leadership documentary, which premiered at the virtual 2020 Sydney Film Festival, follows the program’s first 21-day voyage from Argentina to Antarctica and back, giving viewers insight into the challenges facing women in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine) fields. Along the way, Fabian’s own leadership style is tested too.
“What you get to see in the film is really a pilot – a social experiment, on a grand scale in a very remote location with 80 brilliant women and a faculty of 13,” says Fabian. “I’m an activist, and I’ve never ever received the scale of feedback I received in Homeward Bound One. We went on to make some 60 changes to the initiative in the following year.”
Since the first voyage, a further three expeditions have departed, with the goal of reaching 1000 participants by 2027. The initiative aims to strengthen the impact of women scientists within 10 years to influence policy and decision-making shaping our planet. While 80% of participants on the first voyage were Australian, by the sixth they represented just 15%.
“We have 57 countries and 46 sciences involved now,” says Fabian. “There’s diversity on the faculty and diversity in the women [because] diversity in our understanding of leadership is pivotal. The whole concept of intersectionality is at our heartbeat.”
Fabian has long believed in the central role of women in building a sustainable future, reflected in Homeward Bound’s slogan: ‘Mother Nature Needs Her Daughters’. Antarctica serves as a global barometer for the state of the climate, with some of its regions responding faster to climate change than anywhere else on the planet. The study of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, and their role in the climate system, provides critical insights into global-scale change – and Fabian believes women can change the way these problems are tackled.
“A career in STEMM will be challenging, but the need is great for women, in particular, to take up roles in science.”
“What if women leading in vast numbers is one of the most important solutions to the sustainability of the planet?” Fabian says. “We want to elevate the visibility of women leading with a STEMM background and influencing decision-making for the greater good. Science is not perfect – but it’s the best choice we have right now. We have to know how to listen [to science], but science also needs to know how to speak.”
As well as individual success stories, such as promotions in the participants’ respective fields, Fabian says many positive collaborations have also developed following the voyages.
“We have some 70 cross-generational participants [alumni of Homeward Bound One, Two, Three, and Four] working on a marine-protected park in Antarctica,” says Fabian. “We also have 30 or so who submitted a policy proposal to the Australian government in regards to why the bushfires are occurring.”
Teachers, too, have been amongst the cohort, igniting change in the younger generation. “We’ve got some magic teachers in Homeward Bound and some magic collaborations,” says Fabian. “One teacher came onto the ship with a gigantic penguin flag full of tiny illustrations of penguins, which were photographs from hundreds of schools around the world who’ve committed to that particular project. Another past participant has started an initiative in China for young school children to understand what Antarctica is about and how to protect it. Homeward Bound has created a global family of people who act on behalf of the planet.”
The documentary also exposes some of the ongoing challenges facing women in STEMM, including workplace harassment. Fabian says the depth of the damage came as a surprise.
“Our working theory is: if we don’t deal with this hurt together, it can be attacked and undermined in other contexts. Whatever you’re afraid of, or whatever demon you’re carrying – every piece of abuse or diminishment as a woman – you carry it both in the system and intimately.
“We want people to know how much women have to overcome in order to lead, but mostly we want women to overcome it.”
And what about supporting our female students to pursue a career in STEMM? First, tell them the truth, says Fabian. “Make sure they understand a career in STEMM will be challenging, but the need is great for women, in particular, to take up roles in science.
“It is going to be hard to stand up, to be visible, to challenge what’s happening, but we need their voices, hearts and brains. So, build their courage. What I say to people is: don’t work to an individual, work to a collective. Because if we’re not on our own, then nothing is hard.”