Venus in Berghaus

hendry-soap-box-science.jpgDr Kate Hendry is Royal Society University Research Fellow and lecturer, in the School of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol. She is interested in modern biogeochemical cycling and past ocean processes, with a particular focus on biogenic opal and silicon cycling in seawater. Kate talks here about the challenges (from safety and strength to sanitation!) women have faced (and continue to face) in conducting field-based science. Kate will be speaking at our Soapbox Science Bristol event on 14th June 2014; her topic is: “Glassy creatures – a silicon life on the ocean waves!”


It’s Monday morning.  It’s time to go to work.  I’m lying on my stomach, dressed in an oversized bright red survival suit, draped with ropes and axes, and wearing a bewildering combo of powder-blue laboratory gloves and sunglasses.  My bum definitely looks big in this.  Not that it really matters.  Seeing as I’m lying on sea-ice just off the coast of Antarctica with my hand in a hole sampling water for chemical analysis, the only ones around to notice – other than my work colleagues – are seals and penguins.

I’m a marine scientist with a background in geology, and a lot of the work I’ve been doing since my undergraduate days has involved fieldwork.  I’ve seen some amazing places during my career (and I hope to see a lot more!) from the coral reefs of Fiji, to the forests of Alaska, the desert of Utah and the ice of Antarctica.

There are issues being a woman in a subject where a lot of fieldwork is expected or required.  Many of these research areas are traditionally male dominated; careers that require you to be away from home for extended periods have long been considered inappropriate for women. In fact, it was only in the nineteenth century that field-clothing started to be made for women.  Women also didn’t have access to the transportation needed to get into even relatively remote places in the United Kingdom for fieldtrips; it was only in the mid-nineteenth century again – with the spread of public transport – that women could take part in field trips organised by the Geologists’ Association (for more about this, I recommend reading the History of Geology blog by David Bresson).

The most common (and – at the time – socially acceptable) means by which nineteenth century women went into remote field areas for research and exploration was with their husbands.  I was inspired by a recent book on this subject by Kari Herbert called “Heart of the Hero: The remarkable women who inspired the great polar explorers”.  I was struck by the story of Jo Peary, who – in the late nineteenth century – accompanied her husband on an expedition to northwest Greenland, and overwintered as the only woman in a remote, ramshackle camp.  Jo must have had immense strength of mind to turn cabin fever and frostbite into the everyday, to make sure the camp still celebrated holidays, and to keep up the moral of her husband and comrades even during moments of failure. She realised that they needed to have to support from the local Innuit community, and she met and socialised with the Innuit women (although she did appear to remain disturbed by some of the cultural differences between her and the Innuit women… she refused, for example, to take off any of her clothes whilst sitting in an igloo, despite the fact it would have been sweltering inside!). During a later expedition, she even gave birth to their first child. It can’t be said she didn’t have the mental strength and physical ability to be “in the field”, which was an attitude widely held until frighteningly recently.

Take the British Geological Survey.  Although now, fantastically, they have an equal workforce of men and women, the BGS only advertised the first field job where a woman could apply in the 1920s.  Even then, they wanted only “unmarried [women] or widows” who would be “required to resign their appointment on marriage”.  They had their first female applicant in 1928, EM Hendriks, who was not successful in getting the job despite going on to receive some of the most prestigious geological prizes and awards in the UK.

As I teach undergraduate geology, I also know that young women still have reservations about fieldwork at times.  Are girls and young women today still put off subjects such as geology because of the prospect of fieldwork?  All I can say is that I’ve had a very positive experience during my career as a field scientist, and attitudes have shifted during my lifetime.  The first female Assistant Director of the BGS – Dr Jane Plant – was elected in 1995, and the first women overwintered at the British Antarctic Survey Rothera Research Station in 1997.  If there’s one thing I’d like to be able to do, it’s to encourage young women and girls to go into subject areas where fieldwork is required by showing them it is possible. So… if you have a question about working in the field… here’s what I’ve got to say…


Are you strong enough?  It must be tough right, or aren’t those rocks a bit heavy? I definitely have the advantage that I’m stronger than I look.  When I was mapping geology in Alaska, I frequently ended up carrying more rocks than my male colleague.  In fact, when researching for this piece, I came across an anonymous geoblogger who has also ended up carrying more than her male counterpart. Myth dispelled. I am woman – hear me roar.


What about your family?  What about having kids? It’s true that I don’t have children, but I do have a husband and a cat (both of whom are very understanding).  However, I have colleagues who do have children and who do an amazing job in the field.  Probably the most extreme example I could find is the case of Joan McDonald, an astounding woman from the Earth and Environmental Science department of Lehigh University. Joan had a baby girl in 2007 and took her, for the first time, to the Arctic in 2008 aged only 9 weeks old!  Joan sings the benefits to both mum and baby of being in the wilderness. Joan, of course, was able to do this because she had fantastic support from both husband and grad students.  And that – it seems – is the key: a supportive (and extended!) family.


What about keeping clean, and, well, you know… hygiene and all that? What about going to the loo… I mean it’s all so easy for blokes? I’ve been in many remote areas where I’ve not been able to have my electric shower every morning.  However, there’s nothing like a bucket of fresh water when it’s hot and you’re caked in seasalt after a morning dive, or a swim in the river after a day on a fossil dig in the dessert… there are also more high tech solutions if you’re feeling fancy, such as solar showers.

And, yes, the loo thing.  I’m afraid you just have to get over it and get used to squatting.  On the plus side, it’s great for your knees.  And always carry wetwipes. On the plus side, although often rudimentary, I’ve had the pleasure of using toilets in places of astounding beauty.  There’s one outhouse at a remote field station in Antarctica, called Fossil Bluff, where I visited in 2005.  The wall that faces away from the hut is missing, which means that whilst you’re, er, busy, you can have an uninterrupted view of the White Continent in complete privacy.


What about staying safe?  What if it’s a dangerous area? To be honest, I’ve not had to go to any places that are dangerous because of the people there (war zones, for example). However, I’ve had a few brushes with local wildlife, including having a penguin jump on my boat, a confrontation with an angry moose, and my fair share of snakes, spiders and scorpions.  My answer to that question, though, is to be prepared. Know what to do if you encounter beasties, and how best to avoid them.  As for any kind of security issues, women and men should be aware of the risks and how best to minimise them.

Something I’ve not thought about before – but came across during my research into this blog – are the feminist issues associated with fieldwork. How do feminist minds deal with cultural differences in the line of anthropological and sociological research? It must be difficult, at times, to maintain an unbiased and objective approach.

I hope some of my stories can be reassuring and inspiring. I’ll finish with a quote that inspired me from Jessica Bell, writing on the AGU Blogosphere:

“My good experience as a geoscientist is how everyone’s experience in science should be [my italics].  There isn’t any extra effort involved in treating a woman the same as a man, or a girl the same as a boy, in giving them opportunities and encouragement… I don’t see any difference between any of them – all I see is potential geologists”


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