The Ice Beneath My Feet

Conservationalist, sustainability official and cruise ship tour expedition leader Diana Patterson may have bought a revolution to the windy, frozen and spectacular Antarctic continent without realising.

After being appointed the first female station leader of a research station, she returned five years later for another assignment and found a change had swept the snows. “I went back as station leader and [being a woman] just never came up,” Patterson explains, “Somehow I guess it had changed, like all other workplaces in Australia. Being female and being the boss was old news, it simply wasn’t an issue.”

In her book The Ice Beneath My Feet, Patterson writes about being a young woman the 1970s wanting above all else to visit and work in Antarctica. In far less enlightened times, the social economy was still getting used to the fact of women in senior management roles at all, let alone one as rough and male dominated as Australia’s scientific efforts in Antarctica. When she arrived a makeshift system was quickly devised for her to sing or whistle when in the non-segregated ablution block so none of the blokes walked in on her.

Today, she says, it would be a very different proposition for a woman with similar ambitions. “Today she’d be going in with total equal opportunity. She’d be considered no different to the male candidates because once it changed it changed very quickly. I think it’s one of those barriers where, when it’s gone, people wonder what all the fuss was about. The men accepted me and the sky didn’t fall down on us.”

When The West read about the disdain station workers hold for breeze-in-breeze-out types like journalists in The Ice Beneath My Feet it was enough to dash our lifelong ambition to visit Antarctica, but as Patterson explains, the environment exerts very different demands on people. You rely on other literally for your survival and if the others can see you’re prepared to muck in, they’ll accept you as quickly as they took to having a female boss.

“People judge you by how you act on the day and if you’re down there and jump in and work and become one of the team that [non acceptance] does change. There’s a real interdependency and whether you’re the station leader, the doctor or one of the tradesmen, you’re expected to do your bit. But it’s not just tradesmen. Look at the chef — when you’re away from home for 12 or 13 months mealtimes become more important than normal, and if your chef isn’t doing very interesting things or cooking things people like you get a lot of disquiet.”

So if you manage an office or a team at work and occasionally get stressed because you just can’t make them get along, spare a thought for Patterson. As well as all the people management hassles of a SME-sized crew, she couldn’t get away from it all except for the few hours alone in one of the tiny, cramped cabins in a structure the size of a shipping container. In fact, we’ve all read the stories about the extreme psychological stress facing astronauts on long journeys. Antarctica must be the closest thing to it on Earth. “The sense of being in a small community is incredibly rewarding but you also can’t take it for granted,” Patterson says. “I always used to look at my rosters and try to mix and match people a bit. It’s like any other work place, if you’re in a smaller group you get to know each other and each other’s values a lot better.

And like all extreme workplace environments, Casey and Davis stations armed Patterson with unique skills. She claims she used to be ‘outcome focused’ without looking at how to get the best out of people. “Now, I’m more sensitive to the individual differences of people and the way they think. In fact, it prompted me to go back and do extra training on it because you realise how people think differently.”

And of course, none of the management challenges, gender issues or hard work detracted from the most important thing — waking up and realising you’re in the most remote, unspoiled and unforgiving place on Earth. “I don’t think there was a day I didn’t realise how special it was. Even going out to work in blizzards I always had the sense that I was really privileged. Even through the discomfort and pain there wasn’t a day I ever thought ‘I don’t want to be here’.