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Camping for Cash: Living and Working in Antartica

Women Working on Ice

Antartica No Longer a Club for Men Only

For nearly 100 years, Antarctica was the last and best all-boys club. A few unnamed women accompanied their seafaring spouses on whaling trips in Antarctic waters during the last century, but no woman was officially accepted as a member of an expedition. In 1947 two women did join their scientist husbands for a winter-over on the Antarctic peninsula.

Despite this exception, the macho atmosphere prevailed. Two decades passed before women made the trip to Antarctica again, this time as scientists in their own right. In addition to hostile natural forces, they encountered a significant amount of hostility from the Navy, which ran operations.

Today, women comprise just over 30 percent of the workforce of over 1,000. Their jobs include heavy equipment operator, “fuelie,” firefighter, and station manager. They drive forklifts, unload airplanes, fly airplanes, and act as marine technicians and meteorologists. In 1992 four women skied 700 miles from the Antarctic coast to the South Pole.

Far from being resented, women have come to be a valued part of the United States Antarctic Program (USAP) and now hold positions of responsibility on the research vessels and at all three stations.

However, Antarctica is not an equal opportunity utopia. Women face the same inequities faced by women in the States. On the ice, one department, Fleet Operations is regarded as a “good old boy” haven. It boasts four women out of a staff of 37. None of the women holds any of the four foreman positions.

The trades are also dominated by men. Only a handful of women work as carpenters, plumbers, electricians, utility/maintenance techs, or painters, or hold any of the helper positions related to these occupations.

Part of the problem of hiring women in the trades is that they are hard to locate, and once they are found, it’s difficult to induce them to give up their well-paying jobs for a trip to the Antarctic. Wages offered to tradespeople are often not high enough to convince women—or men—to endure the hardships that working in Antarctica can bring.

The swell in the ranks of women in Antarctica is in part the result of their employment in traditionally female jobs. Of the 53 new hires in food service at McMurd for the 1999-2000 summer season, 33 were women.

Despite these inequities, for women who wish to bypass the routine of stateside life, the Antarctic promises adventure. Even if the work conditions aren’t perfect, there remain opportunities for women to excel in ways our mothers and grandmothers could only dream about.

A variety of firms provide over 3000 people each year to work in Antarctica for the United States Antarctic Program’s stations, its many field camps, and research vessels. You must be a U.S. citizen to work for the USAP. Employment contracts are seasonal and are available for four- six- and 12-month periods.

To find out about employment opportunities and to review the list of jobs available, check out the United States Antartic Program website.

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