It took me a while to find the courage to come and write those words as it is so hard to describe the power of what happened on our ship in December 2016, in Antarctica with 76 determined and skilled women in STEM and a team of 10 crazy, caring expert faculty. For me it is all about the complementarity of things that came together and that make so much sense.
Systemic approach for a better world
First of all I believe that as we reach the boundaries of planet Earth after which the chemical, physical and biological systems will probably tip and collapse, we cannot tackle a single problem at once. For instance I have always been particularly sensitive to biodiversity erosion and the destruction of ecosystems by Human activities (e.g. overfishing or agriculture). I have devoted my career so far for this but I came to realise that we cannot solve this problem unless we address social issues too. Can you really blame people for trading tropical wood or endangered animals when their family has nothing to eat? It might seem like an even more complicated matter to solve unless we find at least one common denominator… I was surprised to discover it might be women.
Women, happiness catalysers
Women in the world are carers, for resources (water, wood, crops, seeds…) as well as for people (children, elderly, ill…) they possess this quiet knowledge and indestructible drive to ensure their families’ welfare by understanding, respecting the environment and ensuring its sustainability. However due to the amount of unpaid work they accomplish, women often represent the poorest of the poor and therefore are strikingly most affected by global changes and inequalities. Cultural and historical barriers have often put women’s education and wellbeing on a second plan. The shaming and abuse of women in conflicts (increasingly linked with migrations related to a lack of resources due to global changes) as a tool to hurt deeper is the paroxysm of this problem. However it has been shown that when given their chance women easily create successful and innovative businesses, solve complex environmental issues, and gather communities for the greater good.
That was from the lens of developing countries but it is also true in the western world where women can be more affected by global changes too. For instance during the European heat wave of 2003, more women lost their lives, after Hurricane Katrina in the USA, rates of physical and sexual abuse on women amplified. On the other hand surveys have shown that when asked if they believe climate change is a serious issue and if they are doing something to counter it, more women than men will recognise the urge and demonstrate actions (as little as they may be) to overcome it. In the corporate world, when at least one woman is part of decision boards, performance is significantly higher. Women on average demonstrate key leadership capabilities to a greater degree than do men… And that was my second surprise: what if better leadership represented a huge part of the solution too?
Leadership in our world
I don’t know much about leadership (nor women in developing countries), as an early-career scientist working on albatross demography in the Southern Ocean I never really wondered what leadership was and if it was that important. But actually leadership from our own interactions with people in our little personal and professional lives to the heads of huge polluting industries or of the most powerful countries on Earth is absolutely determinant. There are many reasons for that: direct reasons as the decisions they make, the divides they create, the fear even sometimes but indirectly the image they give on the actions needed to reach decision making positions, the behavior of change-makers, the rate of possible positive change. On board we have learned so much about leadership in ourselves and in others. In particular we defined the characteristics of the universal constructive leader… the 76 of us, aged 26 to 65 years old, born or raised in more than 16 different countries, we were unanimous and it was so obvious, so why not all aspiring to always be the best they can be? Because it is not that easy, you first need to understand yourself, where you are achieving the most, the importance of self-actualising, as well as developing our humanistic and affiliative behaviours in order to make the most of everyone’s strengths. In the meantime we need to come back to our roots, what happened in our family history, childhood or teenage years that made us so oppositional, competitive, or in avoidance and constant need for approval? How can we accept, learn from and grow out of unconstructive behaviour? We were provided some tools, 1 to 1 coaching but more importantly a safe space to share, a powerful network to catch us when we fall and to propel us when we need it!
These women… I will never forget, it is the first time in my life that I feel part of something so right, so needed. Instead of feeling down, with the guilt of not being able to do enough to save our planet facing so many unsolvable problems bigger than myself, the burden of being part of the lucky ones that were born in the right place and never missed anything or felt hunger. Getting together, with the same purpose, acknowledging our differences, introverts-extroverts, beginner-experienced, green LSI-red LSI (see my YouTube video) who cares? We have the same purpose: “We don’t want to play the game, we want to change the game”. We build on our complementarity to create something unbreakable, especially as we all have a scientific background.
Science approach for evidence-based solutions
Science is a weird beast… it shapes our relationship with the world and we have an innate curiosity for it. As I watch my son growing and discovering gravity, shadows, textures, plants, magnetism, taste, animal behaviour, I smile and hope he will remain as open-minded and enthusiastic for what is happening around us. Conversely, science is scary, scary from the outside, the general public who tries to understand these weirdos who don’t really contribute to the economy, scary for decision makers when scientists use so many facts to describe a problem that nobody is listening anymore. But science is our base, it gives us the answers we need to understand things to be able to work with them as efficiently as possible… oceans, stars, computers, health, food, and people. If more decisions were evidence-based at all levels including politics, our socio-economic systems would probably improve much faster as well as our relationship with the environment. That one was not a surprise…but something is missing!
Communication links people and drives collaboration
We have a real lack of links between people, bridges between disciplines, ladders between hierarchical levels, it is scaring me. Technology sometimes does not help as it makes us addicted, impatient, not in the moment as we try to do too many things at the same time. Have you ever sent an email instead of walking 2 minutes to talk to the person? Have you ever sent texts on your phone while you were sitting with someone you usually miss? Do you find it easier to tell your problems online than to people who are important for you? How do you feel when you walk passed someone trying to say hi and they do as if you were not here? Emotions have evolved for millennia, we often forget we are a highly social species but they drive how we learn, how we share and how we become happy. During the year of fundraising and public-speaking leading to the expedition, and the year of maternity leave preceding that, I decomposed and rebuilt myself. From a selfishly driven scientist to a motivated learner and communicator. I want to invest more time in inspiring young generations, in creating sparkles in people’s eyes when they learn a new fact in something beautiful, in helping collective intelligence rise in small and big corporations, in motivating everyone for a thriving planet. You may say I am naïve and live a bubble, but now that I am part of Homeward Bound I believe it is possible and I can’t help it!
I realise I have not even talked about Antarctica… I have no words for that, in English or even in French. It was the wilderness, beauty and purity of Earth and the witness of our impact at the same time as glaciers are retreating so fast. Little bubbles of air contained in the snow of icebergs as big as buildings show us what we are doing to the world, it is our responsibility to respect everything and everyone around us, for our children and all living organisms in the future.