Three Women Manage Antarctic Stations


first woman manager
Janet Phillips, 1994 Pole manager, later wrote this article for Women's History Month. This photo is clipped from the winterover picture.
I opened the freezer-like door from the galley and made my way down the steps and across the well-packed snow in the Dome to the Science building. My coffee cup tipped a little as I shut the big door to the building. Rats...spilled again. I entered my office, glancing at the sign on the door... "Station Manager". Some days I felt more like a manager than others. I had arrived at the South Pole in October 1993 and it was now a year later… almost time to leave and make way for a fresh crew.

I was proud of all 27 of us who had spent the eight-month winter here. We had worked hard. We had put out fires… and prayed for no more to start. We had survived power outages in an environment where water pipes can freeze in as little as 30 minutes. We had spent many days working to keep the station and science projects running...days that sometimes seemed to run together in the 24-hour darkness of winter. We had witnessed the collision of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 with Jupiter from a unique perspective. It had been a good year. I was excited about the upcoming opening of the station for the Austral Summer. And I was tired. I was tired of wondering what new disaster may strike at the aging station before the first C130 aircraft landed on our painstakingly groomed ski-way. I turned on my computer to read through to daily entourage of email from the outside world.

There were the usual messages from people at headquarters… wondering if this or that was done or if the materials for the first project of the season were available in the snow-covered storage berms. There were a few messages from home...friends wondering when I would be stateside, or telling me about the beautiful fall leaves and sunsets to die for. And tucked in amongst the 15-20 messages of the day was one from another Antarctic station. It was from my fellow Station Manager at McMurdo Station, Karen Schwall. I opened the message from Karen, wondering if maybe the station opening date would be delayed or something of the sort. I took another sip of coffee, a deep breath, and dove in… hoping for the best.

As I read the email from McMurdo, it dawned on me how little attention I had paid to what was going on at the other Antarctic stations for awhile. I had occasionally read the weekly reports, and had heard now and then from friends at the other stations. But I was so focused on getting us all through the winter at the South Pole that I didn't even notice that we were making history. We weren't making the sort history that would be written up in school-books and passed on for generations to come… but taking a new step, a first step, starting a new direction that would affect the future of the USAP. Karen had written to share a little news with me. For the first time in history women were leading all three USAP Antarctic Stations. Karen Schwall at McMurdo Station, Ann Peoples at Palmer Station, and me at South Pole. I smiled after reading the email, partly because it wasn't bad news or some wild request to ready the station for opening a week early, or a week late, and partly because it was fun to be part of the first trio of American women leading in the Antarctic.

For those of you who haven't heard much about the Antarctic, the appearance of women in leadership positions probably doesn't seem like much. So, a little history may help... Women were not allowed to work in Antarctica with the USAP until 1969. Women scientists were the first to break the barriers and enter the exciting world of studies in the Antarctic. More women followed and eventually there were women carpenters, cooks, computer programmers, equipment operators, engineers, meteorologists, plumbers, janitors, and water plant technicians populating Antarctica. The first woman in any management position for the USAP support contract was Ann Peoples, who began managing the Berg Field Center in McMurdo in 1986. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has made further strides in involving women in the Antarctic. The current NSF Director, who oversees all the NSF programs including USAP via the Office of Polar Programs (OPP), is Rita Colwell.

When I first arrived in Antarctica in 1991, things were still pretty rough for women in Antarctica in ways. Women in non-traditional roles often had to work harder and longer to prove their worth. I was shocked to see pictures of nude women hanging on the walls of work areas… areas where both men and women worked. The small proportion of women in Antarctica tended to bring out the worst in some men, acting as though they were in prison and hadn't seen women for years. Don't get me wrong… there were a lot of opportunities for friendships and fun times for both men and women. But the atmosphere was such that if a poster, joke, come-on or comment offended a woman, she often had no way to express that without making things worse. For that matter, if a man was offended he was in the same predicament. Today, as the number of women in various positions in Antarctica increases, the incidents of harassment and discrimination are on the decrease.

So, nearly five years later, here I sit at my computer reminiscing about our moment in history while my fifteen-month-old daughter naps upstairs. Life has changed significantly for me, as it has for Karen and Ann. Something made me want to share our little moment in history with people… to let people know that things like this can encourage young women, and those young at heart, to strive for what they want, because it can happen. The convergence of women managing the stations at the same time was very brief, a few weeks or so. But the way we look at it, it was a first, a moment to be noticed, a moment to be repeated. The top-ranking positions in the USAP support contract have yet to be filled by women to this date. We all look forward to the time that is no longer true. I think Karen Schwall put it best... "Women need to grab the opportunities they want. I'd like to think we were role models for women."

Karen Schwall came from a military background before going to Antarctica. She went from Korea to the Naval Support Force Antarctica as an Army Captain. After three years with NSFA, Karen joined the ranks of the USAP contractor, Antarctic Support Associates, in 1991. She was the first woman to manage McMurdo Station, which she did from October - December 1994, and again during the winter-over months of February-August 1995. She was also the first female US Army Officer in Antarctica. Karen was promoted to Major during the Austral Winter of 1995, while on inactive reserve status. The "everyone is green" background Karen learned in the Army initially clouded her view of the challenges for a woman managing in the Antarctic. As time went on she realized some of the difficulties she faced would have been very different for a man. Karen's strongest memories of the USAP are of the people… the people who work so hard and work well together.

Ann Peoples was the first woman to manage Palmer Station, which she did from 1991-1995. Ann started with the US Antarctic Program in 1981. She was initially attracted to the seasonal aspect of Antarctic work, which fit in well with her seasonal work as an Archeologist with the Bureau of Land Management. Actually, Ann was the first woman in several positions in the Antarctic. She was the first woman to have her efforts recognized by the job title of manager in the Antarctic, as the Berg Field Center (BFC) Manager from 1986-1989. She recalls the murmurs of skepticism about having a woman manage the BFC, which provides outdoor equipment and survival training at McMurdo Station. But her skill spoke louder than any skeptics did and she went on to become the first woman to manage a USAP station in 1991. In 1998 a geographical feature was named after Ann in recognition of her role as the first USAP woman manager. The feature is called People's Rocks and is located off the coast of Anvers Island, where Palmer Station resides. Ann learned qualities as a manager in the Antarctic that she now applies to everyday life...the recognition of the need for solid planning, patience, and the importance of people. The biggest thrill Ann retains from her involvement in the USAP is seeing people who she hired on for their first year in the Antarctic go on to leave their own legacy there.

Before going to Antarctica I spent my days perusing equipment rooms, crawling through ductwork, and climbing through ceiling spaces as a Mechanical Inspector in Albuquerque. I first went to Antarctica in 1991 as a Mechanical Engineer and wound up at the South Pole completing a project to redesign the waste-heat recovery system in the power plant. After spending several years at South Pole in various engineering positions I took on the position of South Pole Station Manager for the 1993-1994 season, and was also the first woman to take on that position. While I now realize that some of the management challenges I faced had more to do with being a woman than anything else, I didn't always recognize it at the time. I learned a great deal from my experience as a leader at the remote Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. I found the job of manager at South Pole as challenging, joyful, stressful, and revealing. I'd have to say that the biggest thing I learned that year is that the Golden Rule is a good start, but isn't quite right. The ultimate goal really isn't to "treat people as you would want to be treated yourself" is to treat people as they would like to be treated. I also treasure the many friendships made there, and am grateful to have met my life partner, Juan Reyes, at Palmer Station, Antarctica.

Janet Phillips and Juan Reyes, and their daughter Gabriella, now live in Jemez Springs, NM. This article was one of several that Janet wrote for the Jemez Thunder, and it appeared on the former web site that Juan published during his 1999-2000 summer at Pole. Thanks to Janet for sharing it for use here.