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Equal Opportunities on Ice: Examining gender and institutional change at the British Antarctic Survey, 1975-1996

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Seag, Morgan 


This dissertation examines the recent history of an institution with a rich and varied heritage and a proud culture. In recognition of the limitations of this project, due to both the inevitably subjective research process and the constraints of research at the master’s level, I would like to begin by establishing a few things that I consider this dissertation to be, and a few things that I consider it not to be. This dissertation explores the dismantling of a discriminatory policy at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), and the corresponding progress toward women’s equality in Antarctica. It ostensibly traces the evolution of BAS’s exclusionary policy toward women in Antarctica, beginning with the passage of the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act and concluding with the 1996 announcement that BAS had become a full equal opportunities employer. Along the way it traces a progression of policy amendments that gradually gave women greater access to Antarctic fieldwork. But this dissertation also is about how an institution understood its own gendered identity during a period of dramatic institutional change. It explores the beliefs, norms, and networks that intersected with an entrenched gender paradigm, in an attempt to explain how the assumption that BAS could operate as a modern scientific institution under a masculinist gender paradigm was destabilised in the late 1970s, contested from within and without during the 1980s, and displaced by a new set of gendered norms toward the end of that decade. In sum, I argue that women’s increasing access to Antarctic field opportunities with the British Antarctic Survey between 1975 and 1996 should be understood in terms of broader and more fundamental processes of institutional change at BAS. However, I acknowledge that the story that unfolds in this dissertation cannot be exhaustive. This dissertation offers one possible path through the BAS Archives, and future researchers may well find others that are equally or more illuminating. It is therefore worth briefly mentioning a few things that should be understood to be outside the scope of this dissertation. This dissertation will not deal in any great detail with the gendering of scientific disciplines in Antarctica or the evolution of Antarctic research agendas. Though I have included relevant biographical information where possible, it also does not aim to comprehensively examine the scientific backgrounds and professional trajectories of rear-­?guard actors or reformers, though this may be of interest to future research. It also is not about heroism and gender, which has been extensively explored by Antarctic historians, though the narrative that emerges will in some aspects build on their work.1 And although this dissertation may contribute to one aspect of an understanding of what defined a scientific institution as modern in the late twentieth century, it does not claim to offer any concrete answers. Instead, this dissertation offers a way to consider the complex, multi-­?causal process of institutional change that co-­?evolved with women’s formal equality at BAS. In doing so, it explores how the overlapping, and sometimes oppositional, influences of agents, institutional relationships, and socio-­?political currents shaped BAS’s policy on women. It does not seek to lionize or vilify any of the actors involved, and it does not seek to imply that any one individual’s perceptions or contributions were monolithic. Rather, it examines how the dilemma of institutional change and the challenges and opportunities of gender progress were variously perceived at different times by different people. Most importantly, what I propose here is one of many possible routes of understanding this period of transition using the British Antarctic Survey Archives. Therefore, it is my intention that this dissertation should not only contribute to an understanding of gender at BAS, but also demonstrate the value of this history to a number of important questions in the history and philosophy of science, science studies, and feminist geography today.




Bravo, Michael



Master of Philosophy (MPhil)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge