“Some people find it hard to believe that the Director of the British Antarctic Survey is a woman.”

As part of National Geographic's Women of Impact special, climate scientist Dame Jane Francis discusses rising to the challenge of her role.Tuesday, 5 November 2019

“Being able to work in Antarctica, to experience the beauty and survive the harsh environment is a very special and life-changing experience.“ Dame Jame Francis.
“Being able to work in Antarctica, to experience the beauty and survive the harsh environment is a very special and life-changing experience.“ Dame Jame Francis.
photo by British Antarctic Survey
This article is part of National Geographic's Women of Impact special – celebrating the women around the world who fearlessly push boundaries. The November issue of National Geographic is the first issue in which all written and photographic content has been created by women contributors.
This article is part of National Geographic's Women of Impact special – celebrating the women around the world who fearlessly push boundaries. The November issue of National Geographic is the first issue in which all written and photographic content has been created by women contributors.

Dame Jane Francis is a palaeobotanist and paleoclimate scientist, whose research has focused on using fossil plants and trees to understand the climate of the past. Focusing on the polar regions due to their sensitivity to climate change, her work has taken her on expeditions to both the Arctic and Antarctic, and she was the fourth woman in history to receive the Polar Medal. A Professor of Palaeoclimatology at the University of Leeds, in 2017 she was appointed Dame Commander of the Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George (DCMG) for services to UK polar science and diplomacy. She is the Director of the British Antarctic Survey.

I have always been curious about how the Earth works. Rocks and fossils contain an intriguing story about life on Earth in the past, so the challenge for geologists like me is to work like detectives to piece together the clues hidden in the rocks. That's what I find so fascinating - from that I have made new discoveries about how life evolved millions of years ago.

Field work in Antarctica can be physically demanding. Just the daily routine of living in tents for weeks on end, let alone working in harsh cold conditions. But I've found that it's more about stamina rather than strength, and it's often women who can keep going at a steady pace for longer.  

I think that women prefer working in teams, sharing both the glory and the problems. So they don't stand out so much as dominant leaders, hence may get overlooked.  

Jane Francis on Resolute Island, Canada in the 1980s.
Jane Francis on Resolute Island, Canada in the 1980s.
photo by Jane Francis
“Rocks and fossils contain an intriguing story about life on Earth in the past.” Jane Francis.
“Rocks and fossils contain an intriguing story about life on Earth in the past.” Jane Francis.
photo by Jane Francis

What is your greatest strength?

Passion for what I do.

What is the greatest hurdle you’ve overcome?

Some people find it hard to believe that the Director of the British Antarctic Survey is a woman, and I've often been asked if I was the Director's secretary or from HR! At first it annoyed me but now I just think it is their problem, not mine, challenge them with a smile, and get on with my job.

What was your ‘breakthrough’ moment? 

I'm proud of being Director of the British Antarctic Survey, working with amazing people who carry out or support important science on the most awesome continent on the planet. Being able to work in Antarctica, to experience the beauty and survive the harsh environment is a very special and life-changing experience that binds the Antarctic community across the world.

“Field work in Antarctica can be physically demanding. But I've found that it's more about stamina rather than strength, and it's often women who can keep going at a steady pace for longer.”

by Jane Francis

What is the most important challenge that women face today? 

Even in cultures in which women are gaining more equality I think that unconscious bias still plays a part in keeping women from having equal status. It's a legacy that is tough to crack.

What is the most important change that needs to happen for women in the next ten years?

All women need access to education, wherever they are on this planet.

“Don't hold back from following your dreams, especially if it is in science.“ Jane Francis with emperor penguins in Antarctica.
“Don't hold back from following your dreams, especially if it is in science.“ Jane Francis with emperor penguins in Antarctica.
photo by Jane Francis

What advice would you give young women today?

Discover your passion in life and find out what drives you. Don't hold back from following your dreams, especially if it is in science. The best advice to me was to ask myself when making a decision 'What have I got to lose?'. Mostly it was nothing to lose but all to gain. 

 

This article has been edited for length and clarity.

Explore National Geographic's Women of Impact articles – and get access to our landmark November 2019 issue here. 

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