Why being on a ship in Antarctica is my most important act of visibility


Julia May

I find myself on a ship, anchored on a harbour in Antarctica.

Outside the window, the silken water is broken by clumps of ice and framed by soaring, snow-covered mountains. On the ship with me are 100 extraordinary women from 33 countries, all driven by the same purpose: to have more influence on our shared future.

According to the annual trust barometer published by the global research and communications agency Edelman, levels of trust in our major institutions have reached all-time lows. This means that for the first time, more people distrust than trust governments, media, business and non-government organisations. This means that most people distrust the institutions – and the people who run them – who are responsible for making laws, sharing information, controlling the economy and looking after the natural world and most marginalised people in society. What this distrust tells us is that the state of leadership in our world is broken, representing a catastrophic risk to the future of our planet; our children.

That’s the bad news. But there’s some good news.

We have a huge pipeline of people with the qualities we need to turn the future around. These people are collaborative. They’re honest. They act with integrity. They’re legacy-minded. Who are these amazing leaders? Women. There are women everywhere who have what we need in leadership.

Women are overwhelmingly under-presented in leadership positions across all sectors and geographies. They battle deep structural barriers, bias, misogyny, cultural prejudice. They face broken rungs and glass ceilings. And yet when they do reach leadership positions, they outperform men in 17 of 19 core leadership characteristics, making them just the people who should be able to lift those structural barriers, change cultures, break glass ceilings and lift one another up; to lead as we need them to on climate, alongside men.

It’s for these reasons that I joined the founding team of Homeward Bound in 2015. Homeward Bound is a global leadership initiative for women with a background in science, technology, engineering, medicine and mathematics (STEMM), whose ten-year vision is to support 1,000 women into leadership as it influences the state of our planet. Over 12 months our transdisciplinary team supports the women through an intensive program covering leadership, strategy, visibility and science. The program culminates in a 3-week immersive voyage to Antarctica, where each woman sets her plan for visible leadership into the future, while doing deep self-reflection and forging lasting bonds with other women leaders.

In my 12-year career as an international journalist, and then as a leadership adviser and strategist, I saw up close the struggles women face to find their voices and make them heard. So I co-founded the visibility stream of the program as my own greatest act of leadership. Mixing self-awareness, strategic communications and skills-building, visibility is a key that can unlock potential and ideas, to support the best people into leadership.

So this is how I find myself on a ship in Antarctica with 100 exceptional women. Among them are seven with whom I have another profound shared experience: having attended Climate Reality (for six of us, in Brisbane this year). As a founding leader of Homeward Bound I’m proud to support Climate Reality by taking a visible act of leadership with these women: presenting for 24 Hours of Reality in Antarctica.

We are diverse: there’s an activist, two doctors, an oceanologist, a commissioned officer, a park ranger and a farmer. Doing the presentation required us to merge learnings from both Climate Reality and Homeward Bound. We drew on the science, shared so powerfully by Al Gore and many other influential leaders at Climate Reality, and communicate it through the lens of our work. We also worked across the three pillars of visibility, which we teach in the Homeward Bound program.

First we had to be visible to ourselves, individually, by understanding our respective purpose, vision and values. We had to untangle our imposter syndrome and decide that adding our voice to the mix could make a difference. Then we stepped out and made this visible to others: standing in front of the other women and the wider world to share our expertise and care for the planet; to unveil our activism.

And finally, we’re engaging in an act of collective visibility: using our voices, our collective platforms, in support of Climate Reality and Homeward Bound and all that both organisations stand for. Our voices sound different: some are older, some are younger; some are slower, slightly less assured; some are faster, with so much more to say than time to say it.

But our diversity is our strength.

Being women is our strength. And the more courageous, purpose-driven, passionate women with a leadership mindset that we can help propel forward into visible leadership, the more trust we can have that our leaders will take the action we need to. And as that trust grows, the more hopeful the story of climate change can become.

About Visibility Co.

Working at the intersection of leadership, strategy and visibility, we seek to be strategic provocateurs and catalysts of systemic change, supporting you to unleash the potential within so you can create a better world from wherever you are.

While we’re not big on labels, we’re often referred to as social impact and communications strategists, or strategic leadership advisors, or visibility experts.

Fancy words for a business, led by Julia May and Sarah Anderson, that brings together purposeful leadership, strategy and communications in truly integrative and innovative ways.

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