By Orna Herr, Communications Officer (Education) at the British Science Association


How does a woman born in 1950s England go on to earn a PhD in geology, spend weeks at a time researching in Antarctica, become the director of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and, as of this year, become the president of the British Science Association (to name just a few of her many achievements)?

This is the story Professor Dame Jane Francis told journalist, Gaia Vince, at her Presidential Address at the British Science Festival 2023 – held this year at the University of Exeter. Her story is a battle against the discrimination of women in science, about succeeding in a world designed to not let her through the front door. But it is also one of triumph, and gives hope for the future.

A childhood in nature

At the British Science Festival event, last month, where Jane told her story, Gaia started at the very beginning, asking when did Jane first realise she was interested in science and exploring how the world works? Jane grew up in the countryside, born to parents in the farming business, so as a small child she enjoyed spending a lot of time out in nature. It was when she was a little older she started to hone her interest and think about how it could become a career.

I remember being taken on nature rambles by my mother. My brothers and sisters and I would go and jump in trout streams, so we always had nature around us. But when I was in secondary school, I was particularly fascinated by physical geography, about the planet and how it works. That’s when I really decided that a career in geology would be the one that I would take.

She added:

“I also liked weather and climate, ironically all that time ago, this was in the 70s or earlier… I thought weather, climate, well there’s probably not much future in that, at that time nobody was interested.”

“Maybe they should have been a bit more interested at that time”, Gaia replied.

“Women need not apply”

Jane studied for a degree in geology at the University of Southampton, where she was one of four women in a class of 24. “That was fine – we weren’t treated any differently, to be honest”, she told Gaia.

It was when her course ended, she found that as female geology graduate in 1978, she was explicitly denied the career opportunities afforded to her male peers.

The first step at that time was to join an oil company, to be a core logger and do the basics of looking at oil extraction, and I do remember a job advert that was pinned on the board and it was for geologists from the University of Southampton to be a core logger and at the bottom it said ‘women need not apply’. That was because in those days, women weren’t allowed to work on oil rigs.

“It was a bit depressing and I really did think that I’d have to give up geology at that point,” she added.

Luckily an opportunity did come Jane’s way; she was offered a place on a PhD project by a member of the geology department of the University of Southampton working on the rocks of the Dorset coast. “I snapped that up and that’s where I’ve been ever since.”

Slow moving change

Jane is now the director of the BAS, an institute of the Natural Environment Research Council, their website explains, that “delivers and enables world-leading interdisciplinary research in the Polar Regions.” The institute was born around 60 years ago, its roots lying in “a secret World War Two mission with a dual scientific role”. Jane has been director since 2013.

As Jane discusses the discrimination she faced in the geology world in the 1970s, Gaia points out that it was over 10 years later, in the early 1990s before the BAS allowed women to go into the field and stay in research tents. “That’s right”, Jane said.

I did my first trip to Antarctica in 1989. I was based in Adelaide, Australia as a researcher at that time and I was invited back on a special expedition to go to Antarctica with the British Antarctic Survey… there were several of us women and we actually did camp in the field… but of course that was unofficial because we didn’t actually work for the British Antarctic Survey.

“I have recently been into the archives at BAS", Jane said, "and there was this big file which is called ‘Women in Antarctica’ and you would never believe the minutes of some of those meetings, it’s pretty horrendous.”

Things finally changed not long after that:

There was a male director with foresight and he opened everything up [in the early 1990s] and women then did go to Antarctica. They stayed in field tents and they stayed over winter in stations as well and it made a huge difference because they’re much better and nicer places to work now than they were when they were just men only.

If that seems late for gender equality to reach Antarctic field world, that’s because it is.

The Americans and New Zealanders took women into Antarctica in the 1970s.

Listening to Jane’s story, it’s hard not to imagine the many women who must have lost the battle against discrimination, who are still losing that battle, and the potentially pioneering research they might have done that the world will never get to see.


Part two of Jane's Presidental Address covers Jane's views and experience of the climate crisis, and how more education is needed.

Read part two here

Photography by Theo Moye (link opens in new tab)