MIFF68½ – The Leadership (2020) / MIFF Talks | Stories from The Leadership: Women in STEM (2020)

The Leadership documents the inaugural Homeward Bound voyage in 2016, a 20-day leadership program for women in the STEMM field conducted in the course of a round trip between Argentina and Antarctica. Although Homeward Bound has gone on to be a successful annual program with notable benefits for female scientists, this pilot voyage also highlights the incompatibilities and culture clashes between the corporate world and science.

CEO and self-styled dreamer Fabian Dattner comes from a corporate leadership background, but became interested in promoting female leadership in science because of a half-joking remark made by a scientist at a conference. Two years later, 76 successful applicants to the program set sail with her on the inaugural voyage.

Fabian’s style of leading the program is initially very successful – many of the women are taken by the contrast with what they have been used to in their careers and are open to the idea of what the program can offer them. As the voyage develops, the cultural and personality clashes begin to show and are inevitably exacerbated by the situation of being confined together on a boat. Fabian is clearly used to her ideas being accepted as received wisdom, while the scientists begin to question the validity of some of her approaches, preferring citations of peer-reviewed studies and skills-based learning in pursuit of clearly identified goals. It also becomes clear that Fabian has not done sufficient research to understand the needs specific to the STEMM field – structural inequities are ignored and she is clearly caught off guard when her stated assumption that women who choose to go into science do so because they’re inherently introspective is not received well by her audience.

Other oversights quickly become apparent. Of the 76 women chosen for the program, only one is non-white. Songqiao Yao, a Chinese researcher who obtained her degrees at Cambridge and Oxford, observes early on that the style of leadership being taught is very individualistic and is incompatible with the more collective style of leadership and decision-making she encounters within China. A sociologist on the voyage speaks to Fabian about the lack of diversity in the group and the importance to acknowledge the advantages they have in career advancement compared to non-white STEMM workers, but Fabian denies that any such advantage exists and shifts the grounds of the conversation into something with which she’s more comfortable.

The growing tensions within the group are broken up along the way with various field trips: visiting small islands, encountering penguins, marvelling over moss, watching whales, visiting bases, a very quick “swimming” expedition (better described as wading into the water before running out again within 20 seconds). The Antarctic vistas are a constant presence through the film and serve as a reminder of the enthusiasm for engaging with the world that drives these women in their scientific careers.

The final feedback session of the voyage generates some harsh assessments of the program and of Fabian’s leadership style, and other more damning issues come to light 3 months later when it’s revealed that 2 of the women on the voyage were sexually assaulted by separate male crew-members. That this should occur in the course of a program intended to generate positive outcomes for women makes an already appalling act feel more jarring.

After this low point, it should be noted that the final 15 minutes of the documentary (and the follow-up MIFF Talks session speaking to 3 of the participants) emphasise the deep level of rethinking undertaken to improve the program for subsequent years. Mental health professionals became part of the team, clear guidelines about the reporting and handling of inappropriate behaviour are now in place, and many of the women who have been through the program have returned to participate as instructors. Fabian is interviewed a year or more after the initial voyage and comes across as a different person, considerably more relaxed and reflective. She was clearly affected by her experience and with the perspective of distance has been able to reassess her own behaviour and assumptions, looking back in embarrassment on some of her interactions.

Science journalist Natasha Mitchell interviewed three of the participants for a MIFF Talks session, discussing some of the past and present impediments to women’s abilities to progress in their scientific careers, such as failure to provide facilities for women at remote research outposts and the impact of children on removing women from consideration for leadership roles. After acknowledging these aspects, the panel discussion focused more positively on the benefits these women gained from their experiences with the Homeward Bound program and the directions in which their careers have developed since, as they work to further their research and to inspire future women in their fields.

2 thoughts on “MIFF68½ – The Leadership (2020) / MIFF Talks | Stories from The Leadership: Women in STEM (2020)

  1. This was a really interesting documentary, but I have to say, I found it rather upsetting to watch. As someone who works very adjacently to medical research, I’m aware of the barriers that women face, both in terms of individual sexist assumptions and structural issues (the effect of career interruptions to have children or undertake caring responsibilities on maintaining scientific momentum). And of course, that is being exacerbated right now by school closures due to COVID. Someone has to supervise the children at home all day, and it makes sense that it will be the lower-paid member of the household who takes the time off to do this… and that is usually the person who has taken maternity leave a few years earlier, and has not yet caught up with their spouses uninterrupted or less interrupted career. And that’s going to be hard to catch up with, because the research you don’t get to do is reflected in the papers you don’t get to write, and the citations you therefore don’t receive, and the grants you therefore don’t look as qualified for…
    But I was especially struck by the number of women in this film who shared experiences of truly aggressive and frightening behaviour from male colleagues – from drinks being spiked, to housing being shot up, with very little institutional response to either of these things. If that was a representative sample of women in STEM and that’s the rate at which this sort of violence against women is happening in the field, that is both appalling and terrifying. I wonder if one reasons we don’t hear about these things is that often in STEM your individual field is very small, and you don’t want to get the reputation of being difficult – or you are reliant on your supervisor for a reference, and if he or she thinks you are overreacting in some way, that’s not going to help you.
    And how sad is it that a field that prides itself on valuing intellect and scientific ability and logic still has all of these unexamined prejudices about who is really capable of doing science?

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    1. Thanks for providing your perspective and expanding on those sections of the documentary. I’d intended to provide more examples of the injustices mentioned within the film, but erred on the side of a more concise review and allowing these parts of the documentary to speak for themselves. I’m grateful to you for mentioning these details and contributing to the wider conversation.

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