Chief Science Correspondent
Any person who ventures onto one of the U.S. Antarctic research stations - marine technicians, cooks, and scientists alike - will be issued a large duffel bag full of clothing and gear designed to protect the wearer against the extreme temperatures of the most remote continent on Earth.
The Extreme Cold Weather gear issue is mandatory; participants are provided with boots, insulated pants, fleeces, a hat, gloves, a neck gaiter, goggles, and the famous “Big Red” parka. These items can vary based on both job description as well as the research station itself, as the weather conditions vary greatly between the three U.S. stations: Palmer, McMurdo and South Pole.
When I deployed to Palmer Station last April I was issued the standard set of gear along with a few extra items designed for fishing. While few people will use every item, many of the items I was issued were critical during this experience. My steel toe Xtratuf boots, for example, served as my most prized footwear for nearly three months.
The USAP states that these items will fit both men and women, despite their male-exclusive designation. Unfortunately, many of the women I worked with at Palmer Station stated that this was not the case.
Sizing will always be an issue with mass-issued gear, regardless of the wearer's gender. The station and ship were at near-full capacity during much of my research season, and as a result many of the required items were limited. However, the exclusion of women's sizes only exacerbates this problem.
Men and women's clothing is cut differently, and the difference is often more than cosmetic. My Xtratufs, for example, were much too tight in the calves, forcing me to select a pair much larger than my actual shoe size. The result was a pair of boots that were both too large and too small: I'd often stumble ungracefully on the icy deck while wearing the shoes (although to be fair, I'm not particularly graceful in general), and I struggled to pull them on and off (when fishing, speed in doing this action was critical).
I soon learned that many other women on station experienced this same problem, while most of the men (at least to my knowledge) did not. To be fair, Xtratuf does not actually offer these boots in women's sizes. However, there are other brands of this type of footwear that are designed to better fit many women. The option to choose alternative wider-fit boot would increase both safety and comfort for the wearer.
Boots will inevitably always present a fitting challenge for some wearers, but there are other pieces of clothing where offering women's sizes simply seems smarter. While many items (such as hats, balaclavas and even fleece jackets) are not necessarily gender-specific in design, pants and overalls are cut differently based on this factor. Carhartt and Helly Hansen offer women's sizes for the relevant issued clothing at comparable prices.
The exclusion of women's sizes only reinforces the outdated notion that the type of work performed on the continent is only suitable for one gender. Women have traveled and worked in Antarctica for decades; in fact, an all-female research team, led by Ohio State University researcher Lois Jones, reached the South Pole in 1969.
Now it's 2016, and both of the principle investigators of my own research team are women - and both have worked in the Antarctic for years. To date, women constitute approximately one-third of the population at McMurdo (the largest U.S. research station).
Ultimately, many women are faced with a choice; they must either wear ill-fitting clothing or purchase their own gear out of pocket. While women are not required to wear the provided ECW gear in the Antarctic, the USAP has determined that these items are important enough that all participants are required to bring the clothing to station. Perhaps it is time take it one step further and strive to issue items designed to fit all USAP participants.