It was her mind detailing what would become ‘Homeward Bound’ – an opportunity for her areas of expertise to come together to do something for women with a science background, and to elevate their visibility in leading.
When Fabian dreamt up the concept of Homeward Bound in 2015, it confirmed two things: she’d be guiding hundreds of women with STEM backgrounds to become more visible in leadership roles, and paving the way for these scientists to be more vocal about the climate crisis.
Fabian Dattner is the CEO and co-founder of Homeward Bound – a global initiative to elevate the visibility of women with science backgrounds in leadership. The initiative has gained incredible momentum, and its goal is to give 1000 women, within ten years, the skill and will to lead with impact and influence for the greater good.
We spoke to Fabian about how Homeward Bound started, how she’s making a difference for women in STEM and what the future of leadership looks like.
Hi Fabian, it’s so great to be speaking with you, the co-founder and CEO of Homeward Bound, a global initiative to elevate the visibility of women in leadership. First of all, can you share with us what inspired you to start Homeward Bound?
“I actually dreamt of Homeward Bound in October 2015. I was on a ship and I could see Antarctica through the window. I saw the Homeward Bound banner to the left and I saw the women in front of me, and I knew exactly what we were doing; giving these women with a STEM background the tools to be more visible as leaders in the world, for the greater good.”
“I woke up the next morning and I rang my friend, Jessica Melbourne-Thomas, and I told her about the dream. I told her it felt real, and I said I think we can do it. She was working for the Australian Antarctic Division at th time and she loved the idea and suggested I write it down.”
“But the catalyst for this dream of Homeward Bound came from four propositions. Firstly, the problem with the current practice of leadership; we don’t trust our leaders. Secondly, the consistent, pernicious absence of women in leadership in significant numbers. Thirdly, we are starting to believe fiction as fact. We have to listen to science, it is imperfect, but it is the best option we have for factual, accurate information. That is our best available data right now. And fourth, is that every single planetary measure is on radical decline. The planet is no longer wild, the planet systems are being dictated by the choices that you and I make.”
“I would never have been able to do it [Homeward Bound] on my own, though. Jessica introduced me to Dr. Justine Shaw and Dr. Mary-Anne Lea, who became the co-founders of the project with me, and it grew from that point.”
As part of the 12-month leadership initiative, you take these women on a voyage to Antarctica. Can you tell us the reason behind this?
“Imagine that the world is the refrigerator and Antarctica is the back of your fridge. It’s the part you never see, but it is the engine-house that runs the fridge; just as Antarctica runs the climate of the planet. The visible aspect of the decline of the planetary system is now so evident there. “
“I have a saying – ‘you won’t protect what you cannot see’. Antarctica is how we can help people understand what’s happening to the planet. And what happens for the women that go there, is they develop this insane, intense bond for the planet, and that’s what we are trying to achieve. We are trying to get scientists to pick up activism. They’ve got the facts, but they’ve been taught not to express emotion, and consequently the people like Trump can’t hear the facts. So, the question is why Antarctica, but I don’t know anywhere in the world you’ll have that experience.”
You once said that “leadership is easy when things are good, the ultimate test of effective leadership is when things aren’t good”. Evidently, you’ve identified some flaws in the system of a male-dominated industry. What is it that you think the current mainstream ideology of leadership is missing, and how do you think women can be the change makers the world needs?
“I’d like to preface this by saying that neither you nor me, know what women are capable of. Why don’t we know? Because you and I, have been born into a system, built by and influenced by men.”
“We do know that there are certain attributes that men have in leadership that is much more about ‘I’ over ‘we’, assertiveness, individual accomplishment, and some levels of aggression. Other attributes are decisiveness; a leader who knows what they want and says, ‘I know where we are going, and I want you to come with me’. Those are attributes of leadership that have been elevated, and frankly it’s an old style of leadership; a military model of leadership.”
“Even men who are in systems leading that way don’t like it. As a leadership expert I am often working with executive teams who are struggling with very significant communication lines that are fractured, and a lot of men are really, deeply unhappy with that very competitive, aggressive, and intimidating style of leadership. Organisations will repeatedly report its not working. People don’t like that style of leadership, but we are kind of in its clutches.”
“We are using a redundant operating system. The current operating system of leadership is redundant, yet we are still using it. So, what is the other operating system of leadership? It is more apparent in women. What are those attributes? Zenger Folkman have released their pandemic results, and it is the most comprehensive look at how we feel about the narrative of leadership. What these results show is that of the sixteen well researched leadership capabilities, women excel statistically significantly at 12 out of 16 of these. And then you have body of research after body of research validating it that say women make very good leaders in the pandemic; the eight countries that have done best are all led by women.”
“So, what we are seeing is a conundrum where women are seen to be emotional, they’re not seen to be great leaders, or men have to champion them. And the terrible truth is what if they are just good? What if you’re just a really good leader and you come into a room and there’s three women and ten men? You can’t be you.
So, the elevation of women is the discovery that when women are with men and they are a minority, you will never really know the true strength of their leadership. When they are on their own, you start to see it. So that’s why women, and that’s why the model in the world is not collaborative enough and it is not inclusive enough, and it is certainly not focusing on legacy mindset.”
In the past you’ve emphasised the importance of women’s voices in STEM leadership roles and linked this to the action plan of climate change. Could you explain why these women’s voices are so important in leadership of tackling climate change?
“We are heading towards a catastrophe. I don’t call it climate change; we call it climate crisis. Massive biodiversity loss, species of extinction, air and land pollution, are all issues that should concern the custodians of the planet.
Homeward Bound is not a program for climate change leadership, although we have an enormous number of climate change experts and activists. Our job is to help many scientists become more visible in the world, to influence decisions on many areas including deforestation, the imminent death of the Amazon which will affect rainfall globally, and plastics into the system.”
“We know what to do, but there must be a will. We have only got this decade left to take action in.”
You describe a good leader to be collaborative, inclusive, have a legacy mindset and is ethical with money, which is often quite different from some of the world’s prominent leaders today. What action do you think we can collectively take to see more of these qualities be both respected and expected in leadership moving forward?
“The first thing to understand is that we are on a bell curve of change, so we are probably in the second tranche of change agents. The challenge for women is that you are not yet the whole bell curve; this now calls to the next lot of women, to say that one, this will not be easy, and two, we have to do it. If not you, who?”
“The three things we have to focus on first and foremost is knowing yourself. Take the time to genuinely understand why you do what you do, what you value, understand what your fears are and internal dialogue is and change it. Start working on getting rid of the internal critic. Clare Bowditch has just put out a podcast called ‘Tame Your Inner Critic’, and for a long time I’ve been helping women look at how we talk about ourselves, to ourselves. So, if you can’t do it on your own, get some support, do something that supports you to challenge yourself to change the way you talk to yourself. So much conditioning puts us down. Take the time to value and invest in you.”
“We also have to become aware, with wise eyes, of others. What do they think? What do they feel? What do they believe? Where are they heading? How can we move towards something we agree needs to change?”
“Thirdly, understand that you can be different things in different parts of your life. The explorer, artist, judge, warrior. Women beat themselves up about not knowing what they want to do and who they want to be, so you have to say ‘It’s okay, you’re not born knowing what you want to be, you’ve got to go play with your life again. And play in the true sense, be the explorer. Know yourself in different ways because you don’t yet know what you really want.”
What’s next for Homeward Bound?
“We have the sixth group coming on board and they’re receiving their welcome letters today.”
Before we leave you for today, we’d love to know, if you had one message you could share with women in the workforce, what would it be?
“I spend a lot of time helping women understand that they don’t have to have the answers, they need to be okay with not having the answers. And I also say to women, don’t worry about confidence. Courage is getting over the hurdles of when you don’t know how to do what you’re doing, and it’s okay to fail and it’s okay to get it wrong. This is how we get ahead. We’re stronger together, so do it with other women, don’t do it on your own.”