06 Mar 2023
by Emma Philpott

International Women’s Day 2023: One woman’s journey into telecoms – via Antarctica

I never planned a career in telecoms or digital connectivity. At school, my passion was science, and I followed that path to a university degree in oceanography and chemistry.

Working and studying in New York for a year gave me time to think about what really interested me. When I returned to the UK, I applied for a graduate job with a global engineering consultancy. I’m still not sure what made them invite me for an interview with their digital communications team, as I had zero experience or qualifications. I thought there was no way I would get the job.

However, I did - and it was the start of a career which has seen me deploy mobile infrastructure and improve connectivity to some of the planet’s most remote places.

And you don’t get any more remote than Antarctica, where my career path eventually led me to work for the British Antarctic Survey as a communication manager at the Halley Research station.

During my first few weeks, I felt lost both in terms of my job and surroundings. Vast white emptiness spread out in every direction, with no trees, plants or mountains for reference. Apart from the other scientists and support colleagues, there were no people around.

That made communications at the station hugely important. Our contact with the outside world was via a 256Kbps satellite link. It sounds so insignificant in today’s world of gigabit connections, but it was a lifeline that allowed us to phone and email home.

People often think it's hugely exciting and heroic living on the ice, but there were many mundane housekeeping jobs, like cleaning or digging snow.

My highlights include fixing the HF antenna when it fell down in a storm, getting chased by penguins, experiencing the true meaning of a ‘white out’ while living in a pyramid tent, abseiling down a crevasse, and helping co-pilot a Twin Otter.

During the winter, the ice, howling winds and complete darkness made me realise that humans are not designed to live in Antarctica long-term. That said, it was during winter that I had some of my most memorable experiences, like standing on the ice shelf and hearing it crack as it moved beneath my feet, and having my first sight of the Aurora Australis.

Antarctica was my home for fourteen months, and where I met my now husband! It was only on my return to the UK that I realised how isolating and vulnerable an existence it had been. I started to think about my career, and how it is still a challenge at times to work in a male-dominated industry.

I will always remember arriving at Halley to find none of the winter boots or socks would fit me, as polar clothing was only designed for men, who generally don’t have size 4 feet.

I’ve also had my ideas dismissed in a meeting, but then accepted when the same idea is presented by a man. I’ve been paid significantly less than my male counterparts for doing the same job.

None of these barriers put me off, and I’m thankful things are better and equal at FarrPoint, where I am now Head of Mobile. I can continue to make a difference by improving connectivity, advising clients such as the Welsh and Scottish Governments or DCMS.

However, more can still be done to ensure STEM isn’t viewed as something girls cannot do. This should start as early as possible in education. It also needs female role models for girls in jobs they can look up to - something I missed out on.

I am proud to play a part in changing how women are viewed in telecoms, and encouraging girls to consider a career in this exciting industry - or even a winter in Antarctica!

techUK is marching forward to close the tech gender gap in 2023. Throughout March, coinciding with International Women’s Day (IWD 2023) on 8 March, we are exploring how we embrace equitable workplaces. The UN’s theme for IWD 2023 focuses on Digital for All or DigitALL, and we are proud to support this.

For more information, please visit our Women in Tech hub.

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Emma Philpott

Emma Philpott

Head of Mobile and NTN, Farrpoint