International Women’s Day is an opportunity to celebrate the contributions, achievements and challenges of women around the world.
Women play an integral role in furthering ocean research, conservation and policy. More than half of undergrad marine science degrees today are awarded to women, and women make up the majority of biology graduate students around the country. In 2018, women made up more than half of all law school students. From the halls of Congress to regional fisheries management councils to local beach cleanups, women are leaders in the fight for a healthy ocean.
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It wasn’t always this way—for centuries many women were barred from participating in official ocean research. In 1872, the HMS Challenger set out to sample the world’s ocean and is recognized as the first modern oceanographic expedition. It had 243 people on board—none of whom were women. In fact, no women were allowed on research vessels in the U.S. until the 1960s. Within ten years, Sylvia Earle led the first all-female aquanaut team in an experiment where they lived in an underwater habitat for two weeks. In my chosen profession, women were only admitted to the American Bar Association in 1918. With each decade since, women’s role in academic research and marine policy has skyrocketed.
Although we’ve made great strides in the gender representation in ocean research and conservation, we still have work to do. Although women make up the majority of marine science and biology students, they are underrepresented in professor positions. Women also face biases in the workplace—a study of applications for a science research position found that faculty rated male applicants more highly than female applicants, even though their resumes were identical. Another study found that women were half as likely to receive stellar letters of recommendation for postdoctoral fellowships than their male counterparts. We also have a serious problem with harassment in the field—according to a recently-released study by Women in Ocean Science, 78% of women have experienced sexual harassment in marine science. We still have significant work ahead of us.
To make this field accessible to everyone, we need to take strong action. First, we need to acknowledge that experiences in ocean conservation are not the same for all women—black, indigenous and women of color face compounding biases and racism that must be highlighted and addressed. It is dangerous to paint the issues facing “women in ocean conservation” with too broad a brush—we need to make sure that the voices of all women are heard, regardless of race, sexual orientation, gender identity, socio-economic status and family status.
For women in this field, we need to lift and celebrate others as we climb. We are leaders in the field today because of the work of generations of women who came before us, and it’s our responsibility to continue to open doors for the women who will come after us. For the men in this field, I urge you to stand alongside your female peers and continue to challenge the status quo, whether that is advocating for equal pay or calling out bias and harassment when you see it.
It is a gift to work alongside a group of incredible women here at Ocean Conservancy—lawyers, scientists, advocates, communications and policy experts, and all of the women volunteers around the world who make our work possible, like the International Coastal Cleanup. I am grateful to the women in my life who encouraged me to pursue my path of environmental law and ocean conservation—if I am able to do the same for other women, I know I will have left this sector and the ocean a better place.
Join me in celebrating the incredible women in ocean science and conservation. I invite you to read about some women leaders in conservation in our blog:
- Celebrating Inspirational Women
- A Shortlist of Inspirational Women in Conservation
- 17 Inspiring Quotes from Women in Conservation
- Manliest Catch: The Lack of Women in Fisheries and Why Diversity Makes Us Stronger
- Celebrating Alabama’s Women in Conservation
- Women in Science: A Q&A with Tessa Hill
- Honoring the Women Who Led the Response to the BP Oil Disaster
- Celebrating International Women’s Day
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