Women in Oceanography

In 2005, The Oceanography Society published a special issue of their Oceanography magazine. It included articles of statistics and individual biography pages illustrating the current status of women in oceanography. Now, 10 years later, a new follow-up issue has been published. It clearly demonstrates how things have changed in the past decade and how far we still have to go. It also revisits the individual biographies, asking women how much has changed for them in the past 10 years, and soliciting advice for upcoming woman oceanographers.

Women in Oceanography Issue - A decade later
Women in Oceanography Issue – A decade later

I’ve spent my lunch break over the past several weeks reading some of these biographies. It is so interesting to learn about the issues other women in oceanography have faced. And how the little decisions they make change the course of their careers. There isn’t a cookie-cutter career path for anyone to follow, but reading about these women and their advice makes me feel better about my future.

I’ve summarized some of the main points presented in the issue, to give you a glimpse of what the field of oceanography looks like to women in it. If you are interested in more information, there is much more detail in the magazine, including some suggestions on how to continue improving the situation for women.

Status of women in oceanography:

  • Over the past 10 years, the percent of female faculty members at all levels has increased, but the higher the rank, the lower that percent is.
  • The number of women as chief scientists on US research vessels has doubled over the last 10 years. However, if ocean drilling vessels are considered, then no progress has been made.
  • In the US, women earn 17% less than men in STEM fields at all degree levels. This increases to 24% less in jobs that require a PhD.
  • There has been little improvement over the past decade in terms of inviting women to honorable positions, including invitations to first-author special issue papers, invitations to speak at specialized conferences, and nominations for awards in scientific societies.

Current challenges and obstacles:

  • Implicit gender bias, discrimination, harassment, and lack of resources stall women’s academic achievement.
  • Even with maternity leave (not guaranteed), having kids may stall or greatly affect a woman’s career, as it is nigh impossible to transition back to the tenure track after taking a break or a part-time position. Universities often do not provide accommodations for pregnant faculty, including pausing the tenure clock, daycare referrals, lactation rooms, leave for fathers, and options for part-time.
  • There is no formal information or guidelines in the US on the issue of pregnant or lactating scientists participating in research cruises or field work. (Except in the US Antarctic Program, where pregnancy disqualifies one from all ship work.)

Helpful programs and initiatives:

  • NSF ADVANCE program: This initiative provides money to universities to research the barriers to women’s advancement. It is primarily designed to fix institutions so they can properly accommodate female faculty, not fix the women. So far 10 grants have been awarded to universities that have an oceanography program.
  • MPOWIR: This program was formed to help mentor women in physical oceanography as they begin the postdoc phase of their life. Women tend to drop off the career path to a tenured faculty after they leave graduate school. By providing strong mentoring relationships, MPOWIR hopes to help women through this tough time and increase the retention rate of women in physical oceanography.

Overall, it’s a huge step forward over the past decade, and an even bigger improvement since 1959, when women were first allowed to be sea-going oceanographers in the US. Betty Bunce of WHOI was the first female scientist allowed on a US expedition without having to stow away, dress like a man, or be escorted by her husband. As a woman in oceanography, I feel like I have a decent chance of ending up with a career I love and not being denied or held back because of my gender. Progress is good, but we still have a ways to go.

Have you read the Women In Oceanography issue? What are your thoughts on the subject?