Gender related topics almost invariably come up when I talk about my work as a scientist. Conversations that start about my work with manta rays always seem to circle around to probing questions about the challenges of being a female researcher. I find people’s interest in this subject perplexing. Sure, being a field researcher is hard…but what does being a woman have to do with that? I fight the same defensive feeling when I see eyebrows raise upon learning that I am the CEO of an international conservation organization…like for a moment they find this fact hard to believe. It’s almost 2015 people, have we seriously not moved past this?
So why then am I blogging about it? Well, while this line of questioning can sometimes get a bit tedious, I have started to reconcile myself to the fact that this issue is indeed important and worthy of addressing. The main reason for this conclusion is the hundreds, maybe thousands of young girls that have contacted me throughout my career looking for advice. Girls who see me as a role model, that aspire to have a career like mine, or that want to work in the field like I do. Young women of all ages that are looking for recommendations or for advice; ones needing to hear first hand that they can make it. Sometimes I can tell that they are looking to reassure themselves, others are looking for ways to assuage the fears of their family or friends. Strangely, I never get these kinds of letters/e-mail/questions from boys. Is that because I am not a role model for them, despite being an authority in my field? Or is it rather because they do not have the same reservations that young girls do. Logic tells me it is the latter and I see evidence all the time that young girls are somehow less confident about career paths in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) than young boys.
“The most powerful determinant of whether a woman goes on in science might be whether anyone encourages her to go on.”— Professor Eileen Pollack University of Michigan authoring on a book about women in the sciences
When I was young it never occurred to me that as a girl I would face discrimination in the workplace or that that I might be discouraged from perusing my dream of being a scientist. I kindly blame my parents for this ignorance. I blame them because they raised me to believe that I could be anything when I grew up; that no goal, however impossible it seemed, was unattainable.
Despite being an only child, I had a wonderfully fulfilling childhood chock-full of adventure and travel. My mother was a veritable powerhouse, raising me in a loving home and achieving career success at the same time. She was always very supportive of my dreams and aspirations. I attended the best schools and she made sure that I was exposed to as many marine related extra curricular activities as possible.
So there I was, blissfully ignorant, pursuing my dream of becoming a marine biologist. However, despite being one of the top students in my class in high school I started to feel the first inklings of gentle encouragement to go into a field that might be more appropriate for a girl. Always in very complimentary ways, I was told that I was a strong writer and that I should consider a degree in literature or creative writing. I was told that I was a great debater and that I should consider a career in law. Each time, it was also casually suggested that science was a difficult field to ‘break into’. Everyone seemed to want to steer me toward more practical options for careers, since ‘shark researcher’ really did not seem like a particularly suitable career path for such a ‘bright young girl’.
Strangely, the advice usually came from people that seemingly cared about me, people who ostensibly knew what was best for me. I was made to feel that I might regret my choice to pursue a career in science, that I might waste valuable time only to find out at a later stage that it was not a ‘viable’ option for me.
Up until then I had never even considered what it meant to be an intelligent young woman with options; never suspected that being a girl might complicate my choices. I admit I was perplexed by all of this unsolicited advice. I have wanted to be a marine biologist since I was five years old. In fact, many people tell me that they have never met such a focused child – I don’t think that I waivered once along the path to my chosen profession.
I determinedly tried not to let these new, less than encouraging opinions affect my confidence. I constantly reassured myself that all of this talk was just grown-ups trying to temper the expectations of the younger generations- age-old lectures in practicality and common sense. The problem was that my male friends were not experiencing the same pressures, not even the ones that were considering equally as challenging or unpredictable fields. Eventually I came to the realization that people were cautioning me for the simple fact that I was a girl. That didn’t sit well with me.
In University the pressure became even more intense. Boys dominated my science classes, my professors were for the most part male and as I looked for mentors and role models in the real world I found that most of the people in my chosen field were men too. The dive clubs I joined, the science internships that I took and the photographic workshops that I signed up for were disproportionately male. For the first time in my life I started to waiver. I started to feel little pangs of doubt. Girls could be successful scientists… right?
That’s more or less the time I started hunting down prominent women in marine science or successful field researchers- iconic women like Sylvia Earle, Eugenie Clark, Jane Goodall, and Rachel Carson. There was ample evidence that women could not only make it in these fields, but that they could revolutionize them. While I was certainly happy that I had finally found some role models for myself, deep down I could not help but be frustrated that there were so few of them.
It seems a clear paradigm shift occurred between the 70’s and the 90s marking a significant rise in women in the workforce. Women like Jane Goodall, who had started out as a secretary for the great Louis Leakey, charged forward to become prominent scientists in their own right. During this time there was a significant increase in women working in STEM fields. However, since that significant spike during those first few decades, I was disappointed to learn that there had only been a 3% rise in female employment in STEM fields.
“There’s no question that women have made strides in careers that were once the exclusive province of men. But biases and challenges persist, especially for women in the sciences.”— Dr. Sylvia Earle, former chief scientist for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, marine biologist and ocean advocate
By almost any metric women have gained significant ground in the workforce. It just seems like there has been is a distinct lag in the sciences. Even when a more even ratio exists between males and females in STEM fields, women are often not proportionally represented as leaders, paid equally or advance as quickly through the ranks. This topic has been discussed by seemingly everyone from the NY Times, American Scientist and National Geographic to the Huffington Post and Nature. So what’s the deal? Is it because women are less capable or productive as scientists? Nope (and I am not just saying that, it has been well demonstrated), but it does represent a dangerous cultural trend, one where we devalue women or put limitations on their abilities.
I have to admit I caught myself daydreaming about Emma Watson’s ‘He for She’ speech while reviewing some current statistics online, all the while thinking to myself, “When are men going to start giving women more credit? How could gender still be such a big issue in this day and age? ” Then I stumbled across a recent study by Yale scientists (Racusin et al 2012 in PNAS), which captured clear gender biases in favour male students within a department at the University. That result in itself was not so surprising. What did catch me off guard is that the gender bias was exhibited by both men AND women. Could it be that even women are undervaluing and underrating our sex? Is it true that we too have be conditioned into thinking that we cannot perform on par with men or that we might not be a suitable in certain roles? I certainly hope this isn’t the case, but suddenly it’s not that surprising that young women are having reservations about pursuing scientific careers. We’re certainly not inspiring a lot of confidence in them, are we?
Still, this was something that I could work with. This was a way that I personally could give back as a woman, and I have spent the better part of the last decade choosing not just to invest in outreach and education but in particular focusing on encouraging young women into STEM fields. Luckily there are many other men and women out there doing the same thing.
One of my personal favorites is ‘Ocean GEMS’, an outreach initiative that hopes to target particularly young girls and steer them towards careers in marine science by encouraging them with real life role models and affording them with opportunities to help jump-start their careers. I would have killed to have a program like that available when I was growing up, so it is a no-brainer that I want to help support programs like this now. Just like it is the responsibility of teachers and advisors out there to relinquish their biases and support students equally along their academic paths, it is the responsibility of scientists to make themselves more accessible to youth and to inspire and mentor those that need some extra encouragement.
Still, as I have grown older, I have realized that it is not just younger girls that need encouragement or that need to be supported in science. Mid-way into my own career I find myself surrounded by capable women who are expressing frustrations or doubts about being able to reconcile their careers as scientists with their abilities to be good wives and mothers. It has been said that one of the most persistent problems is that a disproportionate fraction of qualified women drop out of science careers in the very early stages. Marriage, children and pressure to conform often play roles in this decision.
“I have frequently been questioned, especially by women, of how I could reconcile family life with a scientific career. Well, it has not been easy.” — Dr. Marie Curie, two-time Nobel Prize winner and mother
It seems ironically unjust that just when many young women get to stable places in their career, having toiled through countless years of schooling or climbing the ladder at work, they face biological pressures that threaten to halt their progress. And sure, some female scientists are affected more than others. For instance, field researchers working areas that are not conducive to raising children are often forced to make career-altering decisions when they decide to start their families. No matter what, striking a balance between family life, particularly those time-intensive and often restrictive childbearing years, and professional ambition is difficult for many women.
Some women feel the need to over compensate, others opt out of having relationships or children that may affect their ability to compete with male counterparts. Personally I think this is sad. It is sad that women feel so much pressure, whether it is self-inflicted or subjected on them. Women need our support, and that support should extend to all stages of their careers. We don’t just need to encourage women into STEM fields, we need to keep them there.
Writing this blog was an important exercise for me. It reminded me just how important women are to science and how much further and faster we would go in STEM fields with inputs from both sexes. At the end of the day men and women are different in many ways and these differences, whether subtle or more severe, often compliment each other or produce better outcomes.
“I was never competing for a woman’s place in a man’s world,”— Dr. Jane Goodall, primate ecologist
Perhaps this is precisely the point. Its not actually about women being able to do an equal job, showing the same aptitude for science or being able to deliver results on par with men. It is about nurturing and promoting the diversity needed to achieve more comprehensive results. Once we can truly acknowledge and embrace the unique qualities that men and women have and accept that they can both bring something important to the table, we can break down the remaining barriers and finally get more even representation in STEM fields.