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Women at sea, progress for everyone

About the blog

Laura F. Zarza
Degree in Environmental Science. Content Manager in iAgua. Smart Water Magazine newsroom. Fantasy and fiction writer.

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  • Women at sea, progress for everyone

As in other scientific fields, getting on board a career in oceanography is a long journey full of adventures, discoveries and experiences and, if you are a woman, you will navigate in rough waters. Expectations in the 21st century call for gender equality in all areas, but there is always a long way from words to deeds, and scientific progress has not always gone hand in hand with social progress, at least in terms of equal opportunities for men and women, and the omission of the recognition that women deserve. A fact with its own name: the Matilda Effect.

Within this historically male-dominated industry, many women have embarked on scientific careers and, more specifically, a career in oceanography. However, it is necessary to dive into deep waters to find the names of those who left a legacy in the study of the oceans; not because they were few and unimportant, nor because their contribution to oceanography was not a major one, but because the social context of their time allowed their merits to disappear among so many fish wanting to dominate the sea. And despite the impediments, they continued to swim against the current.

Many women have embarked on scientific careers and, more specifically, a career in oceanography

Thus, Jeanne Baret, a botanist, was the first woman to circumnavigate the world in the 18th century, but to do so she had to disguise herself as a man; Jimena Quirós was the first woman to embark on an oceanographic research vessel, as well as the first scientist to join the Spanish Oceanographic Institute (IEO), but Franco's dictatorship cut her career short by dismissing her from her position and expelling her from the IEO; Ángeles Alvariño, an oceanographer, became the first woman to embark on a British ship as a scientist and discovered 22 marine species, but she also denounced gender discrimination as a professional; Marie Tharp, a geologist and oceanographic cartographer, produced the first map of the Atlantic ocean floor and revolutionised the scientific understanding of continental drift, but she had to do so from land, as in 1977 women were still excluded from working on board ships.

The long journeys through turbulent waters that these pioneers of world oceanography experienced still exist today. Today women represent only 1.2% of the global workforce of seafarers, according to the BIMCO/ICS Seafarer Workforce Report 2021. The lack of female role models as a consequence of the lack of opportunities and recognition on equal terms with their male colleagues, results in a lower participation of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers which, little by little, diminishes the progress achieved in terms of equality. For we should not forget that it was not until 1978 that Sylvia Earle became the first woman to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and it was not until 2004 that the IEO had its first female director with Concha Soto.

Achievements that came late - but at least they arrived - in a progress that should have been at cruising speed from the beginning, without leaving anyone on shore, because no self-respecting ship is capable of reaching port with half the crew.

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