Women In Ocean Science

Did you know that for centuries many women were barred from participating in official ocean research and could for example not study marine science?

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 an era where interest in marine conservation and biology is soaring, it may come as a surprise that gender disparities persist within the diving industry and conservation community. Despite a growing number of women passionate about protecting our oceans, they continue to face significant barriers in accessing opportunities and advancing their careers. Recognizing this reality, we at Coral Catch have taken proactive steps to address these disparities. Our commitment to gender equality extends beyond mere representation—it’s about empowering women to lead and make a tangible impact in protecting our marine ecosystems.

Gender Disparities in STEM and Marine Science 

The fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are critical for addressing global challenges such as climate change, biodiversity loss, and environmental degradation. However, women remain significantly underrepresented in these fields, limiting their participation and contributions. This section explores the persistent gender disparities in STEM and marine science, highlighting the challenges faced by women and the importance of gender equality for advancing scientific progress.

The Global Gender Gap in STEM

Despite progress in recent years, women continue to be underrepresented in STEM fields worldwide. According to UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics, only 33% of researchers globally are women, reflecting a significant gender gap in scientific disciplines. In marine science and conservation, the situation is particularly concerning, with women comprising only 38% of researchers, according to a study published in PLOS ONE. These disparities not only deprive women of opportunities for professional growth and advancement but also hinder scientific innovation and progress.

Which barriers are women facing ? 

Several factors contribute to the underrepresentation of women in STEM and marine science. Cultural and societal norms often discourage girls from pursuing careers in these fields, perpetuating gender stereotypes and biases. For example, girls may be discouraged from pursuing STEM subjects in school due to stereotypes that associate these fields with masculinity or require exceptional mathematical aptitude. In regions like Southeast Asia, where traditional gender roles are deeply ingrained, women face additional challenges in accessing education and employment opportunities in STEM-related industries.

Gender bias and discrimination further exacerbate the gender gap in STEM and marine science. Studies have shown that women are less likely to receive funding for research projects and are underrepresented in leadership positions within academic institutions and research organizations. For example, a study published in the Journal of Women’s Health found that female researchers receive significantly less funding than their male counterparts, impacting their ability to conduct research and advance their careers. Addressing these systemic barriers requires concerted efforts to promote gender diversity and equity in STEM fields, including implementing gender-sensitive policies, providing mentorship and support networks for women, and challenging implicit biases and stereotypes in academia and research.

The Leaky Pipeline 

Regarding all these barriers, UNESCO talks in its latest report about a “leaky pipeline”, which metaphorically describes the gradual loss of women from the STEM workforce as they encounter various obstacles and biases along their career paths. These barriers include gender stereotypes, unconscious bias, lack of mentorship and support, limited access to resources and opportunities, and workplace cultures that prioritize male perspectives. As a result, many talented women either leave the STEM workforce entirely or face stagnant career trajectories, contributing to the persistent gender gap in these fields.

Fixing the Leaky Pipeline : Hispanic Heritage Month - All Together.

Gender Stereotypes and Barriers in the Diving Industry

While women represent a little less than 40% of all divers worldwide, there’s still a notable gender gap when it comes to professional diving: women currently represent only 20% of all PADI Pros. This disparity is even more pronounced compared to other professions, with women accounting for 34% in medicine, 38% in the legal profession, and less than 33% in financial services. Diving, often depicted as an adventurous and daring pursuit, has long been associated with masculinity, perpetuating gender stereotypes and barriers that hinder women’s participation and advancement in the field. Beyond cultural norms, women face practical challenges and systemic biases that limit their access to training, equipment, and employment opportunities. 

Gender Stereotypes and Prejudices

Gender stereotypes and prejudices deeply entrenched in the diving community can create a challenging environment for women, perpetuating a male-dominated culture that undermines their competence and contributions. Women often find themselves in a position where they must continually prove their skills and worth in a space where their presence is questioned or dismissed. Assumptions regarding physical strength, technical proficiency, and capability to handle demanding diving conditions frequently lead to women being underestimated or overlooked. This pervasive belief that diving is exclusively a “man’s world” marginalizes and alienates women, discouraging them from pursuing their passion for exploration beneath the waves. Such attitudes not only limit women’s opportunities for participation but also reinforce harmful gender norms that hinder diversity and inclusion in the diving community.

Credit photo : Valérie Blanchard

Challenges with Equipment and Gear

For decades, diving equipment and gear were designed primarily for male bodies, neglecting the anatomical differences and needs of women divers. Ill-fitting wetsuits, bulky BCDs (buoyancy control devices), and oversized tanks posed significant challenges for women, affecting their comfort, mobility, and safety underwater. Women divers often had to make do with equipment that was too large or too heavy, compromising their diving experience and putting them at greater risk of injury or discomfort. While advancements have been made in designing gear specifically for women, such as wetsuits with improved fit and flexibility and BCDs with adjustable straps, there is still room for further improvement to ensure inclusivity and accessibility for all divers.

Institutional and Systemic Biases

Institutional and systemic biases within the diving industry play a significant role in perpetuating gender disparities and hindering women’s advancement. Dive schools and training agencies, often inadvertently, contribute to this by reinforcing gender stereotypes through their curriculum, instructional methods, and recruitment practices. For example, training programs may implicitly or explicitly promote the notion that diving is better suited for men, leading to fewer women enrolling in courses or pursuing certifications. Additionally, recruitment practices may favor male candidates, further marginalizing women from entering the profession.

Furthermore, women may encounter discrimination or harassment during dive training or employment, creating hostile work environments that discourage their participation. Instances of gender-based discrimination can range from unequal treatment in training programs to overt harassment in workplace settings. These experiences not only undermine women’s confidence and sense of belonging but also contribute to a culture of exclusion within the diving industry.

Providing Opportunities and Safe Spaces for Women in Conservation

Creating opportunities and safe spaces for women to learn and develop their skills in conservation is essential for fostering gender equality and empowering women to contribute meaningfully to environmental efforts. In the context of marine conservation, where women have historically been underrepresented and marginalized, initiatives like our scholarship program play a crucial role in breaking down barriers and elevating women’s voices. By establishing the first female-only coral restoration team in Indonesia, Coral Catch aims not to exclude men but to provide a supportive and inclusive environment where women can thrive and lead. We are offering women the opportunity to receive specialized training, gain hands-on experience, and build confidence in their abilities, all within a community of like-minded peers and mentors. Through collaborative and inclusive approaches, we can harness the full potential of women as agents of change in marine conservation, paving the way for a more sustainable and equitable future for all.

Credit photo : Annie Means

References :

  • UNESCO Institute for Statistics. (2021). Gender Equality in Science: Fostering the Dynamics of Change in Global Research. 
  • PLOS ONE. (2019). Gender Disparities in Marine Science: A Global Analysis. 
  • Journal of Women’s Health. (2018). Gender Disparities in Research Funding: A Comparative Analysis. 
  • PADI. (2020). Women in Diving: A Global Perspective.