In Her Words: Sylvia Earle on Women in Science

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There’s no question that women have made strides in careers that were once the exclusive province of men. We now have female doctors, soldiers, and pilots. But biases and challenges persist, especially for women in the sciences.

When the mind behind the popular Facebook page I F**ing Love Science revealed earlier this year that she was a woman, she caused an internet stir, attracting coverage the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper and on this site.

“I was absolutely astonished by an onslaught of comments expressing their absolute shock that IFLS is run by a woman,” wrote Elise Andrew, the woman who maintains the page.

I recently wrote about the long string of women scientists who’ve made groundbreaking discoveries in physics, astronomy, and biology, only to be robbed of credit. The piece generated quite a reaction, including 1,500 Tweets and 100+ comments.

And it wasn’t too long ago that then-Harvard University President Lawrence Summers’s remarks about how intrinsic aptitude could possibly explain the gender gap at the higher levels of research in math and science appeared to contribute to his ouster.

In light of these developments, National Geographic asked prominent marine biologist Sylvia Earle to talk about being a successful scientist who also happens to be a woman.

Earle has had a storied career.

She led the first team of women to live in an underwater habitat in 1970 as part of the Tektite Project. Submerged in 49 feet (15 meters) of water in Lameshur Bay on the island of St. John (map), the underwater station was dedicated to marine science research.

“The application for being a part of that didn’t even bother to say that you had to be a man,” said Earle, a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, in a video interview, above. “It was clear, this was for men only.”

“But the head of the program for the Tektite project … was philosophical about it—more than that, he was practical,” Earle explained. “He said, ‘well, half the fish are female, I guess we could put up with a few women.'”

“Her Deepness,” as she is sometimes called, was also a former chief scientist for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and has spent more than 70,000 hours underwater. Earle was also awarded the Hubbard Medal—the National Geographic Society’s highest honor—on June 13 for her efforts in ocean conservation and exploration.

“There is no question about it that there is still a gender bias with compensation for equal performance, for selection to be in charge of various projects—it’s just a part of our culture,” Earle said.

Sylvia Earle - June 2013
Sylvia Earle – June 2013

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Jane J. Lee is a news writer and editor at National Geographic.