Human Journey

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

    Another great resource to read about women in STEM is this page… also run by two women…

    We need more resources like IFLS and WYSK. Women and young girls need to know anything is possible!

  • Sheila Cook

    Bravo, Dr. Earle. There is no doubt that behind our misconstrued ideas of the ocean, our next greatest overlooked rich resource is the contribution women have to solve world, corporate and moral problems. Thank you for being an enlightening spokesperson!!

  • David Stone

    Work, dedication, skill, achievement, results and character strength.
    They are what matter.
    Except when it comes to siring or bearing children, gender is irrelevant.
    Humanity is really sadening.

    – D. Stone, husband, father, martial artist.

  • Mary Saunders

    Lynn Margolis is one of my favorite science models (you know, like spokes-model). I would love to have given such a gracious talking-to as she did about cyanobacteria in a recorded presentation at Oxford or Cambridge (sorry, I get them mixed up). I found that video by happenstance, and I have not been able to find it easily again. I would love it if it were widely available. What raw courage and moxie. I should have so much.

  • Marcia Davison

    Let’s not forget about the boys and men that want to do traditionally womens’ jobs without being emasculated. A fresh perspective can always be brought by opposite genders to any field, jog or task. And it’s good!

  • Judy Young

    Amazing woman — inspiring scientist — 2013 Wilson College commencement speaker. Wonderful message for new women graduates, as well all of the alumnae and female faculty in the audience!

  • Nate Whilk

    “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.”

    “appeared to” Are you serious? That WAS the issue. I guess this proves a woman can be as good a journalist as a man. “…it was the first time that I had seen a person whose profession was telling lies—unless one counts journalists.” —George Orwell, “Homage to Catalonia” (1938)

  • Dorothy Leonard

    One of the most outstanding traits of Sylvia Earle is her willingness to encourage and assist other women in the field of marine sciences. Many of us at NOAA are very grateful for her support as well as that of Nancy Foster, one of Sylvia’s colleagues.

  • Caryn Self-Sullivan, PhD

    Dr. Earl has been a ‘long-distance mentor’ to me for many years, although she probably does not know it, or remember meeting me when I was an Earthwatch PI. I’ve heard her speak several many times and read her books and even written to her, personally back before we had email. I’m very glad to see her speaking out for women in science, especially marine science. Thanks for paving the way for those of us who have come to the field in more recent years.

  • carol

    i grew up in an era when women weren’t allowed to take higer-level science or math classes. our options for professions in those contents were very limited. i have spent my life trying to excite young people about the world around them. we still have a long way to go…but at least these ladies have choices. 🙂

  • Julie

    women and girls who are interested in STEM do need to know that they can do it but we do no favors by not cluing them in how hard it is going to be. Nobody warned me. I’m not sure I’d choose engineering again if I knew what it was going to be like. That said, those of us already in the STEM fields who stick it out can help make it better for future female scientists.

  • Sherri

    At the age of 17, a freshman in college, I was told that there would never be a place for women in the sciences, and in addition that there would never be a place in the field I wanted to pursue- forestry. I had done well in science in high school, having a male teacher who pushed girls in his classes. At that age, I didn’t have the tools I needed to demand acceptance. I got them in short order. We only diminish our possibilities when we close doors to any field , based on gender.

  • Christopher Wesley

    There is a great need for people on planet earth to know about their surroundings…especially those who depend greatly on forest resources for their livelihood. What a great challenge…more awareness is needed.

  • Meredith

    Sylvia Earle is a true wonder, and my idol. She really encourages me to reach my goals and accomplish my dreams of becoming a marine biologist.

  • Cindi

    I nearly worked under Dr. Earle when she was at MIT/WHOI. Back then she decided she was taking the position at NOAA and was retiring academics so wouldn’t take on any more students.
    She has, and continues to be a mentor of mine, and I wanted, like many women in my field, to follow in her footsteps.

    I also think it’s interesting to note that the military is also taking a stance. I wanted to pilot a fighter when I was in school or work with the Navy dive team. It just naturally followed as an oceanographer-in-training. I was told then they wouldn’t “waste a plane” on a female except a cargo plane, nor waste a SCUBA tank. Now one of my dear friends, just two years after my inquiry, is one of the top fighter pilots for the Air Force. My friends and I are very proud.

  • Cindi

    Incidentally, another amazing woman in my field is Dr. Eugenie Clark or “shark lady” as she’s sometimes called. Many more I can mention.

    I’m on the mentoring committee of a large scientific organization now, and with the women’s forum. Amazing minds out there – many female. Most in my field learned to fight for where they are, and be better than the best. Outstanding quals.

  • Joan Rabin

    The two great role models for women in marine biology are Sylvia Earle and Eugenie Clark. Genie Clark is still engaged in marine research at the age of 92 and was scuba diving in the Solomon Islands in June, 2014, researching garden eels and triggerfish. As usual there were young women on board being mentored by Genie.

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