Women working in the ocean sector across the Commonwealth have been applauded for breaking gender barriers in traditionally male-dominated industries, laying the groundwork for more gender equity in ocean science.
An inspiring line up of women shared their professional struggles and triumphs, while offering advice for the Commonwealth’s next generation of female marine experts, during a virtual event marking International Women’s Day and Commonwealth Day in March.
The webinar, organised by the Commonwealth Secretariat, opened with Secretary-General Patricia Scotland urging countries to support women’s participation in the sector:
“We need women to be inspired early in their careers to take up ocean science and to be encouraged to maintain their engagement. None of our nations or communities can afford to disregard the skills women and girls have to offer.”
The Maldives’ Minister of Fisheries, Marine Resources and Agriculture, Zaha Waheed recounted her own early career experience as the only female trainee in a research team of men.
She said that while the gender gap has improved in her country – both the Minister and Permanent Secretary of marine resources are women, for example – cultural obstacles remain.
“Our main barrier is attributed to the attitudes and beliefs within our communities – the belief that this is a masculine industry, and that anything to do with the open ocean environment – diving or going to the field for research, is not for girls,” said Hon Waheed.
Tackling this stereotype head on is Emily Penn, a skipper and ocean advocate. She founded the pioneering non-profit eXXpedition, which runs all-female sailing research expeditions at sea and online, to investigate the causes of and solutions to ocean plastic pollution.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has made us really aware of our vulnerability, [in terms of] our health, our environment, our economy and our politics. We have a chance right now to embrace our global shift moment and to take this moment to reset our priorities,” she said.
Acting Director of the Institute of Marine Affairs of Trinidad and Tobago, Rahanna Juman, shared how hard work and perseverance helped her succeed in the face of various challenges over her 25-year career.
“Research is about passion and purpose. The reason why I have been able to survive and grow as a female scientist is because I love what I do,” said Dr Juman.
Fellow panellist and Acting Deputy Chief Fisheries Officer in Antigua and Barbuda, Tricia Lovell, echoed the focus on passion in her advice to early-career women scientists.
As a PhD candidate at the World Maritime University, she said: “Find what makes you passionate and motivated and always seek opportunities for learning… To remain relevant and to make an impact in the ocean sciences, you must be knowledgeable of the current trends.”
Gender equity report
The event also highlighted a recently-published report titled ‘Gender Equity in Ocean Science’, funded by the Government of Canada as the Commonwealth Blue Charter Champion on Ocean Observations.
The report found that women are under-represented globally in the field of ocean science, particularly in leadership positions. A “leaky pipeline” phenomenon also meant that academic qualifications do not always translate into successful careers for women. While they make up 53% of total Bachelor’s and Master’s degree holders in the world, women only constitute 28% of senior researchers.
Presenting the report, Dr Arran McPherson, Assistant Deputy Minister at Fisheries and Oceans Canada, stated: “Promoting gender equity in all scientific fields is a priority for Canada. In ocean science in particular, we’ve been trying to shine a spotlight on specific challenges that women face, and at the same time highlight role models and opportunities for action.”
Recommendations included ensuring gender equity in decision-making, creating opportunities for mentoring and leadership for women, co-creating ocean science management plans with women and collecting gender-disaggregated data for the sector. The report also called for more capacity building and exchange programmes, as well as support for gender allies.