International Women’s Day: How to advance your career in ocean conservation

08 March 2022

Guest blog by Paulina Gerstner, Program Director of the Allen Coral Atlas

This blog is based on the author’s presentation at the webinar titled ‘Breaking the Blue Bias’, organised by the Commonwealth Secretariat on 7 March 2022 to mark International Women’s Day. Paulina Gerstner is the programme director for the Allen Coral Atlas at the Arizona State University, a partner of the Commonwealth Secretariat. She shares some valuable insights based on her experience as a professional in the male-dominated ocean science sector.

Reflecting on my career as a woman in the ocean conservation realm, I’ve developed a few key learnings that I believe have enabled me to advance. This International Women’s Day, I’d like to share these experiences, which may help to inspire other women to pursue their goals and ambitions.

Speakers at the 'Breaking the Blue Bias' event

Paulina Gerstner, Programme Director for the Allen Coral Atlas, speaking at the ‘Breaking the Blue Bias’ event

Learn new skills

 Learning new skills is essential. Without continually growing my skills and adding new tools to my toolbox, I would have stagnated. As someone not interested in being a technical or scientific subject matter expert, but excited about distinguishing myself as a program management professional with people-convening powers, this means growing in my tactical, interpersonal, and strategic skills.

Several years ago, I identified that my organisation had a need for more direction and facilitation when it convened experts. I sought out and advocated for a consultant to do a results-based facilitation training at my organisation. I learned so much from that experience that I paid it forward by sharing key lessons and tactics with my peers, implementing a results-based facilitation initiative in the organisation.

Build a network of allies

Bidirectional knowledge-sharing between colleagues, especially supportive peers, can also build rapport, and eventually a set of core allies, which is another critical takeaway. Building a network of allies sets up not only a support system for feedback and mentorship, but will also help you build a coalition of support when you need others’ voices.

Sometimes it can be hard for women to advocate for themselves, since bragging about our accomplishments doesn’t always come naturally. But if you create a network of allies who see your value from many different parts of your organisation, they can be your external bragging party, laying the groundwork for your being seen as an exceptional team member, even when you aren’t in the room. 

Choose when to go above-and-beyond – and when not to

When I was new to the field and early in my career, I often felt I was seen as junior and less capable than I truly was, so I was constantly seeking ways to prove myself as valuable. In the process, I found myself going above and beyond in all areas of my work, and not always areas that benefitted me. This leads me to my third takeaway – choose when to go above-and-beyond, and when not to. Save your effort and energy for going the extra mile when it will show that you are capable of taking on more challenging work.

An example of this was an early workshop that my organisation held with the core partners of the Allen Coral Atlas. We flew in our partners from around the world for an in-person three-day workshop. The stakes were high, given the amount of time and money going into the event.

So, I spent weeks crafting the agenda ahead of the workshop, identifying the most important subject areas we needed to discuss, and areas that would be better discussed in person. I pulled in a dozen stakeholders from across the organisation to identify what they felt we needed to discuss, who needed to be included in what, the outcomes we hoped to reach by the end of the three days, etc.

My hard work paid off – not only did I get widespread recognition for the workshop’s success, but my efforts laid the foundation for a strong partnership that we rely on today.

Learn to say ‘YES’

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I have learned to say yes to opportunities even if they are scary. Like many people, public speaking is not a favorite activity of mine. But when offered chances to speak on behalf of my programme or organisation, I always say yes, and then I prepare as much as I need to, to feel confident. This has given me opportunities like speaking to several hundred people at organisation-wide presentations, going to Abu Dhabi to represent my organisation at the World Ocean Summit, and speaking at the American Geophysical Union. Say yes, even if it terrifies you.

Every International Women’s Day, I am reminded that in order for gender parity to come to fruition in this industry, women need to support women, but men also need to support women. To grow your support system, fill your bench of allies with supportive women and men who see your value and help uplift the women around you. Grow and share your skills, don’t pass up any opportunities, and be strategic about where you put your energy.

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