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Women in Oceanography: Lots of Students, Not So Many Professors

Tom Kleindinst / Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution


The past fifty years have seen enormous advances for women in science-related careers, but equity in the top ranks of academia remains elusive.

When Susan Humphris enrolled in the M.I.T. – Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Joint Program in 1972, she was one of just two women in the chemical oceanography department. Today, women frequently outnumber men in oceanography graduate programs and make up fully half of all science and engineering graduate students in the U.S.

That's just one example of the dramatic changes Humphris has witnessed in her four decades in oceanography. She says, in her experience, science institutions now deal far more openly with issues surrounding gender equity, work-life-balance, gender discrimination and sexual harassment during field research, and the challenges facing dual-scientist couples. Humphris, herself, has first-hand experience with many of these.

After earning her Ph.D., she returned to her native England for postdoctoral training. But she didn't stay long. Just a few years later, she returned to Woods Hole to be with her new husband, a scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Since the Institution tended not to hire their students back as faculty so soon, she found a position at Sea Education Association. To keep her fingers in research (S.E.A. is primarily a teaching institution), she also took a visiting scientist position at the Oceanographic.

Thirteen years later, she decided she wanted to return to research full-time, but she didn't have the track record or funding she needed. So, she took two back-to-back administrative positions at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and worked overtime to secure grants for her research.

It worked, and Humphris secured a position as a senior scientist in Marine Geology and Geophysics. She has since chaired that department, served as vice president of Marine Facilities and Operations, and overseen the recent 50th anniversary overhaul and upgrade of the submersible Alvin - an experience she says was one of the most rewarding, and most difficult, of her entire career. Unfortunately, Humphris' success story is not the norm.

As science students rise through the ranks to postdoctoral and, eventually, faculty positions, the number of women dwindles. According to the National Science Foundation, women account for just one in four tenured faculty members, and one in five full professors. In some fields, the disparity is even greater. Explanations for this attrition have ranged from the disproportionate impacts of family care duties to the apparently pervasive assumption that women are less likely to be innately brilliant.

In some cases, the women who disappear from academic science are happily pursuing what some call alternative science-related careers. That's a term that Ellen Kappel, president and founder of Geo Prose and editor of the journal Oceanography, prefers to avoid, saying it implies that academia is the preferred route. Kappel, herself, left academia shortly after graduate school, feeling overwhelmed and under-mentored.

She has built a successful career in science administration and communication, and now tries to raise awareness about career paths other than academic research. Each issue of Oceanography includes career profiles of people trained in ocean science and employed outside academia (full disclosure: I recently completed my own profile). The vast majority are women, although Kappel says she tries to include men, as well.

With limited faculty positions available and government funding tight, Kappel says she hopes more oceanographers will find fulfilling non-academic careers in science. For her part, Humphris says the changes she's seen keep her optimistic. She encourages women to forge strong relationships with colleagues - male and female - and push ahead with whatever careers they want.

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