Female marine scientists discuss gender harassment, inequality in oceanography

From left to right Katy Croff Bell, founder and president of Ocean Discovery League, an organization which focuses on accessible deep-ocean exploration, Fenix Garcia Tigreros, a GSO assistant professor and Rebecca Robinson, a GSO professor. PHOTO CREDIT: Connor Zisk | Staff Photographer

To honor Women’s History Month, the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography (GSO) held a lecture titled “Women in Ocean Science” on March 7, where a panel of scientists discussed gender disparity in marine science. 

Paula Bontempi, dean of the GSO at URI’s Bay campus, hosted the panel, which is the third in a series of Spring 2023 GSO public lecture series, and introduced the three guest speakers – Katy Croff Bell, founder and president of Ocean Discovery League, an organization which focuses on accessible deep-ocean exploration, Fenix Garcia Tigreros, a GSO assistant professor and Rebecca Robinson, a GSO professor.

Robinson primarily researches nitrogen, including the history of the nitrogen cycle in oceans, and started studying geology before transitioning into her current studies. She said that as a “senior” woman in ocean science, she deeply enjoys working with younger women in STEM.

Originally from Colombia, Tigreros started working at the GSO in the last year, and her work focuses on chemical oceanography and aquatic chemistry. She said that because of its location, Colombia is expected to be one of the countries that will suffer the most from climate change, and she’s used her first-hand experience living there to aid her research about carbon and methane emissions from oceans and lakes.

Bell studied geological oceanography, including marine volcanoes and landslides, and she said that she started her own group called Open Ocean, which designs and deploys new ways to understand the ocean because she wanted to make ocean exploration more financially accessible. Now, she is president and founder of Ocean Discovery League, where she continues accelerating accessible ocean exploration.

Bontempi asked the panelists what kind of research they would want to pursue if they had an unlimited budget, and Bell said that she would want to give safe research opportunities to women that have been harassed so much they don’t want to go to on sea expeditions anymore.

Bontempi then asked if the panelists had seen any progress or work toward closing the gender gap and Robinson mentioned that awareness is the first step in the journey toward gender inclusivity in marine science.

“It’s the commitment to, and I think that the same thing has to be done with other elements of diversity, but it’s the commitment to actually recognizing that there’s a disparity and then doing something about it,” Robinson said.

Robinson also said that having more women involved in marine research, expeditions and leadership roles would lower the instances of harassment toward women at sea.

“Gender parity, it’s in applications, it’s in invitations to sail, it’s across the board,” Robinson said. “The people are there, they are interested in going to sea, and with that transition to more women [in research and expeditions], the environment becomes safer and it becomes more inviting for women to go to sea.”

Bell said that there’s a lot of progress happening toward creating inclusive plans and policies for ocean research endeavors, but there is still a lot of work to be done

“The one thing that’s really missing, still, is the accountability,” Bell said. “When things are reported, oftentimes, nothing is done. And then you’re still putting women especially, but other minorities, into positions that are unsafe, and if they have to make decisions between the thing they’ve been training for and doing and love, and their own personal safety at sea, and they’ve got to make that decision… it is terrible and unfair.”

Bontempi also mentioned that while she was working with NASA and aircraft fleets, the men had a restroom but there was no restroom for the women on board because the researchers weren’t used to women flying on planes. She said the issue was rectified, but it’s interesting to her, to think about professional infrastructure out there in the world that is not designed for mixed-gender representation and identities. 

“I wonder if men ever thought about this or had this type of conversation,” Bontempi said. “They might, but I don’t know, it’s mostly women I hear talk about the challenges of being in the field.”

When asked by the audience what qualities are useful for women in STEM fields to have to be successful in their fields, Tigreros mentioned dedication and sacrifice have gotten her to where she is today. She also mentioned the difficult decisions she had to make about balancing the personal and professional sides of her life.

“I really like what I do and I think it makes it worth it, for example, not being close to my family or being abroad in a different country,” Tigreros said.

She also said she was initially interested in nature broadly because of the landscapes in Colombia and that in her home country, the only fields related to oceanography were marine biology and that was as far as you could get, in terms of research topics.

“I was exposed to this nature component from a very early age, so I didn’t necessarily know I wanted to do oceanography, because I didn’t know you could actually be an oceanographer,” Tigreros said. “Here in the U.S., you have outreach into schools and that is a field that is known that you could study. In Colombia, there is no oceanography program in the entire country.”

When Bontempi asked what moments in their careers reaffirmed their belief that they belonged in oceanography, Bell said that finding shipwrecks is always exciting for her. She said it’s “magical” to find something that hasn’t been seen in hundreds or thousands of years and then get to share those discoveries with the world.

Bontempi said that, despite the hardships, working in oceanography is rewarding, and the barriers you find in your journey are often just detours instead, and they will pass and you will find a way to move forward.

“That [hardships] will pass,” Bontempi said. “It is just simply how life goes and you will learn from that and look back. The negative times, the challenges, those are real learning experiences. The things that seem like failures are times we learn.”  The final event in the GSO’s lecture series will take place on April 26 from 5:30 to 7 p.m. and will be about local and global climate change impacts, with more event details coming soon.