When I was 14 years old, I picked up a copy of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. The book follows the all-male crew across the ocean, braving the inhospitable waters on their quest to locate an elusive whale.
What does this have to do with marine conservation, you might ask? Flash forward a few years and I’m preparing for an internship at a coral reef research center in one of the most beautiful marine ecosystems of the world.
When I tell people about my plans, they question whether a young female teenager should be in the open ocean, scuba diving and traveling on her own. This brings me back to how I felt the ocean was being described to me as when I was reading Moby Dick.
The ocean was a threatening, dangerous and, to quote the novel, “masculine” place – no place for a girl like me. This notion has been perpetuated by cultural and societal biases and is represented in many of the ways we interact with our waters.
World Oceans Day is celebrated annually on June 8, and the United Nations has identified the theme of this year’s celebration as “Gender and the Ocean.” Wherever you look, women are subject to oppression and unequal opportunities in the marine sector.
Address inequalities, protect the marine world
Approximately half of the fishing industry is composed of women, yet they earn 64% of men’s wages for performing the same role. Women make up 38% of ocean scientists and researchers, and this figure becomes smaller for higher levels of recognition within academia.
Yet women are more vulnerable to coastal natural disasters, particularly in households of low socioeconomic status. Now more than ever, we need to strengthen our efforts to protect the marine world. This can only be achieved by addressing the inequalities that women and other genders face in a largely patriarchal society.
In many of these cases, the perception of an imbalance of strength is at the root of the problem. We have been raised in a society that regards women as subordinate, weak and incapable of supporting themselves. Women are thought to be unable to defend themselves in the Melville-esque “masculine sea.”
This has far-reaching effects in so many areas, particularly when it comes to fishing, governance and policy. From the assumption that men are more responsible for the management of the ocean, there is a knock-on effect that then gives men the authority to make crucial decisions regarding our ocean. This belief is in no way true.
In Vietnam, it is estimated that around three-quarters of people employed in seafood processing are women. According to the Marathon Swimmers Association, the record holder for the longest ocean swim is a woman, Chloe McCardel, who in 2014 swam 124.4 kilometers (77.3 miles) in one continuous swim in the Bahamas. Still, this societal bias is present on a global scale and has systemically excluded women from positions of leadership when it comes to marine policy and conservation.
By overlooking the unique contributions that women can bring to the table, we are sabotaging our own efforts to protect an ocean under threat. Organizations all over the world show us how this can be addressed.
The Gender in Fisheries Team (GIFT), in the Caribbean, works to highlight the roles women play in small scale fisheries, simultaneously addressing the discrimination that comes into play in terms of workers’ rights and participation. They represent a step forward in overcoming the gender inequalities at play within this field, and bring us towards narrowing the gender divide within ocean conservation and management.
To expand our advocacy, we can no longer ignore the specific prejudices that women face when it comes to the ocean. These cannot be overturned simply by the establishment of quotas or guidelines – a study in the Pacific showed that education alone does not translate to equal participation from both men and women in development policy.
Rather, there is a necessary cultural shift that needs to be undertaken to highlight the equal value of a woman’s input when it comes to sustainable management. While this may sound like an insurmountable task, the power of an individual to make waves cannot be overemphasized.
My own journey has been greatly influenced by strong role models such as Sylvia Earle and Rachel Carson, marine biologists who made their voices heard when gender inequality was even more prevalent.
In 1970, Earle led the first all-female team of aquanauts and later became the first female chief scientist at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
As I continue to pursue marine conservation, strong female mentors in my various places of work have been a constant source of inspiration to me. These women are showing me every day that people like me can make a difference to the ocean and the life it supports and that my contribution is no less valuable than anyone else’s.
This World Oceans Day, I urge you to think about how you can overcome these biases to establish a more equitable and accessible ocean for all.