Glass ceiling-smashers: women and marine science at IMCC 2014

By Julia Lawson

The four female plenary speakers (L-R): Drs. Patricia Majluf, Amanda Vincent, Emily Darling, and Heather Koldewey (photo courtesy of Dr. Patricia Majluf, via Twitter @panchoveta)

The four female plenary speakers (L-R): Drs. Patricia Majluf, Amanda Vincent, Emily Darling, and Heather Koldewey (photo courtesy of Dr. Patricia Majluf, via Twitter @panchoveta)

It’s been obvious to me since my early days studying marine biology as an undergraduate at Dalhousie University that the field of marine conservation is female-dominated. However, as we reach the upper levels of academia, the number of women thins out. The lack of women reaching high-level positions is not a problem unique to marine science – the glass ceiling is a well-documented issue for women and minorities and is widespread across many different professions.

I was happy to see that this year’s International Marine Conservation Congress made a point of highlighting the role of women in conservation. The majority of the plenary speakers at IMCC were female scientists – including Dr. Patricia Majluf, director of the Centre for Environmental Sustainability at Cayetano Heredia University in Peru; marine ecologist Dr. Emily Darling; and Project Seahorse co-founders Dr. Amanda Vincent and Dr. Heather Koldewey.

The group was a mix of well-established scientists who have managed to shatter the glass ceiling, and up-and-comers like Dr. Darling, who was selected to represent ‘the future of marine conservation.’ She shared her fascinating research, which characterized four life history patterns in scleractinian corals, and how these life history patterns can be used to predict coral reef assemblages under global climate change scenarios. Her poignant and enthusiastic plenary talk invigorated the IMCC audience and indeed provided hope for the future of marine conservation.

However, in order to fully understand the future of marine conservation it is necessary to reflect on where we’ve come from. The Dr. Ransom Myers memorial closing plenary was given by Dr. Elliott Norse, who walked the audience through the history of marine conservation and marine science. He acknowledged essential contributions from female scientists like Dr. Julia Baum, a former doctoral student with Project Seahorse, who is now a professor at the University of Victoria; Dr. Ratana Chuenpagdee, who has her roots at the UBC Fisheries Centre, and is now a professor at Memorial University; and Dr. Jane Lubchenco, who served under Barack Obama as the Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator.

Dr. Baum worked closely with Dr. Myers to document to the staggering declines of pelagic sharks in the northwest Atlantic. This research was among the first to draw attention to the plight of sharks, and initiated massive conservation efforts.

Dr. Chuenpagdee drew attention to the impacts of bottom trawls on non-target species and critical bottom habitat. Her research incorporated the views of fishers, managers and scientists to rank the impacts of different fishing gears on habitats and non-target species.

Dr. Lubchenco may be best known as one of the first scientists to recognize the importance of communicating science to the general public. No doubt Dr. Lubchenco’s work caught the eye of President Obama, who appointed her the first female NOAA Administrator in 2009.

This group made it clear that the future of marine conservation looks very different from the past. In the words of Dr. Norse, itès getting "more and more female - and that's a good thing." I applaud IMCC for taking steps to acknowledge the contributions of women in marine conservation, and for bringing together the past and future of marine conservation by carefully selecting an inspiring panel of speakers.