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In Her Words: Sylvia Earle on Women in Science

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There’s no question that women have made strides in careers that were once the exclusive province of men. We now have female doctors, soldiers, and pilots. But biases and challenges persist, especially for women in the sciences.

When the mind behind the popular Facebook page I F**ing Love Science revealed earlier this year that she was a woman, she caused an internet stir, attracting coverage the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper and on this site.

“I was absolutely astonished by an onslaught of comments expressing their absolute shock that IFLS is run by a woman,” wrote Elise Andrew, the woman who maintains the page.

I recently wrote about the long string of women scientists who’ve made groundbreaking discoveries in physics, astronomy, and biology, only to be robbed of credit. The piece generated quite a reaction, including 1,500 Tweets and 100+ comments.

And it wasn’t too long ago that then-Harvard University President Lawrence Summers’s remarks about how intrinsic aptitude could possibly explain the gender gap at the higher levels of research in math and science appeared to contribute to his ouster.

In light of these developments, National Geographic asked prominent marine biologist Sylvia Earle to talk about being a successful scientist who also happens to be a woman.

Earle has had a storied career.

She led the first team of women to live in an underwater habitat in 1970 as part of the Tektite Project. Submerged in 49 feet (15 meters) of water in Lameshur Bay on the island of St. John (map), the underwater station was dedicated to marine science research.

“The application for being a part of that didn’t even bother to say that you had to be a man,” said Earle, a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, in a video interview, above. “It was clear, this was for men only.”

“But the head of the program for the Tektite project … was philosophical about it—more than that, he was practical,” Earle explained. “He said, ‘well, half the fish are female, I guess we could put up with a few women.'”

“Her Deepness,” as she is sometimes called, was also a former chief scientist for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and has spent more than 70,000 hours underwater. Earle was also awarded the Hubbard Medal—the National Geographic Society’s highest honor—on June 13 for her efforts in ocean conservation and exploration.

“There is no question about it that there is still a gender bias with compensation for equal performance, for selection to be in charge of various projects—it’s just a part of our culture,” Earle said.

Sylvia Earle - June 2013
Sylvia Earle – June 2013


  1. Christopher Wesley
    Monrovia, Liberia, West Africa
    August 19, 2013, 7:41 am

    There is a great need for people on planet earth to know about their surroundings…especially those who depend greatly on forest resources for their livelihood. What a great challenge…more awareness is needed.

  2. Sherri
    N. California
    August 15, 2013, 3:22 pm

    At the age of 17, a freshman in college, I was told that there would never be a place for women in the sciences, and in addition that there would never be a place in the field I wanted to pursue- forestry. I had done well in science in high school, having a male teacher who pushed girls in his classes. At that age, I didn’t have the tools I needed to demand acceptance. I got them in short order. We only diminish our possibilities when we close doors to any field , based on gender.

  3. Julie
    August 15, 2013, 3:19 pm

    women and girls who are interested in STEM do need to know that they can do it but we do no favors by not cluing them in how hard it is going to be. Nobody warned me. I’m not sure I’d choose engineering again if I knew what it was going to be like. That said, those of us already in the STEM fields who stick it out can help make it better for future female scientists.

  4. carol
    gainesville, fl
    July 25, 2013, 2:37 pm

    i grew up in an era when women weren’t allowed to take higer-level science or math classes. our options for professions in those contents were very limited. i have spent my life trying to excite young people about the world around them. we still have a long way to go…but at least these ladies have choices. :)

  5. Caryn Self-Sullivan, PhD
    Colonial Beach, Virginia
    July 24, 2013, 7:51 pm

    Dr. Earl has been a ‘long-distance mentor’ to me for many years, although she probably does not know it, or remember meeting me when I was an Earthwatch PI. I’ve heard her speak several many times and read her books and even written to her, personally back before we had email. I’m very glad to see her speaking out for women in science, especially marine science. Thanks for paving the way for those of us who have come to the field in more recent years.

  6. Dorothy Leonard
    Ocean Equities in Maryland
    July 10, 2013, 9:08 am

    One of the most outstanding traits of Sylvia Earle is her willingness to encourage and assist other women in the field of marine sciences. Many of us at NOAA are very grateful for her support as well as that of Nancy Foster, one of Sylvia’s colleagues.

  7. Nate Whilk
    June 29, 2013, 4:01 pm

    “And it wasn’t too long ago that then-Harvard University President Lawrence Summers’s remarks about how intrinsic aptitude could possibly explain the gender gap at the higher levels of research in math and science appeared to contribute to his ouster.”

    “appeared to” Are you serious? That WAS the issue. I guess this proves a woman can be as good a journalist as a man. “…it was the first time that I had seen a person whose profession was telling lies—unless one counts journalists.” —George Orwell, “Homage to Catalonia” (1938)

  8. Judy Young
    Chambersburg PA
    June 22, 2013, 2:34 pm

    Amazing woman — inspiring scientist — 2013 Wilson College commencement speaker. Wonderful message for new women graduates, as well all of the alumnae and female faculty in the audience!

  9. Marcia Davison
    Denver, CO
    June 21, 2013, 4:21 pm

    Let’s not forget about the boys and men that want to do traditionally womens’ jobs without being emasculated. A fresh perspective can always be brought by opposite genders to any field, jog or task. And it’s good!

  10. Mary Saunders
    Portland, Oregon,for now
    June 20, 2013, 3:47 pm

    Lynn Margolis is one of my favorite science models (you know, like spokes-model). I would love to have given such a gracious talking-to as she did about cyanobacteria in a recorded presentation at Oxford or Cambridge (sorry, I get them mixed up). I found that video by happenstance, and I have not been able to find it easily again. I would love it if it were widely available. What raw courage and moxie. I should have so much.

  11. David Stone
    June 20, 2013, 2:40 am

    Work, dedication, skill, achievement, results and character strength.
    They are what matter.
    Except when it comes to siring or bearing children, gender is irrelevant.
    Humanity is really sadening.

    – D. Stone, husband, father, martial artist.

  12. Sheila Cook
    Boise, ID
    June 16, 2013, 9:07 pm

    Bravo, Dr. Earle. There is no doubt that behind our misconstrued ideas of the ocean, our next greatest overlooked rich resource is the contribution women have to solve world, corporate and moral problems. Thank you for being an enlightening spokesperson!!

  13. Alice
    June 16, 2013, 9:51 am

    Another great resource to read about women in STEM is this page… also run by two women…

    We need more resources like IFLS and WYSK. Women and young girls need to know anything is possible!