Gender gap doubles in physical oceanography

The gender gap in tenure-track physical oceanography faculty positions has nearly doubled since the mid-1990s, according to a correspondence item published in Nature Geoscience in March. (Thanks to labmate Kate for the heads-up!) From the University of Washington press release:

Twenty-eight percent of the men earning physical oceanography doctorates at key U.S. institutions from 1980 to 2009 obtained tenure-track positions, while the number of female physical oceanographers obtaining such positions dropped sharply from 23 percent for the period before 1995 to only 8 percent since then, according to LuAnne Thompson, University of Washington professor of oceanography. She’s lead author of correspondence about the findings in Nature Geosciences online.

Today’s tenure-track faculty numbers just don’t reflect that women earned nearly 30 percent of all doctorates in physical oceanography throughout the early 2000s, Thompson says.

“People have been saying to just wait, the gender disparity will resolve itself, but it doesn’t appear to be doing so,” she said.

Looking at the author’s handy pie chart (below), it appears that more women are going into the “research staff and instructors” category. This means they’re funded off grants. These positions are soft-money only, and for a fixed term. This can be more flexible – there’s often none of the obligations that come with a full-time faculty position such as teaching or service – but are also more uncertain. More women are also going into the private sector, perhaps because physical oceanographers have highly marketable computer programming and math skills.

The authors of the study suggest two reasons for this huge drop in tenure-track women: the lack of affirmative action and the fact that women may be making “different lifestyle choices.” To which I say, duh. These are not independent variables.

As has been amply pointed out in many other discussions about women in science, women face many interacting challenges on the tenure track, from the two-body problem (women are far more likely to be partnered with other scientists), to the perception that women are given an unfair advantage, to unconcious bias. Adding to the system-wide challenges, oceanography has even more restrictive travel requirements than other disciplines. Along with the usual week-long academic conferences and visits, many (if not most) oceanographers go to sea for a weeks or months at a time. You’re not allowed to go to sea when pregnant, and I can’t imagine that very many women would want to do so while their children were nursing, even if they did have the spousal support to be completely absent. (Though I have heard tales of some awesome ladies pumping breast milk & freezing it while at sea…but that’s super hardcore and shouldn’t be de rigueur.)

Adding to the physical difficulties, the social challenges should not be underestimated. I know many men who have spent considerable time at sea with young children at home. This is socially acceptable – heck, there’s an entire musical tradition based on leaving one’s family behind on the shore. I don’t know any women who have done so.

Leaving aside ship time and babies, I couldn’t help but hear a very snarky tone in the UW press release about this:

Thompson says she encounters more graduate students these days, both male and female, whose preferences about where to live, for example, override their desire to advance in their careers.

Sorry I don’t want to destroy my marriage for my career, UW! The whole system is still set up for professors with trailing spouses. More men than women have this kind of flexibility – certainly I am expecting geography to be a huge limiting factor in my own career search.

I’d love to hear from some physical oceanographers on this. I am not really familiar with that whole world. What do you think are the reasons behind this decline?

8 Replies to “Gender gap doubles in physical oceanography”

  1. “Sorry I don’t want to destroy my marriage for my career, UW! The whole system is still set up for professors with trailing spouses. More men than women have this kind of flexibility – certainly I am expecting geography to be a huge limited factor in my own career search.”

    This is not limited to oceanography! *sigh*

    Besides, we should all only have one true spouse, right? SCIENCE!


  2. In short: risk and liability. You are not allowed to go to sea with any risky medical condition. I’m not sure of the rules for very short (say, <3 day) cruises close to shore, but in the longer cruises, you are often way offshore, out of range of helicopter rescue. The academic research vessels do not carry doctors - someone with EMT training is usually the medical officer on board. So if something went wrong with the pregnancy, especially if you were way offshore or if weather conditions prevented helicopter rescue, there could be a big problem getting prompt medical help.

  3. RIGHT! After all, our partners who make the words for a living do not have REAL careers! (ducks from the combined rage of E & LR).

  4. Interesting article!

    I am one of those female oceanographers who made the alternate career choice – I am now co-owner of a small private oceanographic research company. At the time, going into the “private sector” was something that both male and female oceanographers were doing, but apparently times are changing, and more women are seeing this as an option.

    Your article rings a lot of bells for me. “Many interacting challenges” and the “two-body problem” were certainly part of the reasons for my choice. As often happens in these situations, the attempt to balance two opposing careers eventually became a disastrous combination – it’s amazing what you think you can do when you are young! Eventually, I had to make some hard decisions about what was important in my life, and ultimately went into business for myself full time. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself! Sea time? No problem now – we own our own boat, schedule our own sea time, and are masters of our own destiny!

  5. Hi Barb,

    I love hearing about fellow marine scientists’ non-academic career paths. Did you work in the private sector before owning your own business, or did you make the leap in one move? Thanks so much for your comment! Also your boat is super snazzy. :)

  6. Actually, I worked in the public sector as an instructor at a college for a number of years, and consulted as an oceanographer “on the side”. So I had been doing some learning and making a few connections before I decided to “go it on my own”. However, my Dad says its in the genes – he has been happily self-employed for most of his years!

    We love our ship! She’s an old west coast halibut boat with major modifications. Very seaworthy and I love the deck space!

  7. Well, I wondered if the increasing influx of foreign students could be a cause: A lot of non-western male students walk into tenure positions when they go home, while their female colleagues (at least anecdotally) are more likely to stay in the West in less secure jobs- but the magnitude of this effect would require current PhD programs to be at least half non-western, and a browse of the grad student lists disproves that conjecture.

    I can tell you that at a major US institution recently tried to deny an all-star female oceanographer tenure due to ‘bad fit’- which is presumably American academiceeze for “You’re making us old fogies look bad”. The good news is that the dean overruled the department, so even if science departments are still run by sexist pricks, administrators are willing to be more broadminded (at least for people who pull enough grant $$).

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