Thursday, 9 February 2012

Women in Marine Science

Yesterday, I allowed myself the treat of heading off to Plymouth to look at the books new and old, a museum exhibition on plankton and also to meet some of my friends who work at Plymouth University on marine sciences. This is a special reward for reaching my targets for the book and to allow myself some inspiration, new facts and just for personal interest.

In the Marine Biological Association (MBA)  library I came across a book on Crustaceans. It was written by, as was often the case in the nineteenth century a male vicar, - Rev. Stebbing. I noticed that the preface was written from my home town of Tunbridge Wells. It turns out that Rev. Stebbing was an eminent naturalist specialising in crustaceans with a unique streak who lived in Tunbridge Wells. He was a big fan of Darwin and as a consequence was not allowed a parish although he did preach in St Paul's, Rusthall. This just happens to be the church my Grandmother went to as a child.  In his day women were not allowed in the Linnaean Society which he was not happy about. He pushed for the acceptance of women and succeeded and his wife became the first member.

This then got me thinking about the role and place of women in science. I talked with the librarian who always has stories to tell about any topic relating to her beloved library and archives. She told me about the nineteenth century Delap sisters of Ireland who were avid marine scientists, their collection of marine letters and how one sister was not allowed to travel to work at the MBA because she was (shame of all shames!) a single unmarried woman!

There were also stories of Molly Spooner an oil spill expert who coined the phrase "chocolate mousse". Elsie Sexton who started life as an illustrator and ended up being finally accepted as a marine scientist. Today, if you were to pop your head into the canteen of the MBA you will see that the vast majority are women! I have good female (and male) friends who are very well respected marine statisticians and researchers. There are modern stories of women who have travelled to foreign countries and in order to get permissions for research have had to apply with their husband's name first, despite him being the baggage carrier not the scientist (on this occasion).

On the whole, it appears that times have really moved on. Women play a pivotal role in marine sciences today. I am wondering about what fellow (marine) scientists feel? What's your experience? Is it all positive?