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Taboos, stowaways, and chief scientists: A brief history of women in oceanography

Katherine Lewandowski
Katherine Lewandowski
Department of Geology-Geography, Eastern Illinois University, Charleston, Illinois 61920, USA
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August 07, 2018
Publication history
17 January 201805 June 2018


Before the mid-to-late twentieth century, women were not welcome on research vessels conducting oceanographic research. Thus, women interested in oceanography in the early twentieth century had to make their mark in ways that did not rely on doing oceanographic fieldwork. Three American women oceanographers made huge impacts in the field prior to the ban of women on ships being lifted in the 1960s: Mary Sears, Elizabeth T. Bunce, and Marie Tharp. Their contributions to oceanography in the first half of the twentieth century helped advance the science, as well as to provide role models for the next generation of women who wanted to be oceanographers.

Participation of women in oceanography in the late twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first century is assessed using the lists provided by the Deep-Sea Drilling Project, the Ocean Drilling Program, the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program, and the International Ocean Discovery Program Initial Reports volumes that are publicly available online. Each participant of the shipboard scientific party was evaluated to be male or female, based on the person’s first name. Participation of women over the nearly fifty-year history of this ocean drilling program has increased from an average of 10% to 32% by early 2017, with women serving 45 times as co-chiefs on expeditions.

Visibility of women working in oceanography is improving. The stories of women like Marie Tharp are told on the Internet and in books for both children and adults. More of these stories need to be told. Today, women hold important positions within academia and professional organizations, proving that women can play an important role in the discipline, acting as advocates for their science and their gender.

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GSA Memoirs

Women and Geology: Who Are We, Where Have We Come From, and Where Are We Going?

Beth A. Johnson
Beth A. Johnson
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Geological Society of America
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Publication date:
August 07, 2018



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