Dr Lucy Stewart
As writer Kameron Hurley once said regarding women in the military, “We have always fought” – women have always been involved in field research, including at sea.
Aotearoa was named by Kuramārōtini, a woman on a long ocean voyage. Early research expeditions by Europeans relied heavily on indigenous women such as Sacagawea to help guide them. The ships of the Age of Sail often carried women, who worked and even gave birth on the ocean despite the stringent Western gender norms of the time. But Western preconceptions about women’s place in the domestic, as opposed to the public, sphere, meant that great researchers such as Marie Tharp, who identified mid-ocean ridges as the source of new seafloor and helped establish the reality of continental drift, often did their work from offices on land. The ocean and ships might be gendered as female, but actual live women doing fieldwork at sea? That had to be fought for.
As a microbiologist who studies deep-sea environments, I think about this history every time I set out on a voyage. Women (let alone non-white women) are usually a minority on research cruises. As this post is published (hopefully!) I’m off New Zealand’s East Coast on the NIWA research vessel Tangaroa. Five out of the fourteen scientists on this voyage are women; that’s pretty good as these things go. I’ve been to sea with as few as four women on a ship of fifty crew and scientists, and colleagues of mine have sometimes been the sole woman on a voyage.
There are many reasons for this. Some seem incredible; female colleagues have told me stories of superstitious ship crew objecting to their presence as ‘bad luck’ – yes, even in the twenty-first century. Some are the same as women deal with in other careers. Pregnant women are not allowed to go to sea in almost all instances, even early in the pregnancy – this makes it exceptionally difficult for women in the prime of their research careers to balance starting a family and getting necessary research data, when voyages are often years in the planning. Women also remain a minority in senior levels in all fields of science. I have been extraordinarily fortunate to sail with a number of amazing senior women as Chief Scientists on research cruises, such as Julie Huber, Anna-Louise Reysenbach, and Andrea Koschinsky. But in my experience, often most of the women on a voyage will be students. A few people get through, but the leaky pipeline is never more evident than at sea.
Personally, I didn’t set out to become a marine researcher. My first and longest interest was astrobiology, the search for life on other worlds. It turns out, however, that some of the places most like the other places life might be in our solar system, so-called “analogue environments”, are the hydrothermal vents, cold sediments, and methane seeps of the deep ocean. So, almost by accident, I’ve spent the last eight years going to sea once a year or so – this year I’ve gone on two month-long voyages. And it turns out that I love it. I love being on the ocean, out of sight of land. I love the thrill of bringing up specimens from the deep dark below, hung on a single thread of cable, as inaccessible as anywhere on the planet. I love the strange and wonderful microbes that grow there, creating delicate iron structures around the heat of hydrothermal vents, eating methane that seeps out of the sea floor, growing so slowly in the cold remote sediment that they force us to ask what ‘life’ really means.
But I do wish, every time, that the slow progress of women in science wasn’t so obvious as it is when you sail – that, every time, I wasn’t counting how many other women will be on a given voyage. I don’t mind the isolation of the sea, although I’m certainly not opposed to the great improvements in satellite internet connection over the last few years. I mind, sometimes, the isolation of gender. Unlike a workplace, there’s no going home at the end of the day; the people you’re around are the people you’re around, until the voyage is over. It is not enough for a woman to be there, or even two or three. We need to be there in numbers, or we’ll forever be exceptions, trainees, experiments in ourselves. And this goes double, of course, for non-white women and queer women.
I know, too, that the reasons for this disparity are bigger than me and my choices, or any individual person’s; they’re systemic, about the treatment of women in science and women on ships. The fixes are slow, and require all of us to work together.
In the meantime, I’ll keep sailing.
Dr Lucy Stewart is a marine microbiologist at GNS Science. She studies microbes in extreme deep-sea environments, and has sailed on American, German, and New Zealand research vessels.