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Shark Week Has a Gender Problem. These Women Scientists Are Trying to Fix That

July 31, 2019
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Shark Week Has a Gender Problem. These Women Scientists Are Trying to Fix That
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The Gills Club is a STEM-based education initiative where women and girls work together to conserve sharks. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Women are often stigmatized for pursuing science. The Gills Club fights those stigmas by uniting girls with women scientists.

As an estimated 35 million people tune in to watch Shark Week this summer, chances are they’ll catch two things: the ocean’s most fearsome Great White predators tearing up their prey, and the predominantly male conservationists who protect them.

Though some of the programming might take liberty with the science, Shark Week does nail one thing exactly right: it’s an unfortunately accurate depiction of gender disparities in science.

Currently, women represent half of the college-educated workforce but hold only 28% of the nation’s science and engineering careers, according to the National Science Board. Gills Club aims to raise that percent by supporting young girls to be the next generation of shark scientists. 

The Gills Club, an education initiative by the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, is fighting against stigmas girls and women face in STEM fields. The initiative started after co-founders Cynthia Wigren and Marianne Long heard time and time again that “sharks are for boys.” 

Now they’re making sure people know that sharks — and the field of professional science that studies them — are for everyone.

“It got us really thinking about how these women who worked in the field with sharks can really be a very strong and needed role model for these young girls,” Long told Boston Magazine. “So we wanted to build that connection to them.”

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Happy Tuesday! Yesterday, we were introduced to Dr. Jodie Rummer. Today, let’s lean about the shark species she studies. Jodie’s first experience doing research on elasmobranchs was during her undergraduate and early in graduate school when she helped her fellow labmate on her studies with the Atlantic stingray, Dasyatis sabina. They had the amazing opportunity to work with the bluespotted ribbontail ray, Taeniura lymma, in Indonesia. When Jodie started her PhD, most of her work was on bony fishes, but she did have a chance to analyse blood samples from epaulette sharks (Hemiscyllium ocellatum). Little did she know at the time that the epaulette shark would eventually become her lab mascot! That species is the shark that Jodie team and her study the most today. Jodie has also done some work on sandbar sharks (Carcharhinus plumbeus). She even had a collaboration on ocellated eagle rays, Aetobatus ocellatus. Jodie’s pet project, however, is the research that she conducts in French Polynesia with blacktip reef (Carcharhinus melanopterus) and sicklefin lemon (Negaprion acutidens) sharks. __________________________ #TheGillsClub #smartaboutsharks #sharkresearch #sharkconservation #womeninscience #womeninstem

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“These girls, if they’re watching Shark Week and they’re not seeing women scientists and then they’re being told at school that sharks are just for boys, they’re being discouraged from following their passion,” Wigren told PRI. “So for us connecting them to these women shark scientists doing amazing work was really important.”

The group consists of a cohort of more than 90 women researchers and conservationists. Each month, the organization hosts events across the country for younger girls to join. They’ll step inside the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida, or visit the Newport Aquarium in landlocked Kentucky. Here, girls will gain exposure to sharks and career paths. Girls usually between 8 and 12 years old might learn about why 16% of all shark species are threatened with extinction or the important role sharks play in the ocean ecosystem. On top of that, the organization also hosts online events for girls to attend, and it created a Facebook Group for scientists to connect and network

To see the effect Gills Club has had on its participants, all you have to do is talk to Ella, a little girl the organization empowered to pursue a career in science. Because of their efforts, the 6-year-old now knows 12 scientific shark names — the first step on her journey toward becoming a marine biologist when she grows up. 

“I try to teach people how important sharks are to the ocean and the whole world,” she said

And it’s not just Ella, over 400 girls have attended in-person Gills Club events.  

The girls in the Gills Club aren’t just fighting for a future for sharks, they’re fighting for their own future. Here’s how you can be a part of it.

More: These Gorgeous Fish Are Invading Florida’s Coasts. One Solution? Eat Them

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