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International Women's Day: women at sea

Published: Mar 7, 2022 4 min read

STEM learning

Ashleigh Kitchiner is a STEM Ambassador, marine biologist and 'woman at sea'. For International Women's Day, she tells us more about her career and how she overturns some of the stereotypes while working in a traditionally majority-male workplace.

I am a marine biologist, to be more specific I’m a whale nut!

Whales, dolphins, and porpoises are my thing, and I can’t get enough of them. One aspect about these majestic creatures is that we only get to see around 10% of their lives, as they surface to breathe. They are air breathers like us, so we do get the chance to see them, but not often enough. In my field of conservation, there are a lot of women, however, when I work within the industry at-sea there are not so many of us.

Conservation is defined as the ‘careful preservation and protection of something’. Broadly speaking that is what it is, but there are so many fields within conservation from looking at species or habitats to evolution, genetics and coding. I found at university there was an equal number of women and men studying, but I was shocked when I went to sea and found barely any women at all. Without representation, it is difficult to change the status quo, so I decided to be that representation. When I was mocked for being a ‘girl’ on board, I would say, “I can handle this thank you, I have two degrees and plenty of experience.” I had the mentality of ‘acting like a man’, I would use ‘male’ body language and always speak up in a meeting, even if I had nothing to say, just to make sure everyone knew I meant business, whale business that was!

Although this served me well for a few years’, I started to think differently. I realised that I  didn’t want to ‘act like a man’ or justify why I was there, I wanted to act like a woman and be treated professionally as an equal. I started reading things like Women Offshore, who have a plethora of resources to help women, and men, at sea. Women Offshore empowers the careers of female seafarers worldwide and reading inspiring blogs and posts helped me to see my true potential as a female on board.

I also always take a few downloads of feminist-inspired female comedy shows with me, so that when something sexist happens I can go and re-fuel. It also helps me understand what is unacceptable. During one of my trips, I was made to feel harassed due to my gender with questions like “why aren’t you married?”, “will you have children?”, and “come and sit here, can I have a picture with you?”. These are not okay. Would they be asked of my male counterpart? No! It is not okay to send this barrage of questions my way, so, because I felt empowered, I complained to the captain, who did have a word with them. After this, I no longer had to deal with these questions on board, and I hope others will think again before the next female worker joins the vessel.

It's not all bad! Working offshore and seeing the seascapes, wildlife and conducting important work is so rewarding and I would not change it all. I love what I do, and I hope more and more women enter this industry as you get to travel the world, meet new people and experience so many different cultures.

If you want to find out more about women in conservation, take a look at this and check out the women in maritime website.