When I was a girl, many opportunities didn’t exist for women in positions of leadership. You could be a nurse, not a doctor; a secretary, not a CEO; or an airline stewardess, not a pilot. Social traditions cast men as ‘bread-winners’ and women as ‘home-bodies’. 

Despite notable examples of women with small children keeping pace with rough-tough explorers – remember the Native American woman, Sacagawea, who guided the Lewis and Clark expedition through perilous situations while carrying and tending to her infant son? – there has been a tendency for men to be the ones who were large and in charge as hunter-gatherers, bosses, kings, presidents, CEOs, heads of households, and explorers. Traditions born of women with responsibilities as mothers and homemakers have created social pressures that often override common sense – competence, intelligence and physical strength are, of course, not the issues.

As a young woman in the 1950s it was expected that I would get married and be the support system for my husband-to-be, but my parents encouraged me to pursue my wish to explore, to be a scientist, to go to college. They supported my choices in every way they could, even though they had to stretch to provide even modest financial help. All through college, I was frequently the only girl in a science class, which wasn’t such a bad deal as I was serious about what I was doing and I worked very hard.

Traditions born of women with responsibilities as mothers and homemakers have created social pressures that often override common sense.

In the summer of 1964, as a graduate student at Duke University, I received an invitation to join a scientific team aboard the National Science Foundation’s research vessel, Anton Bruun, for a six-week voyage to the Indian Ocean. I said yes and it turned out to change my life forever. An article about the voyage in the Mombasa Daily Times was headlined, ‘Sylvia sails away with 70 men – but she expects no problems.’

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The only serious problems I experienced were shared by all of my shipmates – problems that were to be expected when exploring the depths of the sea by blindly sampling the life below using hooks and nets. We had scuba gear that made it possible to dive and document marine life that no one had ever seen before in undisturbed environments, we had a healthy sense of humor and I asked for no special favors as a woman – the expedition was a joy.

Between 1964 to 1966 I spent a lot of time at sea, I went on expeditions to the Galápagos Islands, to San Felix, to the Juan Fernández Islands, Panama and the Gulf of Mexico (just to name a few). I began to develop a network of colleagues and friends and I gained professional acceptance that was beyond anything I’d ever experienced before. My husband – a fellow marine scientist – and my parents made it possible for me to be away from home by taking care of my two young children, but the marriage of nine years did not last.

In 1970 I submitted a research proposal to the Tektite Project along with two fellow male scientists, not realizing at the time that no women were expected to apply. The head of the program, Dr. James Miller, reportedly said when there was resistance about having women participate. He finally approved my participation, but only as part of an all-woman team. The idea of men and women living together for two weeks under the sea was simply not acceptable. At this time no women astronauts had been allowed to fly and US Navy ships still did not have women on board.  Navy Captain George Bond opposed my participation as an aquanaut, saying it was because I was a mother and ‘it is dangerous.’ I quickly pointed out to Captain Bond that the majority of male aquanauts were, in fact, fathers.

That project was another turning point for me as I became more acutely aware than ever before of the strong bias that existed (and still does) against women in traditionally male roles. Men participating in the project were consistently referred to as ‘aquanauts’ but the women made headlines as ‘aquabelles’, ‘aquachicks’, ‘aquababes’ and even ‘aquanaughties’. At the time we didn't really care what we were called, as long as we could participate, but I mused about what astronauts at the time would think if they were referred to as ‘astrohunks’ or astromancandy’.

I became more acutely aware than ever before of the strong bias that existed (and still does) against women in traditionally male roles.

In the 1980s and 1990s I started multiple ocean-based engineering businesses including a company that developed the one-person ‘Deep Rover’ and another, Deep Ocean Exploration and Research, which is now owned and run by my daughter, Elizabeth Taylor and her engineer husband, Ian Griffith. I fast discovered through starting these companies and through serving on the boards of Fortune 500 enterprises that it can be especially challenging for women who aspire to be leaders. But I now feel, all things considered, that never before has there been a time of greater opportunity, or need, for women in business, government, science, technology, engineering, art and math. Women are needed to help solve the biggest problem of all for the ocean and for the world – ignorance. 

When I began exploring the ocean, it was thought that the ocean was too big to fail, no matter what we dumped into it or what we extracted. Now we know. The ocean is the cornerstone of life, shaping climate and planetary chemistry and governing Earth’s life support system – and it’s in trouble. Coral reefs, sea grass meadows, kelp forests, numerous kinds of fish and other marine life, even phytoplankton that generates most of the oxygen in the atmosphere, are in sharp decline.

Fifty years into the future, it will be too late to do what is possible right now. We must all work together – women and men – to explore and care for the ocean as if our very lives depend on it, because they do. Regardless of gender, if you like to breathe, you should listen up.

– This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. 

This post is part of a series produced by Virgin Unite in partnership with Ocean Unite, an initiative to unite and activate powerful voices for ocean-conservation action.