New Study: There’s Still a Long Way To Go To Bridge the Gender and Economic Gaps in Coral Reef Science

Coral reef research remains disproportionately guided by men from the US and Australia, often excluding scientists from countries with the greatest extent of coral reefs.

A new paper published in Frontiers in Coral Reef Research offers the most comprehensive analysis of gender and geographical disparities in coral reef science to date. The findings show that while the representation of women has increased over the past 16 years from 18% to 33%, women are still vastly underrepresented. Authors from economically wealthy countries* continue to dominate authorship in coral reef science, making up 89% of authors (68% are from Australia and the US alone). Scientists from countries with some of the greatest extent of coral reefs are often excluded from these collaborations.

“Coral reefs are among the most vulnerable marine ecosystems to climate change and human impacts,” says Gabby Ahmadia, director of marine conservation science at World Wildlife Fund (WWF). “The survival of reefs depends on the science community’s ability to harness diverse perspectives, especially local and Indigenous peoples who are most severely impacted by climate change.”

The study was conducted by 26 scientists from 15 nations. They examined authorship of coral reef science from 1,677 articles, authored by 4,485 unique authors with geographic affiliations spanning 95 countries, published between 2003 and 2018. The changes in gender and geographic representation show some improvement, but are still far from reaching balanced representation.

“We’re seeing a so-called ‘leaky pipeline’ in career progression for women between graduate programs and senior positions,” says Ahmadia. “Women are constantly pushing against a system that has not done enough to deal with biases, harassment, and toxicity, especially in academia and research. COVID-19 has brought the inequity into sharp focus - careers of researchers with caregiver and family responsibilities have been hardest hit. Imagine the depth that coral reef science will gain when these barriers are gone.”

At the current rate of improvement, equal gender representation in coral reef science will be achieved by 2036 and equal geographic representation in coral reef science will be achieved by 2046. This rate is not nearly quick enough to keep pace with the current and projected deterioration of coral reefs. The scientists identify issues that contribute to the lack of gender and geographic diversity in coral reef science, including biases, stereotypes and inequality in research funding opportunities.

“There are many reasons why we need to improve the participation of under-represented groups in science, one being that it can lead to all-around better research,” says Samantha Cheng, scientist at the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History. “Having diverse voices in senior positions of the coral reef science community will help us pursue avenues that might not have been previously considered. This study should galvanize us and our institutions to strategize around the fact that while progress has been made in increasing gender and geographic diversity, there is still much work to be done to support and sustain diverse scientists in the field.”

The authors outline ways to increase gender and geographic representation in research teams and authorship. For example, individuals and institutions can drive change by dedicating time and funding to build meaningful local collaborations in nations where they are conducting research externally. The scientists call on the science community to directly address historical and institutional harm towards marginalized groups and they stress the importance of cultivating a culture of equity, diversity, inclusion and justice in research institutions through measurable and concrete actions.

“The nature of parachute science—where in-country research is conducted exclusively by foreign scientists—undermines the invaluable traditional knowledge and input of local scientists,” says Vera Horigue, research fellow at Macquarie University and the Western Indian Ocean Marine Science Association. “What if we made it a common practice for those who really know and understand local contexts and are living closest to the landscapes to help steer the research? The quality of science and recommendations will contribute to more locally relevant solutions and better conservation outcomes.”

*The study looked at OECD nations, the 38 largest world economies



While this study analyzed gender and geographic representation in coral reef science, the authors acknowledge that there are several other underrepresented groups, i.e LGBTQ+, disabled, Black, etc., in the coral reef science community and that inequities are compounded when individuals hold multiple marginalized identities.