I was 21 years old when I encountered the place where sharks and television intersect. It was my first research internship, working with a famous shark scientist I had long admired but only just met. My second week, I was on a boat with a film crew, chumming for sharks in the background while the senior scientist dispensed expertise in the foreground. At one point, the film crew suggested I sit next to my hero on camera and repeat the prompt: “So, [Dr. Hero], why did you become a shark scientist?”
For the beautiful green-eyed assistants, of course,” he replied, gesturing at me. I froze, silent, a nervous half-smile on my face.
Don’t worry,” a member of the film crew assured me afterward. “We won’t use it.” I felt a wash of relief and gratitude. It was years before I thought to wonder why I’d felt I was the one who would have looked bad if they had.
This isn’t the worst experience I’ve had as a woman in shark science, or even in the top 10. It barely makes my list at all. I remember it mainly for how small and ashamed it made me feel in the first moments of my career as a scientist; for the way his joke told me clearly who I was to him, and how he thought I fit into the story.
Shark Week, a celebration of sharks on the Discovery Channel that attracts millions of viewers, is marine science’s premiere annual television event—and it rarely features women scientists or scientists of color in leading roles. Many women I’ve spoken to were passionate viewers as children, but when they became scientists, found “it wasn’t what it used to be, or what I remembered it to be,” said Carlee Jackson, a co-founder of Minorities in Shark Sciences (MISS). Another scientist told me that Shark Week stopped feeling “pure,” to her, because she increasingly “saw it through a lens tainted by sexism … and I wonder what would be different if I’d had a positive, inclusive experience in science from the start.”
To call shark science a “boy’s club” is an understatement—although more than 60 percent of graduate students in my field are women, the vast majority of senior scientists are white men. During my research talk at my first shark science conference, a senior male scientist was so rude and aggressive during the question period that another male scientist apologized for him afterward, telling me “he does that to a female graduate student every year or two”. I have seen it happen to others since; at least one woman he targeted left the podium in tears.
For years, the annual conference “officially” ended at the beginning of the closing banquet so organizers wouldn’t be responsible for what came next. “Next” included a fundraiser in which scantily clad female graduate students were expected to parade auction items around the room, a dinner at which one senior scientist demanded to sit with only the “prettiest” students, and an alcohol-fueled mixer where women needed to be on constant guard against roaming hands. The first male Ph.D. student who volunteered to display auction items to help his female colleagues had his rear laughingly slapped by a male senior scientist “for old time’s sake.” A photograph from a past meeting shows a senior scientist with his hands between the legs of two women graduate students, lifting them off the ground—one of them smiling, the other appearing on the verge of tears.
Misogynistic culture in science can be terribly dark. In a 2013 global survey across scientific disciplines, 64 percent of respondents reported being subjected to sexual harassment during fieldwork, and 20 percent to sexual assault. The vast majority had these experiences as trainees or early in their careers. My list from my own early career—in professional settings where I would have described myself as “at work”—includes being sexually assaulted, openly masturbated at, and verbally harassed. I wish I were the only one, but I’m not. I want to be sure young women know that if it’s happened to them, they are far from alone.
Fieldwork researching sharks often happens in remote locations, and can require close quarters, mixed-gender sleeping spaces in boats or bunkrooms, and physical contact between scientists (especially during animal restraint). I have heard male graduate students staffing educational programs refer to undergraduate women arriving at field sites as “fresh meat” more times than I can count, casually reflecting the attitudes of their seniors. One woman told me how, after a day of fieldwork alongside a prominent scientist, she was pleased to be invited to have dinner with him:
“I accepted and thought we were heading to a restaurant. Turns out we went to his house. From there he indicated I smelled bad and it would be best if I took a shower. I thought it was odd, but I decided to do it. While showering, I looked up at the ceiling. I saw a camera lens sticking out of one of the ceiling tiles. I could not believe my eyes. […] I gave the camera the “bird” so he knew I knew. I went out, said nothing and had dinner. I left. I did not confront him. I did not have the courage. I wish I had. I am only saddened to think that he did this to many women. It is humiliating to think he watched me.”
This is an extreme example, but feelings of shame and humiliation at the realization it wasn’t your intellect or ability that attracted a mentor’s interest are familiar to many women. Graduate students may be asked out by senior male scientists, including their own advisors, under circumstances where the list of potential professional repercussions for saying “no” are long. Even when it doesn’t encompass harassment, rape or assault, inappropriate and sexist behavior and its aftermath can alter or derail career trajectories and close off opportunities for women. These experiences continue throughout our careers—according to one woman I spoke with, her advisor told her it was “game over” for her professionally when she told him she was pregnant; she was once asked by a colleague before receiving a scientific award whether she had slept with the man in charge of it.
Nearly every female shark scientist I know readily lists her encounters with “light” misogyny—comments about how strong she is “for a girl” as she handles a shark; “friendly” observations about her body or the clothes she’s wearing; doubts expressed, subtly or explicitly, about her competence or expertise. It wears us down; combined with the big things, it leaves many of us frayed, exhausted or hopeless.
Women of color in shark science must deal with the intersecting effects of sexism and racism. Amani Webber-Schultz, a co-founder of MISS, shared that she chooses whom to work with carefully because, in the face of potentially violent racist threats, “I need to feel that whoever I am working for or with will have my back and stand up for me in situations where it is not safe for me to stand up for myself.” Alongside physical dangers exacerbated by race, sexual orientation, gender identity, sex, age and level of power, overwhelmingly white and male scientific spaces send unwelcoming signals to students about who “belongs” and who is likely to be given the chance to succeed in shark science.
Becoming a scientist should not require developing the grit to continually endure misogyny, discrimination, harassment, assault or bullying. But from their earliest experiences, women scientists learn that if they complain, they’ll be described as “difficult,” or a “problem”; if they’re heartbroken by how they’re treated compared to their male peers, they’ll be told they’re “too emotional” and “need to grow a thicker skin”; and if they leave the field, the problem was them: they “weren’t tough enough to hack it in shark science.”
This is the backdrop to Shark Week. Every year there are complaints on social media about how few women or people of color are featured, and how they’re presented when they do appear. In one show, a woman with a Ph.D. was referred to by her first name, while a male student Shark Week included in the episode (who did not have a Ph.D.) was called “Dr. [Lastname]”. When women scientists objected to this error, some male scientists made it clear they saw it as a nonproblem, a “simple mistake. In a different episode, footage was cut together to create a misleading narrative arc so ridiculous and scientifically inaccurate that the woman scientist featured described it as “professionally humiliating.” Several told me they feared letting their female colleagues down if an appearance went poorly.
Shark Week’s choice of hosts and featured experts systematically enhances or upholds the authority of white male scientists while rarely incorporating the voices or featuring the work of women or people of color. Those choices have real, meaningful effects on shark science, because appearing on Shark Week is a professional opportunity. After being featured on a show, Lisa Whitenack, associate professor of biology and geology at Allegheny College, found her visibility increased:
“Our local newspaper ran a short article and my institution hosted a viewing of the show. Some incoming first-year students know who I am before they step onto campus or even end up checking out my institution because I work there. Since appearing on Shark Week, I get contacted more often by the media to comment or consult on articles. Every time I do this, there's another entry on my CV that will later benefit me when I go up for promotion to full professor. So, while I am not a ‘star’ who is getting asked to do charity dinners or having funding thrown my way, even that small increase in visibility has had some concrete benefits to my career.”
Shark scientist Melissa Cristina Márquez, who had a good experience appearing on two Shark Week shows, described herself as thankful for the resulting professional opportunities and for “a greater platform than I would have ever achieved on my own.” These benefits are meaningful to the careers of the people who receive them—and they are received overwhelmingly by white men.
This means Shark Week further concentrates power (in the form of publicity and media attention) in the hands of white male “featured scientists,” exacerbating academic power imbalances. One former student of a scientist who frequently appeared on Shark Week told me:
“I didn’t complain about anything—not his mood swings, egomania, or shoulder massages—because I was getting to work with sharks, and as he’d said, there were so many people who would kill to be in my position. Instead, I adapted. I learned to read his behavior and avoid him on bad days, to sit with my back to the wall, to smile and nod when he bragged about all of the times he’d been on Shark Week and the famous people he’d met.”
Another told me she knew not to complain about her advisor’s abuse because it was clear from his fame that “he was worth a lot more than I was to the university.” I’ve found myself in the painful position of listening to students talk about their dream of working with sexist or abusive Shark Week–famous scientists, knowing from experience that being frank with them was a risk to my career. One woman who was part of a lab when she founded an educational program for girls in science later discovered that her former supervisor was promoting himself in the media as its founder and erasing her involvement. When she confronted him, “he told me I’d overestimated my contribution and at no point should have felt ownership over my work. I considered fighting and exposing him, but at the time that felt insurmountable. He was protected by a massive institution, and I was protected by absolutely nothing.”
Critiques of Shark Week are often framed solely around representation and the importance of young girls seeing strong, diverse, competent female scientists in action. Research certainly shows representation matters in attracting and retaining diverse talent and changing perceptions of who belongs in science. Despite thinking sharks and Shark Week were “incredibly cool” as a kid, Amani Webber-Schultz noted that seeing almost exclusively white male scientists featured “stopped me from believing becoming a shark scientist was even a possibility for me.” Representation clearly matters, but the challenge we face isn’t just attracting diverse students—it’s making the structural and cultural changes needed to ensure shark science is a safe and welcoming place for them.
The lack of women scientists on Shark Week isn’t something that’s bad for women in the abstract. It does concrete harm. It distorts who is visible in shark science, and shapes whose voices are heard and how loudly. It makes women invisible, and in some cases, it holds up men who abuse their power over women as heroes, giving them a platform and enhancing their careers. I truly hope Discovery will commit to featuring more women scientists as leads on Shark Week—not because I want to see myself on TV, but because I want my incredible students to be able to envision a place for themselves there.
I hope women can harness Shark Week to benefit our own careers—not because we care about fame, but because we know enough to care deeply about power and how it’s distributed. Most of all, I hope that all we’ve been through—and the grit it’s demanded—can be put to use now to change our field for the women coming after us. I don’t want a single one of my students to have a damned list.
They deserve so much better.