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Caribbean women in geology

aaa~ Pushing against the glass ceiling ~

 

By Lisa Davis-Burnett

 

If you drive a car, fly in a plane, run a generator, motor a boat or use electricity, you should thank a geologist. Using the tools of science, geologists locate and retrieve oil and gas used to power our world. Traditionally, geology has been a men’s-only club, but that is no longer the case. In fact, the men are having trouble keeping up.

 

Geologists study the earth, its materials and structure. They seek to understand the earth’s history and composition. They take classes in physics, chemistry and engineering as well as becoming an expert in physical processes, rocks, minerals, such as certain natural hazards such as earthquakes and volcanoes. Becoming a professional geologist requires at a minimum four years of university, but often advanced degrees are recommended for serious employment.

 

At last week’s convention for Caribbean Geologists held in Trinidad, it was difficult to miss the presence of women geoscientists. Many were employed by Petrotrin, the government-owned oil company of Trinidad, while others were working for MEEA (Ministry of Energy and Energy Affairs). The field of geology, it seems, is wide open, especially to ambitious young women on the verge of long and promising careers.

 

A collision of ideas

More than 250 geologists attended the week-long conference which was held at the Hyatt in Port of Spain. They came from all across the Caribbean as well as South America, the United States, Canada, Europe and even Asia. It was hosted by the Geological Society of Trinidad and Tobago, chaired by Dr. Krishna Persad and organized by Conveners Xavier Moonan of Centrica Energy and Grenville Draper of Florida International University.

 

The theme of the meeting was “A Collision of Ideas to Uplift our Understanding” – a clear nod to the Theory of Plate Tectonics which has dominated the geosciences since the 1950s. The conventions on Caribbean Geology are held about every three years at different locations. Draper shared, “We don’t always have such lavish accommodations as here at the Hyatt, we are often staying somewhere rather rustic. But it’s always been a positive experience to gather and discuss the geology of the region.” The first such gathering was held in 1955.

 

This meeting was one of high energy and enthusiasm. There was a strong presence of faculty, students and alumni from the University of the West Indies (UWI) – both the Mona Jamaica campus and the St. Augustine Trinidad campus. It was an opportunity to share research and pose questions to fellow scientists, discussions dense with data and conjectures. After each presentation, questions were posed to the researchers, opinions and speculations were offered. On occasion, invitations were made for graduate students to take on certain projects, and the possibility of funding was dangled as an incentive.

 

Much attention was given to new information coming from deep seismic profiles made by a high tech geophysical company named Ion. Large scale reflections have been imaged which clearly show the structures within the earth’s crust and upper mantle. This insight gave rise to new understandings of the how the Caribbean Plate is interacting with the South American Plate over time, along with ancient environments that have provided the source for oil and gas in the area of the south eastern Caribbean. The plate boundary actually runs through the island of Trinidad and field trips were offered late in the week to investigate certain areas where the geology is particularly well exposed.

 

50-50

Presenters included many impressive names in the petroleum exploration industry as well as leading academic talents. A significant percentage of the presentations was given by women or teams of women, confident, well-spoken, and hard-hitting. Women, it’s clear, are right at home taking the lead role in this traditionally man-oriented area of science.

 

The older generation has seen the trend taking root since the 1990s. “This year, the attendees are about 50-50 men and women. The last two conferences there were actually more women than men,” said Dr. Brent Wilson, a geology professor from UWI, Trinidad. “It’s a trend that has been well established for decades.” Wilson noted that all of his nine Ph.D. candidates since he began teaching at UWI have been women.

 

Presenter Helena Innis, a scientist with Kronus Geological, noted that when she began her career in the oil and gas industry in the 90s, she would sometimes be among only a few women at the meetings or on field investigations. “That was early days for women [in geology], but now the trend is definitely reversed and the women often outnumber the men.”

 

First lady

If one looks back to the very earliest days of Caribbean women making their mark in the Geosciences, the trailblazing credit has to be given to Sally Radford. Now employed at the Caribbean Academy of Sciences, Dr. Radford is proud to say she was the first woman geologist in Trinidad. Radford is continuing to contribute to the field of Caribbean Geology. She presented a poster session on Microfossils of the Pedro Bank, an area south of Jamaica.

 

Born in Trinidad, Radford graduated in 1967 with a BSc in Geology from UWI in Jamaica. Upon earning her degree, Texaco Oil Company offered her a job as a palaeontologist to work in the laboratory in Pointe-à-Pierre, Trinidad. As exploration wells were drilled, she would identify the micro fossil samples coming up from the depths which let them know what age of strata they were drilling through, thousands of metres below. Such information is vital to guiding the drillers to help them find the target reservoir, and Radford gained a reputation for accuracy and hard work. “We had a team of about 12 to 15 ‘pickers’ in the lab who would wash and sieve the grains coming in. They would sit at their microscopes and pick out the foraminifera and mount them on slides for me to identify by comparing them to a type collection which was made by my predecessors, which included the famous Swiss geologists Hans Kugler and Hans Bolli and English geologist John Saunders.”

 

By 1970, she had met and married a Texaco petroleum engineer and they soon moved to England, where she became a research student at London University. Her Ph.D. work involved a UNESCO project to survey the Caribbean Sea, but the British Navy wouldn’t allow any women on board their ships. Rather than wait for the survey ships to return with her samples for analysis, she flew out to Trinidad to see if she could arrange for a ship to take her to the site. Luck was with her, for as she entered the Ministry of Petroleum office to discuss the situation, an American from the United Nations Development Programme was there looking for local scientists to join with a research vessel from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Long story short, Radford joined the Woods Hole ship, but not before they asked her to please make sure her husband accompanied her.

 

Glass ceilings

This trend is not really only a Caribbean phenomenon. Worldwide women are earning university diplomas and advanced degrees at a higher rate than men, and this divergence is even more pronounced at most Caribbean campuses. The faculty at both UWI sites commented at the convention that the young men are simply not keeping up with the women. “The boys are not serious about studies,” commented Wilson. “They lack motivation. I worry about them.”

 

According to Convener Moonan, at UWI even the faculty is dominated by females. “Overall, our faculty is three to one, women to men, and in the sciences it’s five to one,” he said. “A lot of us are wondering what is going on with the guys.”

 

It seems, though, that the glass ceiling remains in place, at least for the time being. Those men who do complete their degrees and land jobs in the oil and gas industry will likely be paid more and advance in position at a faster rate. “The women working in geology are still facing discrimination. They hit the glass ceiling early and can’t get above a certain level.”

 

One female geologist, who preferred not to be named, shared that she had experienced on the job discrimination herself in the past year and it was very upsetting. She was hired alongside a male who had less experience than she and since that was the case, the employer asked her to train him. Within a few months, the man was moved up, while she was not. Then she found out he had been hired at a salary that significantly eclipsed her pay level. She is planning to return to school this fall to pursue a graduate degree, hoping that when she enters the job market with a Master’s in hand, she will be better able to claim her fair share.