Laura Clark Hubbs worked at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego for decades, establishing and cataloguing the world-renowned collections that now house millions of fish and other marine specimens.
Beginning in 1944, she went on numerous expeditions, compiled data, and co-authored scientific papers. Hubbs Hall is one of the most iconic buildings on the Scripps Oceanography campus hanging over the cliffs above La Jolla Shores. But the hall is not named after Laura. Instead, it is named after Carl Leavitt Hubbs, her husband.
Carl Hubbs was a remarkable marine scientist in his own right and his accomplishments have been recognized in more ways than having a building named after him, including the simple fact that he was paid for his work. Laura Hubbs, on the other hand, was never paid a cent during her decades at Scripps Oceanography. University of California nepotism rules stipulated that spouses could not be employed in the same department, relegating Laura Hubbs essentially a volunteer working on her husband’s research projects. Women quit jobs at Scripps after marrying colleagues or continued their demanding careers without pay due to these rules.
Scripps has worked hard to achieve and maintain gender equity in hiring and pay in recent years. Programs are in place to ensure that female students, staff, and faculty are recruited, supported, and retained. Margaret Leinen became the first permanent female director in 2013, 110 years after the founding of Scripps Oceanography. Professor Lynne Talley, tenured at Scripps Oceanography since 1988, remembers not thinking about the importance of it at the time.
“But once she arrived, things changed,” said Talley. “She’s very clear about the importance of diversity. It’s more than just feel-good. It’s the decisions you make in every search for graduate students, faculty, staff, and technicians.”
After decades of female students making up between zero and 40 percent of the student body, gender balance was achieved with the incoming class of 1992 and has remained close to or above 50 percent since.
The statistics about retention are harder to come by. Since the founding of the institution, 43 percent of female students admitted left without a degree compared to 29 percent of men. Alyssa Griffin earned her PhD from Scripps Oceanography in 2020. Her cohort of students was gender balanced, though more women than men dropped out over the years.
“You can’t look at this pattern and not think ‘maybe we have a problem here,’” she said. “When you’re one of the few that’s left, you start doubting and questioning your own decisions. I was like, ‘Should I be here?’”
The disparity does not end after students receive their PhDs. Statistics suggest that men have long had an advantage over women in obtaining faculty positions.
“Almost all of our classes were 50/50-ish and that went on for years and years and the faculty number was 18 percent women. It never budged,” said Talley. “So the female students weren’t seeing the career path because you could look at how many years we’ve been cranking out 50 percent of our PhDs and yet they weren’t getting the jobs.”
Leinen has instilled a culture at Scripps Oceanography to address this, actively recruiting a diverse candidate pool rather than passively assuming the best candidates will rise to the top.
“Half or more of the PhDs going to women means that the people available to move into positions as assistant professors is a much more diverse population than more senior scientists,” Leinen said. “So the big change we made was that, unless there was a compelling reason, we were going to hire at the assistant professor level.”
In the time since this more diverse pool of candidates was prioritized, Scripps Oceanography has hired 40 faculty members, 29 of whom are women. This trend is also present on the larger UC San Diego campus. While tenured male faculty outnumber women four to one, the ratio at the assistant professor level is relatively even.
Scripps Oceanography began ahead of the curve. Ellen Browning Scripps was an instrumental booster in 1903 and women were on staff from the beginning at what was then called the Marine Biological Association. The first class of students included Edna Watson, who earned her masters in 1907 and PhD in 1910, decades ahead of other U.S. institutions admitting women. Only a handful of degrees were awarded to men before the second woman, Easter Ellen Cupp, earned a PhD in the new field of oceanography in 1934. Cupp was discouraged, however, from continuing her academic career in oceanography by the director at the time, Harald Sverdrup. She became a middle school science teacher instead. It would be nearly 40 years before a female professor was brought onto the faculty at Scripps Oceanography.
The next Scripps Oceanography director, Carl Eckart, instituted a rule in 1949 that excluded women from overnight trips on research vessels and required approval for them to participate on day trips, citing “safety concerns.”
In 1960, Scripps Oceanography was incorporated into the new University of California campus in San Diego. Anti-discrimination rules ended the ban on women going to sea, both as scientists and crew members. Tanya Atwater was the first woman to be awarded ship time for her research in 1965. As a graduate student, she headed an all-female science party in 1968, a year when many male students were in Vietnam. Atwater later became the first female faculty member to be hired at Scripps Oceanography, in 1972.
Miriam Kastner was hired the same year and subsequently became the first woman to be granted tenure at Scripps Oceanography in 1977. She was the only female faculty member when Talley was hired in 1984.
When affirmative action became illegal in California in 1996 with the passage of Proposition 209, institutions like Scripps Oceanography had to adapt their plans toward a diverse campus. This puts the impetus on Scripps Oceanography leadership including Leinen and other campus leaders to instill and maintain a campus culture of equity, diversity, and inclusion. If future leadership decides not to prioritize this, important progress could be reversed.
In 2017, Scripps Oceanography hired Keiara Auzenne to fill the newly established role of Director of Diversity Initiatives. Multiple new diversity programs are in place.
Griffin worked as a Community Engagement Fellow with Auzenne while she was a student at Scripps. Facilitating panel discussions, implicit bias trainings, and other events for the Scripps Oceanography community were part of her fellowship.
“We used to have these trainings all the time. Very few people showed up, sometimes nobody came,” she said, noting the obvious change when George Floyd was murdered in May 2020. “I really am optimistic that the tide is turning, but there has to be an acknowledgment that this programming has been going on, these are not new conversations, it’s just that most people haven’t been participating.”
Griffin calls the fellowship her most positive experience at Scripps. Since each student’s level of involvement in programs other than their research is too often left up to advisor discretion, specific guidelines could help balance the scales and allow for increased engagement.
Scripps Oceanography does have formal programs set up for peer-to-peer mentorship at the graduate student level.
“I really believe in mentorship and paying it forward,” said Griffin. “I think it’s the only way we’re going to make progress.”
“I had no mentorship, none,” said Talley who, when she was hired as an assistant professor in 1984 was asked what she wanted for a startup package. Without anyone to tell her about the standard requests for funding and equipment, she asked only for a light table and set of pens. “That’s all I got,” said Talley. “Within two or three years, the new hires were asking for $100,000 and a lab. I didn’t know you could have more. Nobody told me. I was just so overjoyed to have a job. I think that’s the female part. I didn’t feel I deserved it. Every new faculty member has a mentor now. It’s a culture too, coming through grad school now you know you should have a mentor.”
Leinen credits Helen Hays, a senior research technician at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, as a mentor who taught her to be responsible for her own work while at sea.
“She got me out there and told the crew that they should pay attention to me,” said Leinen. “They wouldn’t allow me on the fantail [working deck of the ship]. Kathy Sullivan (later a NASA astronaut) was also a graduate student with me on those cruises. The bosun (ship’s officer in charge of the deck crew) drew a line on the fantail and said none of the women could be aft of that line because we were a distraction and somebody might get hurt.”
It was eight years after the 1949 ban was lifted before a woman was hired as a crew member on an Scripps Oceanography research vessel. Louise Henry worked aboard from 1968 until 1989 but decades later, female crew members are still few and far between.
“Our goal is a workforce that has diversity that is comparable to the population as a whole,” said Scripps Oceanography Associate Director and head of Ship Operations Bruce Appelgate. “We have a long way to go.”
Talley participated in research trips beginning in the 1970s. “The crew who were all basically out of the Navy made it really clear that we didn’t belong out there,” she said. “The big leaps were when our generation moved into being captains, things changed completely. Having women in the crew and permanent marine techs was really important.”
After an allegation of sexual assault onboard the research vessel Thomas Washington, Talley and other women convened the Women on Ships Committee and wrote a manual for seagoing scientists in 1985 that included sections on interpersonal relations and sexual harassment issues.
“The director’s office and ship operations were supportive,” she said. “We got sexual harassment training mandated and we were also in the vanguard for doing it for all of the UC San Diego campus.”
The lack of diversity isn’t just in academia. Many members of the ship’s crew receive training at the U.S maritime academies, which didn’t admit women until 1973. Currently, women still account for less than 20 percent of maritime academy students in the United States.
“To lift ourselves above that, we have established initiatives to develop, attract, and retain a diverse group of mariners and technicians,” said Appelgate. “We have not yet reached representation on research vessels that truly mirrors our society as a whole, but it is important to celebrate each of the achievements made possible by ongoing, incremental efforts. We've come a long way since women were banned from the ships in 1949, with farther to go.”
The research fleet itself is another aspect of Scripps Oceanography where a focus on gender equality is possible. One of the earliest research vessels was named Ellen B. Scripps, conducting scientific exploration from 1925-1936. A second Ellen B. Scripps operated from 1965-1984. Other than that, all of the ships in the Scripps Oceanography fleet named after people were named after men until R/V Sally Ride was commissioned in 2016.
Ride was famously the first American woman to go into space, back in 1983, before joining the faculty at UC San Diego. She had to deal with her fair share of frustrations, a burden on many trailblazers. The all-male NASA support team tried to send her on a 7-day trip in the space shuttle with 100 tampons “just to be safe.”
“Research vessels honor people who exemplify our sense of exploration, ambition, and excellence,” said Leinen. “Having a woman recognized in that way is really important. It said you can do something that has that level of recognition if you’re a woman.”
Intersectionality cannot be overlooked. Demographic information is hard to come by, but records show that Anita Hall was the first Black student admitted at Scripps Oceanography in 1945, though she did not finish a degree. Of the previously mentioned 29 recent female faculty hires, one is Black, two are Indigenous, and three are Latinx. There are no statistics about trans women’s history at Scripps Oceanography, due to them not being separated into another category.
“As one of the women of color that has made it through the academic gauntlet, I feel an enormous responsibility to pave the way for future scientists,” said Griffin. “So that they have an easier time, so that they don’t feel alone, so that they don’t walk into spaces and they’re the only one who identifies the way that they do, and so everyone can bring their full selves to their work.”
The only buildings at Scripps Oceanography named after women are to honor donors, not scientists, and all are credited alongside their husbands. Based on the interview for this article, Leinen and other leaders are considering adding signage and plaques to Hubbs Hall, as well as Ritter and Spiess Halls, in honor of both husbands and wives who contributed so much to the success of Scripps Oceanography.
Though it is in the past, telling the stories of women who were there from the beginning is also a crucial step. Their achievements must be brought to light, remembered, and valued. As with ocean tides, there are ebbs and flows in our collective memories when it comes to equality. We must remain vigilant to ensure that the best science is being done and that requires the input of dedicated scientists of all types.
“There’s no endpoint,” said Griffin. “This is a continuous commitment.”
Melissa Miller is a staff member at the Oceanographic Data Facility at Scripps Oceanography, working as a sea-going chemist as well as a science writer and outreach coordinator. She authored this piece as part of the UC San Diego Extension certificate program in Science Communication.
About Scripps Oceanography
Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego is one of the world’s most important centers for global earth science research and education. In its second century of discovery, Scripps scientists work to understand and protect the planet, and investigate our oceans, Earth, and atmosphere to find solutions to our greatest environmental challenges. Scripps offers unparalleled education and training for the next generation of scientific and environmental leaders through its undergraduate, master’s and doctoral programs. The institution also operates a fleet of four oceanographic research vessels, and is home to Birch Aquarium at Scripps, the public exploration center that welcomes 500,000 visitors each year.
About UC San Diego
At the University of California San Diego, we embrace a culture of exploration and experimentation. Established in 1960, UC San Diego has been shaped by exceptional scholars who aren’t afraid to look deeper, challenge expectations and redefine conventional wisdom. As one of the top 15 research universities in the world, we are driving innovation and change to advance society, propel economic growth and make our world a better place. Learn more at www.ucsd.edu.