“There has been positive change in female representation since I began oceanography 25 years ago, both among faculty and at sea. Change has happened in part because we are better aware of the cultural biases and work-life challenges uniquely faced by women in the field and have fought for the resources (such as maternity leave), information, and mentoring networks to help women navigate these issues.”
Dr Beal has conducted over 15 years of work on the Agulhas System of currents off South Africa and its key role in a warming climate. She has participated in 17 scientific voyages to the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, totalling 358 days at sea, planning and leading seven of these voyages as Chief Scientist. She has published over 50 peer-reviewed scientific publications and has served as Editor for the AGU Journal Geophysical Research Letters, a high-impact journal of the American Geophysical Union. She is currently co-Chair of the Climate Variability and Predictability Indian Ocean Region Panel, an international steering committee of the Global Ocean Observing System. She is also member of the Steering Committee of the program "Mentoring Physical Oceanography Women to Increase Retention."
As a young teen, Dr Beal dreamed of being an African bush pilot. She obtained an internship at British Aerospace and every birthday was up in the air - thanks to her dad - in a Cessna, a helicopter, a glider, and even a hot air balloon. But after one year studying aeronautical engineering at Southampton University she became disillusioned. Aeronautics was all about missile nose cones and jet engines, but her passion and curiosity were for the natural world. At the time a new Oceanography Centre was opening in Southampton and she knew she found the right place. Excelling as an undergraduate led to being able to conduct research with renowned oceanographers as a PhD student.
Women in ocean science
In addition to her research, Dr Beal is actively involved in community work to increase the engagement, recruitment, and retention of women and minorities in oceanography. She says, “we need more women and minorities in science to be asking the right questions and reaching the best conclusions.” But working at sea can be challenging for women, because most ships remain male-dominated environments. Dr Beal herself had the humiliating experience as a young female Chief Scientist, of being disrespected and objectified by a Captain and his crew. Yet, she has since had many more empowering experiences of leading successful cruises with the full support of everyone aboard.
Dr Beal thinks female leadership in science can be strengthened by affirming the importance of women and minorities within institutions, which starts with listening and mentoring. Work needs to also be done on a cultural shift in communities towards better supporting and celebrating women’s success. Finally, in her view, preparing women for leadership roles through access to leadership programs is important, since women tend to underestimate their talent for leadership compared to men.
Advice to young female scientists
“We need more women and minorities in science (…), so do not doubt what you can contribute! Learning about our natural world is both an exhilarating and humbling experience. Pat yourself on the back when things work out, and also when things don’t work out, in recognition of the risk you took and what you have learned along the way.”
Interviewed in May 2019