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María Valladares
Stories of inspiration from Smart Girl Stories across the globe. Navigating vocation with María Valladares

Navigating vocation with María Valladares

Sometimes we are lucky enough to know what inspires us from an early age, like María Valladares, a professional who immigrated to Chile and is now impacting different communities in the country to promote the protection of our oceans.

As a child she knew she was attracted to marine sciences, she studied at the university external geodynamics, focused on coastal areas, in which the beach, the dunes, and how they impact the protection of housing and human beings are studied more. 

María then pursued her master’s degree between Spain and Puerto Rico studying more protected areas, although her passion for the ocean was undeniable, she could not avoid deepening her studies on how people interact with the oceans, which always kept her close to this sea+people combination.

Eventually, given the employment crisis in Spain, she moved to Chile to look for challenges, and she did get them!

A woman in a “men’s” profession

Gender gaps in the working world are still tangible, and Maria’s experience was no exception. If you thought before that the saying “Women are not meant to be on ships” was only said by pirates, well, it is not so. Throughout her career, Maria not only studied mostly with men but on some occasions, she was not allowed to do her job properly just because she was a woman.

“I have been denied entry to the ship because I am a woman… It was difficult at times for me,” confessed Maria.

Nothing can deny Maria’s professionalism or love for what she does. Because of this, at first, she was very reluctant to assert her rights because of the confrontation with the people who did not allow her to do her job properly, but with time, she learned other techniques to deal with this situation.

As she tells us, sometimes it was also because the more local fishermen, besides being all men, were not used to seeing a woman in the same field, so they had their doubts, which made her have to over-explain and validate her abilities to gain their trust.

Like Maria’s case, there will surely be others, and it is a prejudice that many women live in certain labor fields, however, there is no better demonstration than talent and faith in your abilities, so even if it is difficult at the beginning, you must be faithful to what you want to achieve and find ways to enter the fields.

Maria Valladares

If you are a pioneer in an area it may be more difficult, but remember that you are not only doing it for yourself but for all the other women who come after you following that path.

Maria says that during her years of study, she saw how the number of women entering the career (which, in itself, were few), began to decrease as time went by.

“Not having female referents, one gets discouraged because they also put many barriers in your way.”

Another difficulty is that many women tend to put their careers on hold because they are mothers or caring for family members, implicit roles fall on the women in the family.

Natalia Sanz, in an article for the Center for Oceanographic Research in the Southeast Pacific, states the following:

“I saw discrimination in colleagues who were mothers, from what she has seen she considers motherhood to be one of the main stumbling blocks for female scientists and career advancement because there is an exit from work and a pause in research.”

While this has not been the case for Maria, after all her experiences with her gender and her profession, she is more and more certain every day that the scientific field is becoming more open to women throughout her career she has met exceptional women who have also been her mentors.

We may imagine mentors as people with a long beard and a lot of wisdom, but the truth is that even they make mistakes. A mentor is a person who has already gone through several of our stages and has more experience in a specific field, although he/she will not tell you what to do because he/she respects your process, he/she can guide you to ask the right questions so that you can find the answer that works for you.

In the end, Maria’s experience of being a woman in a “man’s profession” is to believe in herself, assert her rights, remain professional and open to learning, have a support network, and, be the support network for other women.

Diving into the ocean

María Valladares’ profession makes her life alternate between land and sea, sometimes she stays in the office advancing her research, and sometimes she goes to the field to explore. 

He has been on boats for a month to explore and another for half a day, in any case, she makes the most of every minute to explore, since it is expensive to run a boat for weeks at a time, because of the fuel, crew, food and other expenses it requires. 

Nevertheless, it is all worthwhile to move forward with your research.

“In Spain, she worked with teams that went into the sea to collect data on temperature and oxygen, which allowed us to know the characteristics of the water and its currents, while the other part of the team stayed on the boat analyzing or obtaining samples of the fish to cross-check the information and observe the environment in which these species are living,” Maria told us about her experiences on the boat.

What are the “cons” of working in the ocean?

  • Even if you’re used to it, you can’t help but get dizzy during long days.
  • You are cold most of the time and are exposed to radiation during the day.
  • Some days start at 4 am or 5 am.
  • You have to work the whole time you are on the boat because every moment is used to obtain and analyze samples.
  • The particular smell of the boat from the engines or the areas where it sails can generate fatigue.

What are the “pros”?

  • You see wonders, such as whales or dolphins.
  • You are surrounded by nature and go to unique places.
  • In Chile, where I work, I have seen sunrises that combine the sea with the Andes Mountains.
  • You meet local workers with a lot of knowledge of the sea because it has been their family’s job for generations, and they are interesting people. 
  • You use interesting technology, such as marine drones.

When science is not enough

Maria loves her career, but at a certain point, she started to focus on social sciences as well. She was not only interested in going to the sea, obtaining and analyzing samples of ecosystems, but also in sharing them with her community to raise awareness.

In a lifestyle more oriented to the comforts that technology tends to provide, it is sometimes easy to forget how noble nature is and lose interest in the wonders of the world, including of course its oceans.

For this reason, she, together with a group of professionals, created “Surgencia, an ONG focused in promoting the value of coastal heritage in the Region, is a social work dedicated to raising awareness of communities about their marine ecosystems.

A lot of work is done to promote the value of the beaches, dunes, the value of fauna and flora, and even the cultural and spiritual part of the coastal ecosystems and wetlands.

Maria invested so much in this project that she got into a support program called “Coastal Solutions” at Cornell University in New York, which focused on promoting the resilience of coastal ecosystems and the migratory routes of Pacific shorebirds.

“We’ve worked with schools, neighbors, and some neighborhoods, we work with all kinds of people and try to get them to be people who wouldn’t normally have access to these unique places, to get them involved.”

From guides, lectures, classes for schools, and tours of the wetlands, collaborations with other universities and NGOs in the country, are some of the actions that Maria and her team carry out.

Not only this, but Maria’s actions are also aimed at protecting the wetlands that are slowly turning into garbage dumps, but this is also achieved by changing the community’s perception.

The good thing is that, in his words, in recent years there has been a great increase in the interest of people and organizations concerning the environment, which makes it more viable to work in synergies and collaborations to do tangible work and emotional work.

Another of the points that most excites Maria about these projects is that she works with many other women in the field and no one forbids her anything because she is a woman, which makes it much easier for her to carry out her work with tranquility, energy, and love.

For example, María José Martínez, one of her mentors in the academic field, supports her a lot in the valuation of ecosystem services and provides her with a lot of theoretical support to develop her project.

“We want to develop new leaders,” she shares.

Even so, their wetland protection and exploration project has its challenges.

At least in Chile, there are not very clear laws on the ownership of wetlands, so some of them are public and private at the same time, which makes it very difficult to take direct action on them.

In addition, they present cases of:

  • Illegal garbage dumps
  • Homeless people, who go to live there illegally.
  • Lack of community awareness of their impact and importance within the ecosystem where they live.
  • Water scarcity due to droughts and a massive increase in mining production, which absorbs this non-renewable resource.

“Sometimes the actions of third parties cause entire wetlands to disappear, and we experience a lot of frustration to see such valuable sites being degraded.”

What would you say to women who haven’t discovered their vocation in the workplace? 

  • Regardless of age, explore different paths as they present themselves. It is important to diversify what you do to understand what you like and what resonates with your values. 
  • Don’t be afraid of negative experiences, because they also teach. 
  • Learn how to deal with problems in a way that does not completely affect your emotional state.
  • Have your support network and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Maria Valladares inspires us with her dedication, persistence, and passion for what she does. She is an example of strength and intelligence that we can reference during our journey.

Read more powerful stories on our Inspiration page, and don’t forget to follow us on Instagram!

Valeria Morillo

Valeria Morillo

I live for content and storytelling, working hard to get you to meet awesome women across the world! Marketing strategist, voice over andjournalist.


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