As scuba diving developed as a recreation and sport in the 1950s, it had emerged from and was heavily influenced by the male-dominated military. We speak nostalgically of Lloyd Bridges, Navy Frogmen and Captain Jacques Cousteau -- yet rarely mention Zale Parry, the heroine of Sea Hunt fame, and one of the first women to engage in technical diving.
To learn more about women and diving today and to gather community opinions about women's issues in diving, I turned to the fabulously scientific Internet diving forums. I started threads entitled "Sexism?" on numerous social platforms.
Some participants felt that sexism in diving is nothing more than a microcosm of what we experience more widely in society. A PADI course director and active technical diver said, "Sure, sexism is there... but I'm not sure it's special to the diving environment. That is, I don't think the non-sexist person suddenly changes stripes when they put on a wetsuit, or vice-versa. There are just more opportunities for it to arise in the diving environment... heavy equipment to be moved around, swim suits, lots of opportunities to show off 'superior' knowledge, skills, and strength."
A noted female physician and very active diver took it one step further, saying, "I think it takes two to be sexist. First, you have to have the man with the attitude, and then you have to have the woman with the chip on her shoulder. I have never carried that chip, and it takes fairly egregious behavior to register as sexist to me."
The pithy stories that broke my heart were mostly off-the-record, but were real stories of harassment, discrimination and even criminal behaviors. As one woman put it, she tolerated the behavior because she didn't want to be labeled as a diving "Femi-Nazi" -- a derogatory term for strong, committed women popularized by Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh.
I read complaints of women being held back in training and career advancement, feeling invisible, and given the silent treatment at dive shops. A few nervously shared accounts of overt intimidation by male divers, boat captains and storeowners. I read stories of sexual groping by male peers and general workplace harassment, a pattern made even more intolerable by lack of professional opportunities and severe pay inequality.
I was considered a bitch if I stood up for myself or I was being 'too sensitive'.
The stories were visceral and some of these women had never openly shared these truths. They wanted the information broadcasted to the diving community, but they did not want to be identified as an informant. A competent, skilled young woman saidwrote, "One of the most difficult incidents I experienced was when I worked for a dive center in Florida. I had been with the organization for almost three years, and a divemaster employed there less than three months (I even assisted with his divemaster course) was moved up to manage the facility. The store owner sat me down and explained how 'girls aren't successful in this industry' and that 'it's a boys' club.' He even went so far as to tell me that, 'no matter how hard I work, it just won't happen.' He said I might have a little chance in the industry if I moved to the Caribbean. I was considered a bitch if I stood up for myself or I was being 'too sensitive.' I worked twice as hard to not even be considered equal. I filled tanks, carried tanks, unloaded gear and prepped the boats. I was the second highest rated instructor at the store, an equipment technician and even had a Master's degree, yet I was the lowest paid employee and never considered an equal."
The Educational Setting
Many anecdotes revolved around 'first contact' within the sport of scuba diving: the Open Water Diver class. Experiences were wide-ranging for observers, practitioners of discrimination, and victims. From a private message, a male reader who had experienced reverse discrimination wrote:
"I have observed clear sexism. The females are always walked gingerly through lessons, while it appears that the instructors assume the males just get it right away. On boat trips, everyone is careful to watch over the female divers, often going out of their way to extend some courtesy to help the poor female with the big heavy equipment, or the slippery deck, when boys with less strength are not helped, and sometimes even teased or chastised when they struggled."
But a busy Florida dive shop instructor and captain wanted to point out challenges he faced trying to teach a mixed-gender class. "I routinely had more men than women in my open water certification classes. The men always wanted to assist the female students in the class, in any way possible. This would be especially bad when couples took the class together. On numerous occasions I had to prevent doting husbands or possible suitors from setting up dive equipment for the female students in the class... Some of the women in my classes would take advantage of this and have nearly everything done by the male student of her choosing. Obviously this was stopped so that everyone met the performance requirements of the course. It made for some awkward conversations."
This respondent saw a different dynamic at the leadership levels of training. "Divemaster and instructor level training was a whole other ball game. The roles were somehow reversed from the get-go. It seemed that the ladies had something to prove by the time they got to the professional level, and would train intensely. I never encountered the 'oh, I'm just a helpless woman, please do everything for me' attitude at these levels. The men in the class always hated to be outperformed by the female students, and they were intensely aware of it when it occurred. Sometimes it would motivate the male students to do a bit better, other times I had to put an end to sexist remarks."
The instructor went as far as trying to get her to take her wetsuit off on the pool deck instead of in the locker room.
The student's viewpoint was sometimes eye-opening, observing unprofessional behavior of instructors or divemasters. "I cannot tell you how many times an instructor is completely distracted (to say it nicely) by a pretty diver/student. In my OW course, there was a petite, pretty blonde and she got three times the attention than any other student. The instructor went as far as trying to get her to take her wetsuit off on the pool deck instead of in the locker room. It was bad. Needless to say, it was the last time I trained with that instructor."
At the recreational diving level, DEMA reports that 35 percent of open water divers are women and that 23 percent of continuing education students are women.
In leadership, PADI reports that there are currently more than 25,000 women who are members at the Divemaster level and above. The reality is that less than 20 percent of PADI professionals are women. At the Master Instructor level, only 13 per cent of PADI Master Instructors are women.
Diving Equipment for Women
The single greatest number of complaints I received from women was that the industry did not offer the correct, comfortable fit, or type of gear they desired. They felt like manufacturers saw them as an afterthought. (We used to call it the SAP Principal in the 1990s. Take a piece of men's equipment, make it "Small And Pink" and you have the SAP Principal in action.) Fortunately, the availability and selection of dive gear made expressly for women is on the rise. Dive shops that cater to women with gear made expressly for them will be rewarded with customer loyalty. Those that don't will simply not get their business.
At The Dive Site
Both men and women related stories of how women are pre-judged to be diving novices regardless of their certification or skill level. Recently, I was teaching a photo intern when his dive buddy came up to say hello. After the greeting, he turned to me and asked if I was diving or just hanging around. Before I could reply, he invited me to join him for an easy dive in Ginnie's Cavern -- where he would "take good care of me." I let it go. My student's face reflected acute embarrassment.
A male reader shared a similar story, which I've often seen played out in North Florida. He said, "I was gearing up with 15 other divers, among them a single female, and watched the person in charge bypass every single male diver and walk straight to the woman in the group to ask for her credentials and experience. Aside from coddling (enquiring whether she needed help to carry her scooter down to the water), he asked if she needed a buddy or any pointers on how to get around the flow."
Some women described how they felt unwelcome at particular dive sites and on certain charter boats. They felt there was an immediate assumption that they were less skilled than their male counterparts. As a result, they felt they were under greater surveillance in general, and were more likely to end up as the subject of somebody's Internet rant. Men often suggested these stories were not about gender, but rather, about capability. Men said that "nobody wants to buddy up with a lesser diver," who might limit their own experience in the water. Women countered, saying this argument was an excuse, and maintained they are equally capable of participation.
Another woman brushed off unwanted attention, "At first I was kind of taken aback by the number of times I got hit on, but then I realized diving isn't unlike any other co-ed sport. It's human nature. People are going to flirt with each other and think that they need to help 'the weaker sex.' As long as everything is kept respectful on all sides, there is nothing wrong with having a little clean fun now and then."
A Florida charter captain said he liked to include women staff on his boat. "As a captain, I always made better tips when I had a female divemaster (DM) on the boat. No exceptions. If everything went well, this DM got great tips. Some of the gratuities came from other women who would say things like, 'It's nice to see a competent woman guiding dives.' If the shit hit the fan for any number of reasons, we would still make great tips. Maybe the mostly male clientele thought, 'she's a woman and she's trying.' I'm not sure, but I can tell you that when the customer service was lacking with a male DM on the boat, the tips would suck, and the male customers wouldn't hesitate to call him out. Not so with female DMs. It seems there would be some sympathy for a female DM, even if she was doing a bad job."
A woman boat captain and professional diver in the Caribbean told me, "When I used to drive the boats in, people would clap their hands if I docked in one smooth maneuver, yet if a guy did this, it was considered average, routine."
A Northeast wreck diver intentionally sought out mixed-gender charter opportunities, saying, "On the dive boats in New Jersey, there are lots of women divers. I'm sure sexism is alive and well aboard these vessels, but for the most part, I've seen very capable women divers 'holding their own,' and male divers treating them with respect and as equals. I do notice a little less trash talk when there are ladies on-board."
Most women who described discriminatory dive operations said they would never return to that business.
For women trying to find a gender-neutral diving context, there are some strategies. Women frequently seek out advice on 'women-friendly' operations and boats. They search for guidance on selecting appropriate instructors and sometimes specifically seek out other women as mentors and teachers. Women choose to avoid certain operations, instructors, and notorious shops, rather than face discrimination or harassment. A self-described male 'senior diver' said, "Some women may get into diving because they are a wife, daughter or friend of a diver. There seems to be full and immediate acceptance of a girl or woman brought to a dive shop for training by the man in their life. However, I have observed on more than one occasion that when a professional independent woman visits a shop, she finds the shop staff 'cold' to the idea of taking her on as a student."
Most women who described discriminatory dive operations said they would never return to that business. They were unforgiving of this type of behavior.
Many women on Internet forums sought out social, collective experiences such as women's dive events and clubs. These activities are not just women only. They are organized around a completely different way of enjoying the sport. They tend to emphasize a supportive environment where a woman can expect equality and mentoring. Organizations such as the Women Divers Hall of Fame unite accomplished women in a way that bonds them on common causes by creating scholarship and internship opportunities for women divers.
Some women found these events and clubs to be uninteresting or needless. Their coping strategy involves blending in and de-emphasizing gender. These women tend to reject the necessity for organizations such as the Women Diver's Hall of Fame. They feel that their personal empowerment is achieved not by being a great 'woman diver' but by simply pushing themselves to be a 'great diver.' These same people downplay their gender, rejecting colorful equipment that may emphasize their gender. Despite a sometimes diminutive size, these women carry tanks that are just as large as those carried by their male dive buddies, who dwarf them. They wear black gear and attempt to blend into a group.
Still others pursue a strategy that's quite the opposite, wearing gear that highlights their femininity, such as pink or stylish equipment. They proudly display themselves as feminine, strong and capable women. A good example is a social group called Scuba Diver Girls. These active and experienced divers flat-out reject the notion that women are less capable and instead emphasize their experiences in diving. In doing so they help change the image of women in diving.
In the end, we need to be open-minded in our understanding of sexism. Men have ruled the planet for the past five million years. Feminism is not trying to rewrite history, but instead, chart a course for a more equitable future. The mainstream women's movement seeks to acknowledge the real differences between men and women while balancing power equitably. Women's rights activists ask us to use feminist nomenclature that supports that cause.
To this end, our community can embrace some simple social manners:
Try to view all your fellow divers without pre-judging their capabilities. Quite simply, avoid making assumptions. Don't conclude that women are tag-alongs. Err on the side of positivity. Assume all divers are capable, equal members of the dive team until personal observation tells you otherwise. Avoid offensive comments and sexual remarks about your fellow divers. Whether you have made an off-color remark in person or on social media, remember that we all live in an increasingly public world. Anything you say will likely come back to you at some time in life. Above all, don't be afraid to call out bad behavior.
Let's celebrate the individuals in our community for excellence. Let's enjoy travel and underwater experiences in a way that lifts all participants. If we wanted to be highly competitive, we would have picked another sport. This is a sport where an adventure shared can create a lifelong bond, regardless of age or gender. -- Jill Heinerth
Canadian Jill Heinerth is a pioneering underwater explorer and filmmaker, leading technical diver and world expert in rebreather technology. Abridged from an article first published in Diver Magazine (Canada).