Meet the Scuba Divers Encouraging More Women to Start Diving
Top female divers weigh in on why there aren't enough of them, #MeToo, and what they are doing to make their own waves.
Why aren't more women diving? According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA), 68 percent of all scuba diving participants and 74 percent of core participants (divers with eight years or more of experience) in 2016 were male. Those numbers mirror the stark disparity when it comes to professional divers too. In 2016, the diving certification trend tracked by gender was 63 percent male compared to 37 percent female according to the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI).
It's a recreational activity for some, a serious sport for others, and a vocation for most professional divers who also serve multiple roles as marine biologists, activists, and conservationists. We got deep with female divemasters who've spent a significant chunk of their lives underwater. They say two of the biggest challenges for women in the sport have to do with lack of visibility and an industry that's been slow to allow women to fit in, literally-there hasn't been gear made for them. The women describe having to not only dive through thousands of feet of water but past proverbial "boy's clubs" to get where they are today.
"When we look through books, magazines, or watch TV shows featuring the ocean, most times we see male hosts, male divers, and male scientists," says Jillian Morris a PADI instructor, biologist, and founder of Sharks4Kids. "From a young age, we're given a subconscious message this is not for us. When I first started diving I couldn't find gear that fit properly and was told I couldn't buy a certain buoyancy control device (BCD) because it was not for women."
"I've heard comments like 'diving and boats are a man's world' or 'diving is a man's sport,'" says Liz Parkinson, a deep sea diver who manages Stuart Cove's Dive Bahamas' Save the Sharks and serves as a spokesperson for various other conservation groups, in addition to jobs as a stuntwoman, underwater photographer, and model. Parkinson says she usually gets those comments in relation to the heavy equipment (ranging sometimes 80 pounds or more) that is cumbersome and often needs to be lugged to exotic locations.
In an organic response to discrepancies like gear that's a bad fit for women (check out "Dear wetsuits manufacturers, why don't you make female wetsuits in larger sizes?"), and so much more, divemaster Sarah Richard launched Girls That Scuba. Her online vehicle brings together the largest female scuba diving community on the planet.
"There are around 16,000 scuba diving women in the community, and it's growing at a phenomenal rate," says Richard. "But part of the reason I set up Girls That Scuba was to discuss challenges and obstacles on being a female in a male-dominated industry," she says. Some of these unique challenges? Not being able to find equipment fitted for a woman's body, finding other females to dive with, and not being respected by male divers, she says.
And in the era of the #MeToo movement, Richard also set up her own forum on the site, in order to help other women who may be having a negative experience in the industry, she says. "I think doing a scuba #MeToo was imperative within an all-female group. It allows members to stand up for themselves and know they have support. Sexual harassment happens everywhere."
Richard herself talks about her experience as the only female member on a liveaboard full of men-one of the main struggles she says she's had to overcome as a scuba diver. "I was the only female member of dive staff, with the men all being at least 20 years senior to me. I was not accepted as a female Divemaster and told I was only hired so the guests could see me in a bikini. It shook my confidence as a female in the industry," says Richard.
Margo Peyton, creator of Family Dive Adventures describes a similar experience. "In my 20s and 30s, I was constantly hit on and put up with inappropriate comments from men. It was different then. You almost had to just suck it up and prove yourself. If you got invited on something cool it was only because of your looks," she says. "I can't tell you how many times men would talk to each other about me as I was standing there-it was as if they didn't think I could talk and I was a life-size doll."
"When I was 20, someone told me I was better suited to be a stripper than a technical diver," says Gemma Smith a PADI ambassador who trains other masterdivers. "I wanted to give up diving and do something, anything else. Now I laugh about it. I'm so much stronger mentally than I ever thought possible. It scares me though the number of women without the support network that I had who get a comment like that and decide to leave the sport."
Nevertheless, they are persisting, even under water. They often point to the legacy of female divers who came before them like Lotte Hass and now 82-year-old oceanographer Sylvia Earle who once famously said, "Women are needed to help solve the ocean's biggest problem: ignorance." The underwater divers I spoke to also say all of their experiences made them work harder to be successful in the sport. And still, some divers say they haven't experienced this gender bias and in most cases, feel supported by both men and women.
Divers Emily Callahan and Amber Jackson who met earning their Masters degrees in marine biodiversity and conservation at Scripps Institution of Oceanography say they've been fortunate not to have encountered any major struggles when it comes to discrimination. Together they formed Blue Latitudes to research and develop international protocol for Rigs-to-Reefs. "Participating in a male-dominated activity often means that far more often than not, we are the only women in the room. Whether on a research cruise, presenting at a conference, or even just diving recreationally, and this can be intimidating. But it's also empowering when people take notice," says Jackson.
One of the biggest things female divers say can make a difference is bolstering visibility of women in the sport. Richard is working hard to do that through Girls That Scuba.
"Our mission is to encourage, educate and introduce more and more women to scuba diving while empowering the ones among us who are already addicted. Within a year, GTS has become the largest community of female scuba divers in the world. With a combined total of nearly 55,000 followers/users across our social media, we believe this number can just keep on growing as women feel more empowered and encouraged to start scuba diving," she says.
Peyton says having more women in instructional and diving business roles also makes a big difference. "Because I am a woman dive shop owner, I hire women and reach out intentionally to target women," she says. "I make a point to have a dive day dedicated to celebrating women in diving (so does PADI). This year we ran our first Instructor Development Course in Bonaire. We had nine candidates and only one was a guy. In fact, 68 percent of the new divers getting certified are female."
Divers are also working closely with organizations like PADI to boost numbers of certified female instructors. Organizations like the Women Divers Hall of Fame offers scholarships and training grants to help attract more women to the sport and nautical careers.
"I have had wonderful experiences in underwater archaeology, photography, and oceanography. I have dived with oceanic white tips and helped recover human remains from a sunken WWII bomber. When I started out in diving I was inspired by a couple of outstanding female divers," says UK-based PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer Gemma Smith. "I looked at them and they gave me the confidence to believe in myself, and what I wanted to achieve with my life. My dream is for one day young divers to look at me and think the same thing."
Ladies, you already have us dreaming. Now its time to gear up.