INSIGHT INTO WOMEN IN PROFESSIONAL SCUBA DIVING TODAY
It is a widely accepted fact that scuba diving is an industry that has been dominated by men for most of its existence in 1943.
As any woman in diving, especially professional diving, will tell you – they are used to working with, diving with and over all encountering men when in the scuba diving community. As the years pass, women in the diving industry are beginning to encounter more of their own – as customers, coworkers, teachers and mentors.
In honor of PADI’s 8th Annual Women’s Dive Day, we have decided to dig into what it is like being a woman in the scuba diving industry today! To do that, we’ve spoken with a group of female professional scuba divers working in the industry on Oahu. These women have each been scuba diving recreationally for more than 7 years and they vary in years of experience as professionals. All women interviewed have experience working boat charters, teaching courses and operating a dive shop.
To begin, we asked about what awareness or impression these female instructors had of women in the scuba diving industry prior to joining it professionally. We asked this question because viewing a male-dominated profession through the lens of a prospective female scuba professional will give us a foundation to begin with. One instructor remarks, “I thought women in the diving industry were really cool, badasses who were breaking stereotypes of women by having traditionally male jobs”. And ‘breaking stereotypes’, they were…
That ‘stereotype’ or impression seems to be waning. As the number of women in the professional field increases, it isn’t going unnoticed. One instructor with over 10 years of experience as a scuba professional notes, “There are definitely a lot more females in the field now. Currently, it is more like 50%. Up from the 2% of female instructors that I knew before. The numbers are definitely growing”. Another instructor with 6 years of experience states, “It has definitely improved. I see a lot of women instructors underwater. I see them on social media platforms. I feel like I see a lot more women – even in the last couple of years”. With a smile on her face, a female instructor states, “I feel very lucky to work in a dive shop that has so many women. There are a lot of strong women in this dive shop that are all working together and helping each other out. It is very female-forward”. These are positive comments from professionals in an industry that boasted roughly 29% of women in the industry consistently for most of the 2000s.
That is not to say that we have reached a 50/50 equilibrium. It is estimated that in 2022 the current percentage of female professional scuba divers is closer to 39-40%. Regardless, once that ‘perfect’ equilibrium is met, there is still room for improvement in the industry as a whole. For instance a female instructor commented, “People assume that I am less capable than male staff/instructors/employees automatically based solely off of my gender.”
Let’s start at the beginning. As we all know, the beginning of professional scuba diving is training. DM or Instructor training as a woman is a significantly different experience than their male counterparts. Each instructor interviewed had a similar tale to tell of their training:
“All of my instructors and course directors were male.”
“I think I was treated differently as the only woman in my instructor course.”
“Sometimes I wasn’t held to the same standard as everyone else.”
Throughout training, they were under-represented and overtly judged. That carried on into their working life (circa 2010-2016):
“Right off the bat – when customers see that there is a female crew; whether it be instructor, captain, DM, manager – I felt a little judgment. You have to prove your worth. At the end of the charter or courses, I feel comfortable in it. Customers are positively responsive to me by the end of our interaction. They leave commenting how cool all my accomplishments are. My dad has been my biggest support and cheerleader from the very beginning. I am grateful for him for enabling me to start my diving journey at a young age and not to let my gender inhibit my dreams”.
“I feel less self-conscious now than I used to. When I first started teaching I felt self-conscious because I am in charge of typically all men. They have to listen and accept that I am in charge. And not question everything I have to say. And actually pay attention when I speak about safety and do the things I say… if I am leading a dive boat of only men, I am more authoritative off the bat because of this”.
Not the start you would hope for as an instructor starting their day on a charter or dive course..
In 2022, as a society, we discuss representation and how much it matters. As discussed previously, the women interviewed were under-represented during training and it affected them. As a woman in the scuba industry – working, teaching in the industry today, the women interviewed have noticed a shift. The most senior instructor interviewed, “Today – yes, I feel represented in the scuba industry. I have been in the industry for a long time. Being in this field as an employee of men – I think they are finally coming around to accepting that women are not only capable but they rock at water activities; not only training, captaining, retail, management but also setting records and trailblazing the future water-women. I am proud to be a female in this industry”. That sentiment is echoed, “More so now. Yeah”.
There is; however, a feeling of under-representation that lingers for professional women in the scuba diving industry, specifically when it comes to gear. Every diver interviewed listed previous trouble in finding women’s sized fins specifically but also mentioned BCDs, booties, wetsuits. One instructor mentioned, “When I first started there were fins they didn’t even make in women’s sizes. A lot of gear was not made in women’s sizes. A friend of mine had to get Japanese dive gear to get something that fit them”.
In truth, women’s gear options and availability has come a long way in a short time. But, some vendors today still don’t cater to women enough – especially when it comes to ‘specialty’ items. Another instructor lists current issues with finding a female customer a semi-dry suit; “We cannot seem to find a good semi-drysuit for a customer who wants a front zip. Everything is in men’s sizes so it is hard to find something to fit a woman’s chest.” There are still biases present from the origin of brands selling to women. The out-dated notion of ‘just make it pink’ and put it on the shop floor. As more and more women join the sport and profession, the demand for gear made FOR women increases.
One thing that draws divers (men and women) to the sport/industry is the community. Being a scuba diver, you automatically are a part of an ohana. A group of people with common interests, a common hobby that unites. Because scuba diving opens up a whole new world that historically very few women have been a part of, being a female scuba diver, you automatically become a part of the community of women divers. “I think a lot of women are always looking out for one another and supporting one another”. One instructor elaborates that there is, “Comradery with the other women. A lot of us all share the same values and interests.”
Scuba diving is a hobby that unites, “Women that aren’t afraid to get in the water, have fun, get dirty and messy”. As dive buddies or even just two divers on the same boat or at the same shore dive, “I think a lot of women are always looking out for one another and supporting one another”. And even beyond that, women in professional scuba diving are a part of an even more intimate community. “Women in (professional) diving tend to be very strong characters – more specifically ‘tough’, resilient, nature focused and care a lot for the environment. I have found that there is a lot less competition between women and it is more about girls supporting girls”. One female instructor discusses the difference between working with her coworkers, “Through working with women, as coworkers, they always want to include everyone. And there is never any alpha stuff or assumption of ‘being in charge’. We work well together and almost immediately after diving/working together we thank one another and talk about how wonderful it was to work together. I’ve almost never had that experience working with a man.”
The sentiment of support continues from recreational diving into professional diving, “Women’s instructors and divemasters are very encouraging and supportive of one another. I don’t feel any cattiness. Encouragement and support and working well together”. It is regularly agreed upon, that women divers are proud to be a part of this community.
Now let’s talk about the problems that still face women in the diving industry today. Rattled off like a list:
“I can’t do anything without being hit on everywhere I go. Someone always makes a weird comment.”
It isn’t so surprising. But the reality is, these are professionally trained instructors working at their job. Women in the industry still have to put up with unprofessionalism today. Beyond the obvious issues with the cat calling and ogling; one instructor describes that, “Being self conscious of being looked at in that way. It can throw off the fun vibe.” Women in general are used to it…
Another thing women are used to – being underestimated. One instructor flatly states, “People (typically men) assume that I am less capable than male staff/instructors/employees. Another instructor explains that the reality of being a female instructor is, “…Not being taken as seriously as a man would be. Based off of seeing men lead dives and watching how customers respond to them versus women leading dives and how customers respond to them”
Looking into the future of diving, professional and recreationally, the women interviewed share a common thread. When discussing the growth in the percentage of women in the industry, “I hope it continues on the path that it has been going. I think it is important that there are equal opportunities in the dive industry. I am hoping that Wahine spearfishing and freediving follows close behind. Ideally women’s presence will continue growing across the industry overall and all water-women will continue to gain respect”. Another instructor comments, “It would be great if there were an even number of women and men. It would be nice if gender had nothing to do with being an instructor.” Another instructor would like to, “Make women in the industry more normal. Women in diving should be just as expected as anything else.” When talking about under-representation in gear, one instructor hopes that, “Gear is not pink and teal. There are women’s sizes in freediving. In BCDs”. One instructor hopes that it goes beyond gear and the perception of women in the industry changes, “I think that instead of being viewed as ‘girly mermaids’ – people viewed us as professional divers. Professional leaders.”
Suffice it to say, scuba diving as an industry is progressing rapidly! But, like everything else, there is still room for improvement from vendors, students/divers, employers AND women. That’s right! Women. The catalyst for further change. More women joining the sport and more women joining the professional industry! Take a note from one of the female dive instructors interviewed who said that, ‘If anything it(the lack of female representation in scuba diving) pushed me to get my scuba instructor and captain’s license even more.’
All photos on this page are from Aaron’s Dive Shop 2021 Women’s Dive Day event at Sharks Cove, Oahu.