“Barely fifty-years old yet recreational diving is – in cultural terms – only slowly emerging from the Dark Ages of sexual inequality.” Says Professor Greta Wrassebender, author of the internationally acclaimed, “The Ultimate Aphrodisiac: A study of sexuality and cold, wet neoprene.”
And yet, when it comes to diving, sexual equality has never been an issue. Women win, hands down. Proven to have greater mental and physical endurance than men, women can withstand lower temperatures; are less likely to take unnecessary risks; have a greater tendency to support team efforts, and are generally more considerate of their buddy’s needs.
Despite these genetic advantages the fact remains that diving, as a co-operative rather than a competitive activity, is still falling short in its efforts to attract more women.
Although the annual growth rate in the numbers of women learning to dive is steadily increasing, (variously reported as now being between 30 – 40% of the total numbers of entry-level students), the retention rates are still low. Few women (less than 10%) even bothering to try and break through the ‘bubble-barrier’ (diving’s equivalent of the ‘glass ceiling’.) to become Instructors or Instructor Trainers.
According to Professor Wrassebender, the problem is one of attitude. Based on a cherished belief buried deep in the male psyche that diving is a test of courage and proof of manhood, some insecure souls regard women who dive as a challenge to their masculinity.
“In the natural world the male of the species often exhibits gaudier markings or plumage than does the female.” She says. “The more flamboyant the external appearance the greater the chances of attracting a suitable mate and ensuring survival of the species. For some men the dubious status associated with being a diving instructor is the diving equivalent of a peacock’s tail feathers; imagined proof that they are sexually irresistible.
“This situation is often exacerbated by those women who, when learning to dive, unconsciously adopt a stereotyped role.” Maintains Professor Wrassebender. “Conditioned by centuries of social pressure many women, apprehensive when confronted by a new learning experience, as with diving, fall back on role-playing, regarding themselves as the nurturer/follower and the male as the hunter/leader. Positions that encourage sexual discrimination that, in its most extreme form, may manifest itself as sexual harassment.”
Studies among female divers of different levels of training and experience revealed that sexual harassment, although relatively uncommon, was most likely to occur at the entry level phase of diver training when the student diver was, through lack of knowledge, at her most vulnerable. The incidents ranging from unnecessary physical contact by an Instructor or divemaster, through to indecent proposals.
In a few instances the harassment was alleged to be perceived rather than real. Instructors subsequently claiming that the ‘physical contact’ was nothing more than holding a student’s hand in an attempt to re-assure them during the early, open water phase of training, or a fumbled attempt to check the fit of a wet suit by means of the pinch and squeeze test, and that comments intended to be flirtatious (“‘Ello, Darlin’. How about it, then?”), had been, “mis-interpreted.”
Perhaps because of their strength of character – not to mention their acquired ability to deliver a stinging witticism with the devastating force of a knee in the groin – many female Instructors disagree with Wrassebender’s view, tending to place discrimination above sexual extortion as being the biggest hurdle that women in diving still face.
In any event it’s apparent that if diving is to live up to its claim to be an activity that can be enjoyed by everyone, regardless of gender, then some drastic action is required.
Leaving to one side compulsory sensitivity training, in which hairy, belching, beer-bellied, females with bad attitudes explain the finer points of instructional etiquette to all would-be dive leaders, there’s a more realistic alternative.
Appreciating that the ability to dive is a gift made more precious when we respect the rights and feelings of others let’s encourage the ‘hands-off’ approach to teaching … and put sex back in the kitchen where it properly belongs.
The above article first appeared in Asian Diver Magazine in August 1997