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Women in Scuba: The Business of Attracting Female Divers

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by Selene Muldowney

Trying something new can be intimidating, much more so for women entering a traditionally male dominant sport: scuba diving. Though talented and ambitious women still face challenges their male counterparts do not face in sports, they now have greater access to new opportunities than in previous generations, in part, due to the trailblazers before them.

Higher education is no longer the formality women are required to undertake before getting married, having children, and possibly entering narrow career fields such as secretarial, retail, nursing, or teaching. In fact, many women are breaking stereotypical gender roles by entering careers, which include mathematics, science, medicine, racing, photography, exploration, and so much more. However, despite the cultural shift in defining women’s roles in society and the workplace, the glass ceiling still exists. This barrier in the dive industry is more often a result of an unenlightened shop owner or instructor or an organization’s flawed understanding of the power and impact women have in the industry.

There are few industries in which women have made less headway than in sports arenas, including the dive industry. For a number of years, the gender ratio of 65 percent male to 35 percent female remained a constant; however, there has been a notable shift in the past five years with women making up almost 40 percent of the ratio. While this marks a significant paradigm change, the pool of potential women divers is immense. Studies from organizations like PADI and DEMA show us most of the people who enter the sport are 27 to 30 years old, highly educated or trained, and male. 

There are many theories as to why women are slow to begin scuba diving although there is evidence, which points to the lack-luster interest. Recently, another journalist and scuba diver, Jill Heinerth, covered this subject in-depth and was met with both praise and mixed skepticism from both men and women. The article concentrated on all the hindrances women have in the industry, and acknowledged the forward strides undertaken by our female predecessors like Zale Perry and Dr. Eugenie Clark, as well as younger women who recently accomplished feats normally held by their male counterparts. 

Scuba diving offers women and men the opportunity to experience a unique world of wildlife, stunning imagery, schools of fish, apex predators, mysterious caves, and volcanic vents. Once thought to be the sport for former military, jocks, or adrenaline junkies, scuba is available for almost anyone healthy enough to dive. The industry is a community based – which leads to more pervasive boys-club behaviors noted by early woman pioneers – although women have, with the help of organizations like PADI and the Women Divers Hall of Fame (WDHOF), created a more inclusive culture. While men still dominate the sport, and are more often recognized for their accomplishments, there are exceptions to the rule. The fact that sports in general, and the scuba industry is still so male–dominated makes highlighting the influential women in the industry worthwhile. They serve as role models for future generations: building opportunities for these future divers to stand on their shoulders – breaking the glass ceiling. 

In 1999, Beneath the Sea show founder Armand Zigahn had the idea to introduce the millennium by honoring women in diving. He joined forces with five women, Hillary Viders, Ph.D., Capt. Kathy Weydig, Patty Mortara, Jennifer King, and Carol Rose, each of whom had great accomplishments in diving, and founded the Women Divers Hall of Fame. As WDHOF evolved, it started providing scholarships and training grants to reach the younger generation, and proudly awarded more than $70,000 to 43 men and women in 2017 alone! 

Joan Forsberg, Chairman of the WDHOF Board, understands the value of the organization and the meritorious efforts to promote women in the sport. Forsberg began her scuba diving career well over 30 years ago when the sport was predominantly male. She met her husband, Cris Kohl, and discovered her passion for wreck diving. 

“I started as a tropical diver then discovered wreck diving with Cris [Kohl],” she says, “and I thought my hair caught on fire!”

Forsberg faced many of the challenges women face today, however, she credits women like Joyce Hayward, a diving pioneer with notable contributions for deep wreck diving, for blazing the trail for her and teaching her how to dive with her male counterparts.

“Every one of our 229 Members, hailing from 30 U.S. states and 19 countries, is an ambassador for women in diving. Through the Scholarship program, the Mentoring Committee, and the Global Outreach Committee, WDHOF is determined to help and support the up-and-coming divers, especially women divers, in their journeys to success. We take this responsibility very seriously.”

Forsberg was inducted in the WDHOF in 2010 and through her hard work and strong belief in promoting the organization’s mission, she was promoted to her current position:

“I am determined to motivate women to be the best they can be and become a role model for the next generation, like others were to me. The men and women who see what we are doing and young people who apply for the scholarships, realize the potential for how they can influence the industry positively. The young men and women especially watch and emulate the role model’s behaviors.” 

The WDHOF is unique in the scuba diving industry: there is no other equivalent to it, although other organizations have taken strides to become more inclusive by establishing women-only days and other promotional opportunities to encourage women in diving. In my opinion, WDHOF truly holds the title for the work they do.

Women don’t need to be tough – just determined and strong.

For more information on the WDHOF, visit www.wdhof.org