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Changing Attitudes – Women in Occupational Diving

Also see Women Diver Profiles

It’s difficult to know just how many female occupational divers are out there. In the largely male-dominated occupational diving industry, women are still a noticeable minority and entry into the industry can still be difficult for women (particularly the oilfield, salvage, or construction diving fields). It appears, though, that as attitudes evolve, the number of female occupational divers is growing.

As attitudes in the industry move away from “macho” exclusivity towards equal opportunity, more women are taking up diving careers. From science diving to working in the offshore oil fields, women are meeting their male counterparts in this often highly demanding, and at times risky, field of work.

It’s interesting to note that until recently, the oldest still active ADAS occupational diver (82 years old) was a female scientific diver! (Click here to read the profile of Dr Jeanette Watson, Scientific Diver).

Myths and Misconceptions

While women have various physical and physiological differences to men, none of them (with the exception of pregnancy) pose any barriers to a woman’s ability to dive. According to diving physician Lt Col R Kelly Hill, MD:

“The only difference between men and women divers is that during pregnancy women should not dive – everything else is trivia and misinformation.”

In the past, differences such as smaller stature or lower upper body strength were considered handicaps for women in occupational diving. Now, the prevailing attitude is that smaller women can adapt the way they perform certain tasks to suit their body type – working smarter rather than harder is a relevant maxim for women in this field, particularly when working in construction diving or other work involving lifting or leverage.
Commercial diver Bunny Key has said, “It takes brains, not bulging biceps to move a 180 kilogram/400 pound flange underwater.” More than physical strength or anything related to gender, dive safety and performance depend on general fitness, proper training, well-fitting equipment and responsible dive practices.

Extract from Women in Diving: Past, Present and Future, 2002 by Hillary Viders, Ph.D:

“The most recent medical studies have also denounced the theory that women are more susceptible to decompression illness (DCI) than male divers. After several decades of animal and human research and anecdotal reports, researchers now believe that DCI is the result of a complex set of physiological and environmental factors—and gender is not one of those factors. Nor are oral contraceptives, although the effects of estrogen in birth control devices and hormone replacement therapies are being studied further. (In the 1970s, it was believed that estrogen caused clotting that would lead to DCI. This theory was later overturned and the only applicable advisory for women divers who take estrogen now is if they are over 35, smoke and have a family history of coronary disease.)…”

Assuming fitness and overall good health, the only restriction for women divers is diving during pregnancy. This is because the foetus is not protected from decompression problems and is at risk of malformation and gas embolism after decompression disease. 

Sexism and Sexual Discrimination

Even though attitudes are generally changing for the better, there are still varying degrees of sexism in the industry. Sexism or sexual discrimination may be present in subtle or unspoken forms such as unfair job dismissal or repeated employment refusal despite having equal qualifications and experience as other male applicants. It may be entrenched in the policies and procedures of a company such as not allowing women in a chamber or diving bell with men, or be expressed overtly through sexist language or comments. Sexual discrimination should not be tolerated even in the most male-dominated industries. Legislation against sexual discrimination applies to all work environments including the dive site!

Careers

Women can and do build successful careers in commercial diving. Occupational diving is all about a way for a skilled worker to do their job underwater and as such, those wanting to enter occupational diving need to consider developing their whole skill set, not just their diving skills.

For example, those with trade experience such as welding and electrics will be much better placed for finding construction diving work once they have their occupational diving qualification. The more skills you have – particularly of the practical, hands-on type – the more immediate value you will have for an employer.

Generally there are higher concentrations of women in fields such as science diving, media diving, archaeological diving and military diving. However, if women have the relevant qualifications, love diving and are good at what they do, there is no reason why they cannot have a satisfying and rewarding career in all types of occupational diving.

Statistics

The table below shows the number of women who are currently certified with ADAS.

Table: Percentage and number of active female ADAS occupational divers and dive supervisors (figures current at June 2017).

ADAS QualificationPercentage and number of divers and supervisors
Total numbers:4.94% (n=581)
Aquarium Diver: SCUBA to 20m (Aquarium)23.08% (n=9)
Aquaculture Diver: SSBA to 30m (Aquaculture)2.44% (n=3)
Part 1 Restricted Diver: Occupational SCUBA to 30m (Restricted)36.99% (n=118)
Part 1 Diver: Occupational SCUBA to 30m11.72% (n=303)
Part 2 Restricted Diver: SSBA to 30m (Restricted)6.30% (n=23)
Part 2 Diver: SSBA to 30m2.13% (n=50)
Part 3 Restricted Diver: SSBA to 50m (Restricted)1.08% (n=1)
Part 3 Diver: SSBA to 50m0.73% (n=21)
Part 3 + SSMG Diver: SSBA to 50m + Mixed Gas0% (n=0)
Part 4 Diver: Closed Bell0% (n=0)
Aquarium Supervisor0% (n=0)
Aquaculture Supervisor6.00% (n=3)
Part 1 Supervisor: SCUBA to 30m3.76% (n=23)
Part 2 Supervisor: SSBA to 30m1.64% (n=10)
Part 3 Supervisor: SSBA to 50m0.35% (n=1)
Trainee Offshore Air Diving Supervisor0% (n=0)
Offshore Air Diving Supervisor0% (n=0)
Offshore Bell Diving Supervisor0% (n=0)
Diver Medical Technician - Offshore0.64% (n=1)
Diver Medical Technician - Onshore3.33% (n=1)
Chamber Operator5.26% (n=3)
Advanced Chamber Operator0% (n=0)
Assistant Life Support Technician0% (n=0)
Life Support Technician0% (n=0)
Atmospheric Diving System Pilot0% (n=0)
Offshore Remotely Operated Vehicle Pilot / Technician0% (n=0)
Remotely Operated Vehicle Pilot Offshore7.14% (n=1)
Remotely Operated Vehicle Pilot Onshore0% (n=0)
Hyperbaric Worker - Tunnelling4.59% (n=5)
Lock Operator - Tunnelling12.50% (n=5)

Profiles

Click here to read profiles of the exciting careers of contemporary women divers!

Celebrating Women Divers

The Women Divers Hall of Fame (WDHOF) proudly acknowledges the achievements and contributions of outstanding women divers (a big step forward considering the term “woman diver” was non-existent as recently as the 1960’s!). Visit this site and others listed below to celebrate the involvement of women in occupational diving:

Women Divers Hall of Fame

Eugenie Clarke

Sylvia Earle

Michelle Hall

Valerie Taylor

Military Women

Online Videos of Female Occupational Divers at Work

Female Commercial Divers at CDA Technical Institute

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