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May 2018    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Vol. 33, No. 5   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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“MeToo” in the Dive Industry

it’s still more like being the “Second Sex” for many women divers

from the May, 2018 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Yuyao Wang (Chicago, IL) was getting ready for BBQ night aboard the Galapagos Aggressor III last September. When she stepped out of the bathroom after a shower to get dressed, she realized there was a pair of "creepy eyes peeping right into my room, through the blinds that were not closed properly." Wang panicked and froze, but she could clearly tell it was someone wearing a greyish hoodie. She stepped back into the bathroom to get dressed, then quickly opened the door of her cabin, just to see the gray-hooded figure fleeing towards the captain's room.

Wang gathered her nerve and went upstairs for the BBQ. "All the divers and crew were there, but there was only one person wearing the exact gray hoodie I saw on the peeper -- the captain, Rufino Chele," Wang says. "He acted as if nothing happened. I was astounded and scared because I thought no crew would stand behind me if I accused the captain. So I chose to stay silent and didn't tell any of the divers."

Wang, a 22-year-old Economics PhD candidate at the University of Chicago, contacted the Aggressor Fleet after her trip. CEO Wayne Hasson told her they would investigate, and a month later, he told Wang that Captain Chele had admitted to peeping but that, according to Ecuadorian law, the captain can't be fired or demoted, and can't be charged in court unless she showed up in Ecuador to make a case.

Wang asked for more concrete solutions from Aggressor, but not one replied. She then posted her experience online on ScubaBoard and Aggressor's Facebook page (that's how she found out a woman on her dive trip was also harassed by Chele), but Aggressor deleted the post. When friends of hers who planned to take the Galapagos Aggressor contacted the company about diver security, a staff member defended his company's actions and questioned Wang's motive, saying, "It is possible that as a young girl, she might want to get more attention by exaggerating the story."

So much for the values Aggressor Fleet holds toward its passengers, Wang says. "I was astounded by the vulnerability of female diver security, and the inability of this seemingly prestigious company to resolve a sexual harassment case."

Wang's tale is not an isolated one. Through the decades, women divers have experienced everything from "what are you doing here" looks as they approach the dive boat, to condescending comments when buying or renting gear, to sexually charged actions that go from mildly flirtatious to cross-the-line harassment. (In Undercurrent's book, There's A Cockroach In My Regulator, three instances are reported in which female novice divers were groped underwater by their instructors, with no way to bail out.)

So, we asked our readers for their MeToo stories, and a few had some "back in the day" tales that were more the norm than they should have been. Ann Keller (Irving, TX) remembers she was the only woman in the class when she took her NAUI open-water course 40 years ago. "It was apparent they didn't think girls should be divers. There were provocative 'girlie' posters in the classroom area. It was definitely considered a manly sport back then. Toward the end of the training, I was in the pool with foil inside my mask to block my vision. The instructor turned off my air and pinched my nipple to 'see how I reacted.' I was shocked, but I was in no position to complain -- I wanted my C-card."

Are those stories still happening in the dive industry, especially when the "Me Too" movement has caught fire in the U.S.? It might not have caught on in other, more remote parts of the world.

We also wondered whether sexual harassment training is part of the dive-training curriculum these days and whether issues are addressed differently, or more in depth. After all, a great number of dive instructors are men between ages 18 and 30, who become instructors and guides at destinations off the beaten path. So we contacted all the dive training agencies, as well as resorts and liveaboards in far-flung places, to see how they handle these matters. We only got a few responses, which seems to suggest that the dive industry in general still doesn't want to talk about this issue.

"He seemed to give me a hard time because I was a woman."

Most of the responses we got from women were less about sexual harassment and more about being bullied and belittled. Charlene Barker, a trimix diver who has owned a dive shop in Calgary, Alberta, for 24 years, was en route to a dive trip at Vancouver Island last year, and stopped at a dive shop to get her twin 130-cu-ft tanks filled up. "The employee there was confused why I need such big tanks. There was no question of what kind of diving I was planning on doing, but I went through 30 minutes of questions. According to the staff, I was diving with the wrong equipment. My dive buddies, all men, have stopped many times at this location to get their tanks filled, and they have never been asked a single question about why they were diving with tanks too big for them."

Kathy O'Connor (Virginia Beach, CA) was with her husband in Aruba, setting up her dive gear on the boat, when the dive guide asked her how many dives she had done. "I told him 400-plus. He said that was impossible, and made me disassemble and reassemble my dive gear. Then he told me he would be watching me very carefully on the dive because he didn't believe me. I am a petite, older, woman, and admit I don't look very outdoorsy, but he seemed to be giving me a hard time because I was a woman and claimed to know what I was doing."

Maybe Sherri Kimes (Palm Springs, CA) had the same dive guide? Hers in Aruba was the most annoying she's ever had. "I think all of the other divers were men. We had a giant stride entry from the back of the boat. I had all of my gear in order (I've done over 1000 dives), but he kept rearranging my gear and implying I didn't know what I was doing. I think I finally told him to butt out and just jumped in. None of the other divers, including my husband, experienced this. Guess I wasn't capable of arranging my gear because I was female? But overall, my experiences, primarily the Caribbean and Southeast Asia were fine."

Other readers also wrote to say their dive trips went without any hitches. But last year, one California reader who wants to stay anonymous had the worst experience we've heard of. "During a party night on a Galapagos liveaboard trip, one crew member put his fingers up my vagina and, using his hand, simulated sex," she wrote, "It was a shocking assault, and I am still upset about it. I'm in my fifties and a professional writer, neither a porn actress nor someone with 'victim' written on her forehead."

"I've even tried to get PADI on board to help sort out the inherent problem."

So how do training agencies deal with these matters when they train instructors? Obviously, it should be part of the curriculum, and perhaps even part of a broader diversity training session. It's especially important because most students are a bunch of hormone-directed guys, 18 - much-older, who will have more than a few bikini-clad women in their classes, on their dive boats, and as co-workers.

We received a couple of comments from readers who trained and work as divemasters in the United Kingdom, where, they say, the sensitivities and comments toward women aren't that much different.

While doing divemaster training in 2000, Debi Moir's (North Chesterfield, VA) instructor wore shorts and no underwear. "The legs were loose, and he sat on a desk in front of me, one leg up and one leg down," she says. I finished the program despite him. It made me very uncomfortable and thinking back now, I should have said something."

Lisa Thomas, managing director at the New Dawn Dive Centre in Woking, Surrey, England, says sex discrimination in the dive industry is still rife there, and a lot of the bad behavior comes from her students. "I was about to get on a dive boat and was told, 'There is no room on here for you, love.' Luckily, the other instructor told the student who made this comment that they had better let their instructor on board or they wouldn't get taught.

"I am permanently on a mission to stamp out sexism and have so many examples; personal ones and directed towards customers," Thomas says. "I have even tried to get PADI on board to help sort out the inherent problem."

We asked both PADI and NAUI how they handle these problems, but neither responded, perhaps a reflection that they don't.

However, Stephanie Miele, chief operating officer of SDI/TDI/ERDI was ready to talk, as she recently wrote an article on this topic for her agency's website (check out her piece "Being Young and Female in an Old Man's Industry" at https://www.tdisdi.com/sexism-and-ageism

When it comes to treating women divers badly, I think it happens less than it did 20 years ago," she tells us. "I don't hear as many stories about it. I think people are finally waking up."

Still, she says, dive-training agencies are unable to be hands-on supervisors. "We don't train directly; we oversee the training standards, so we don't have the face- to-face interaction or hands-on touch. However if we get a sexual harassment complaint filed, and if action needs to be taken, we take it swiftly."

It's up to the employers to handle bad staff, says Alex Bryant, part-owner of Emperor Fleet liveaboards, which cruise around the Red Sea, the Maldives and Indonesia. "In general, this has always been an issue in places like these. Unfortunately, most top dive destinations are in the developing world where education is still limited, and cultures are very male dominated. The type of people who work in the diving industry as a majority are also people who have tried to escape the 'real world' and therefore don't take the job very seriously and are there for a bit of fun. This attitude applies even more so outside the water, where they want and expect to have fun. It's, therefore, the responsibility of employers to train and set a certain expectation of our staff, but also quickly remove anyone who shows the wrong attitude towards safety and respect towards clients. In the end, I feel this is what it boils down to -- respect for all people irrelevant of race, age, religion or gender."

"There is nothing here that implies sexual harassment."

With a lot of focus on MeToo in the U.S. and little attention paid to it in other parts, there will continue to be clashes about how women are seen and treated in the dive industry. A perfect example of this clash is a photo posted on the Facebook page of Nad-Lembeh Resort in Indonesia's Lembeh Strait.

In it, Nando, an employee who is also the in-house artist, is showing off his new artwork on the resort's special-edition T-shirts. The shirts are worn by two women, standing on either side of Nando, with their backs toward the camera. Nando is facing front with his hands extended down to look like they're cupping both women's backsides, and wearing a big smile. Immediately, comments were posted that the photo was sexist and offensive. The resort's owner, Simon, replied to one woman with a comment like, "If you don't like it, then don't come here."

The resort later erased all the comments and pinned this one instead. "So far on this post, we have been told how men are stupid, that a woman has no self-respect if she takes part in a joke such as this, that God will somehow take vengeance for this post, and to top it off that it's sexual harassment. We've also been told that we should have taken it down. We will not censor the post as there is nothing in here that implies sexual harassment. . . . [Nando's] hand is not grabbing anything, in fact, it's not even touching. This is just a setup photo with a bit of fun with his two lady bosses. You're welcome to disagree, but insulting people is not required."

Perhaps it comes down to cultural views. When we asked sources overseas what they thought of the photo, most said they saw the funny side of it, or wouldn't even look twice at it. One of those is Miranda Coverdale, owner of Dive Into Lembeh on North Sulawesi, not too far from Nad-Lembeh. "Nad is one of the few dive operations that genuinely care for its staff and the environment, and they have a sense of humor, too. There was no harm done here, ... and this is coming from a woman who has worked for many years in Egypt, Sudan and Asia.

But Miele at SDI/TDI would certainly not let her company post that photo. "I don't see the point of it, it's not selling anything, and I find it offensive."

"Doing a scuba #MeToo was imperative."

So in a time when there's so much cultural and political change happening, and points of views about these changes are still taking a long time to shift, how should the dive industry interact with women?

Treat them like the queens they are, say Miele. After all, they control the family purse strings. "I quoted research in my article that women are the ones making the financial decisions as head of the household, so if the dive industry is not giving credibility to women calling them with trip questions or taking their training classes, it's doing the industry as a whole a gigantic disservice. It's not only morally wrong, it's negatively affecting growth."

Divers of both genders should show their kids how diving should be a gender-neutral sport, Miele adds. "What kids see at home and in social culture, they mimic. My son knows nothing different between men and women divers -- mom and dad own a dive company together and we're on equal playing fields. I take him out for snorkeling trips, and it's refreshing to see that the majority of people don't care who's on the dive trip as long as they get a chance to have fun."

Women like to offer each other support and feedback, often online, and their word of mouth can help or hinder a dive business. Divemaster Sarah Richard launched Girls That Scuba, the largest website for the female scuba diving community (www.girlsthatscuba.com). "Part of the reason I set up [the site] was to discuss challenges and obstacles on being a female in a male-dominated industry," Richard says in an article for Shape about the topic. She also set up her own forum on the site, to help other women who may be having negative experience in the industry "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."

Social media is also important for speaking out, like when Yuyao Wang posted about her "Captain Snooper" experience aboard the Galapagos Aggressor. "It's good to check online to see if there's a negative response to a certain dive operator, but having people use it to speak up -- and have the confidence to do so -- is important," says Miele.

There's no place for sexual harassment or belittling of women to happen in the dive industry, or anywhere. And just as the #MeToo movement here in the U.S., women speaking out about the ill-treatment and bad situations they've faced is leading to a lot of bad apples being thrown out, and a lot of light shone into long-dark places. Dive trips should be fun for everyone -- women should be able to enjoy themselves without having to fend off idiots. The more women speak up and call out the offending idiots, the more the scuba industry will -- and should -- have to ensure there is a place on the dive boat for everyone.

Vanessa Richardson was the senior editor of Undercurrent for ten years. She now covers finance, women in business, and other topics for magazines such as Entrepreneur, Fortune and Money magazines.

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