“Women can’t do this!”
Before going any further — yes, we’ve heard the above quote many times. If scuba diving is an adventure sport, technical diving is its extreme-sport equivalent. Associated with higher risk, more equipment and sometimes time-consuming procedures, technical diving has long been a male domain. Three years ago, we looked at how more women could join the tech-diving world. Now, it’s time to revisit technical diving for girls.
Technical diving for girls today
Over dinner in an Indonesian dive resort, a (male) recreational diver was quizzing my (male) TDI normoxic trimix student about his dives. Patiently, my student explained that today’s dives might have involved four tanks (two for back gas and two different decompression gases) but were comparatively shallow as the focus was on skills development. The other diver nodded, somewhat wide-eyed, and exclaimed “Ladies can’t do this!” A few heads turned toward me — including my student’s — who answered, “my instructor is sitting right there,” pointing at me. The other diver nodded and said, “Yes, I know she’s an instructor, but ladies can’t do this.”
I’m not a lady, I guess. And, yes, there was also a language barrier. However, his misconception even when faced with a female technical diving instructor illustrates that many still consider technical diving a sport exclusively for men.
Becoming a female technical instructor
Three years ago, I became a tech instructor in Thailand, one of only a handful of female TDI instructors in Asia. My first student happened to be female and, over the following months, the divers I talked to about becoming technical divers were almost 50/50 male and female. A steady stream of arriving male and female divemaster and instructor trainees often booked courses ad-hoc, or after an equipment trial in a pool. Seeing a girl run these trials and teach these courses went a long way toward breaking down barriers for other women. And so, the predecessor to this article was born.
Looking at the technical-diving scene worldwide, the ratio of men to women remains heavily biased toward men. This trend starts at initial recreational certification levels, although the gap is smaller at that point. By the time divers develop an interest in technical diving, more of them are male.
This is something that Sweden-based tech instructor and wreck explorer Tiffany Norberg of Gradient Scientific and Technical Diving has noticed this trend as well. “In Sweden, most diving is done in drysuits, which makes it a bit more challenging to learn at first,” she says. “So, we have fewer females in beginner courses than you would see in the tropics. Diving is different with steel tanks, more weights and spending surface intervals sheltering from the elements as opposed to sunbathing.”
To dive in this environment, like in most cold-water diving locations, you must really want to dive. “It seems like not that many women go beyond the advanced open water level here, and I’ve very rarely had female tech diving buddies,” Norberg says.
“However, if they have persevered in these conditions, to this level of diving, they are usually very good divers. So, I think as tech divers or more-experienced divers, we have a responsibility to encourage and persuade more women to continue their diving education. It’s about showing them that you don’t have to be a big guy to be a great cold-water tech diver.”
Technical diving suits women
And while female techies continue to be rare in cold waters, in warmer waters it’s not that uncommon anymore to see female tech divers getting ready for their next adventure.
Having said that, most female technical instructors still teach far more men than women. I am now a technical instructor-trainer based in Indonesia, and I remain TDI’s only female at that level in Asia. Moving countries meant working with a very different market of divers and potential tech divers. At my current base, in northeast Bali, there are few long-term divers that stay for a few months. Instead, most come on vacation for a few days or a week, often with their families. Most students book technical courses well in advance, and 90 are male.
This is a shame, especially as technical diving by rights suits females. Bear with me, even if the following does sound a bit cliché-laden. Technical diving often means multi-tasking, a trait that women commonly excel at. Tech-dive planning is detail-orientated work. Staying on top of these plans while handling everything else on a dive requires quite a bit of attention to detail.
But what about the heavy equipment? Loading equipment on or off a boat, or carrying tanks to a cave, is teamwork, both for male and female divers. It requires organizational skills as well as strength, so it’s not really an argument against female technical divers.
Changes in the last few years
However, things are changing. Across the water from Bali lies Gili Trawangan. Here you’ll find TDI’s other female tech instructor in Asia, Theresia Gollner, at Blue Marlin Dive Tech. Her student count is quite a bit more evenly split between males and females.
“I’m sure some of this depends on the location and who is already diving there,” she says. “On Gili T, our customer base is almost evenly split between guys and girls. Seeing girls on the tech boat is normal, whether they are diving or teaching.”
In some ways, seeing is believing. “If girls see me tech dive and teach, it’s easier for them to imagine themselves in my position,” she says.
“The more tech-diving and teaching role models we have, the more female divers will be keen to give tech diving a go.”
One of the most notable changes of the past few years, though, is the growing community of female technical divers. Much of this is thanks the growth of social media. There are Facebook groups for new female tech divers, or those just interested in information, as well as groups for established techies.
There’s even the Divine Sisterhood of the She-P Sisterhood for female technical drysuit divers. (For a longer discussion on bathroom issues while wearing a drysuit, check out our article on p-valves.) Whether it’s finding tech-dive buddies or researching a destination, asking peers appears to help break down barriers. Female-specific groups and forums have a huge role to play in encouraging more girls to give tech a try. After that, it’s up to their instructors, both male and female, to coach and encourage — without lowering standards — to help make technical diving for girls commonplace.