Is it worth it? Discrimination against women in Technical Diving.
It has been barely three months since the devastating Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD) was discovered in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Dr. Marilyn Brandt has been on top of it nearly everyday since. And that’s not easy when you are the mother of two young children.
However, Brandt, Research Associate Professor of Marine and Environmental Science at the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI), sees motherhood as an advantage in a career dominated by men. She believes, “Being a mom gives you perspective.” It also requires focus to juggle motherhood and a demanding career.
Dr. Brandt is quick to acknowledge that having a supportive partner helps.
“When we discovered the disease here, Tyler understood I was going to have to take the lead,” since coral reef ecology and disease ecology in marine systems is her area of expertise. Her husband, Dr. Tyler B. Smith is also an Associate Research Professor of Marine Science at UVI.
But the male-dominated world of technical diving is not always marked by that kind of understanding and support.
Brandt and the six female scientists who assembled recently at UVI’s MacLean Marine Science Center in John Brewer’s Bay to talk about women in diving had stories of being passed over and treated as inferiors because of their gender.
In other places and institutions in the wider world of underwater research, women can be overwhelmed simply by the numbers.
Oceanographer Vanessa McKague recalled her first time presenting on physical oceanography at an academic conference to an audience of 95 percent men. “When I looked out and saw who the audience was I was really nervous.”
Lesser paying jobs, discriminatory advancement practices, and even deliberate sabotage through damaging peer reviews are all challenges women in underwater science and research say they face.
“They say we’re not strong enough to handle the gear,” which can include two tanks and other monitoring equipment, according to Brandt.
Technical diving gear and even diving physiology has for years been modeled after military male divers, without consideration for how women divers can be more effective with the right equipment.
With a technical dive program that is about 66 percent women – well above average – the women in technical diving at UVI do not face the discrimination found elsewhere. They are, instead, the powerhouse behind much of the scientific research taking place at this University.
Why Do It?
So in the face of a male dominated industry rife with discrimination, why do it?
“My earliest memory was of wanting to be underwater,” says Danielle (Danie) Lasseigne a graduate of UVI’s Masters of Marine and Environmental Studies (MMES) program and Research Technician at the University. She and her family routinely made the three-hour journey from the desert where she grew up to the ocean. “All I wanted to do was dive under and see the fish,” she recalls.
For Allie Durdall, MMES graduate and Watershed & Marine Specialist at UVI, it was a night at the aquarium. As a Girl Scout in Minnesota she camped out at Sea Life Minnesota Aquarium in the Mall of America. There was a corridor where people could walk and be surrounded by the aquarium. Fish all around her, Durdall spent the whole night awake in the passageway and was never the same.
“I was changed, obsessed,” with the idea of being under water.
For Sarah Heidmann, also a graduate of the MMES program and now employed as a Research Analyst at UVI, it was growing up in Monterey, California and spending her childhood at the world renowned aquarium there.
Unlike some of her colleagues, Brandt came to her passion for the underwater world later in life – at 18. While in college intending to go to medical school, her direction took a dramatic turn on a chance field trip to the reefs of the Cayman islands. “I couldn’t ever consider medical school after that,”
All six women, who agreed to talk about their experience as marine scientists, researchers and divers were adamant that UVI provided an entirely different world for them.
“I feel supported as a woman here,” Brandt said.
In fact, the Dean of the College of Science and Math, Dr. Sandra Romano, who oversees the Center for Marine and Environmental Studies, and her supervisor, the Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs, Dr. Camille McKayle, are also both STEM-trained women who provide strong support for our women marine scientists
McKague agreed, as she sat in the shade of the Marine Science building nursing her 5-month-old son listening to her female colleagues, adding the other advantage at UVI is the year round access to the sea. “The ability to have eyes on the reef at all times is rare.”
Once again in defense of being a woman in a male dominated field, Brant reiterated, “I am so much more effective as a mother.,” adding. “And just because there’s an element of physicality, that is not a reason to not do it.”
Based on 2017 statistics compiled by the American Academy of Underwater Sciences which oversees research diving around the world, of member institutions UVI ranks No. 1 in the number of dives below 100 feet, No. 2 in dives beyond 150 feel and No. 3 in Closed Circuit Rebreather dives. UVI is #1 in total decompression dives.