Being young and female in an old man’s industry

Sexism and Ageism in Diving

By Stephanie Miele

”She is sleeping with the boss”

“It’s really Brian Carney’s company and she is along for the ride”

“That’s all well and good Stephanie but what does Brian think?”

The above are only some of the statements I have heard about myself, or have been said to my face during my 20 years in the diving industry and owner of International Training.  The below is my story, what I have faced as a young female in a male dominated industry, and where I see things moving in the future.

My opinions about the industry come from being with the company for nearly 20 years, first as an employee and then as an owner. I do remember my early years with the company with fondness but it also opened my eyes to the misconceptions that were rampant in the industry.  I started with TDI in ‘97 and back then there were only three people working in the company and we were all women, except Bret Gilliam, but he was not in the office full time.   During that time we did everything; processed certification cards, approved standards, fielded questions from all over the world, and conducted business on a daily basis.
I was a 20 year old recent college graduate, new to the workforce and still carrying the euphoria of college life.  I was eager – very eager – to make my mark, but what I really learned was a good old-fashioned lesson in life.   Back then, it was just TDI, as SDI and ERDI were not yet in the mix. It was a technical training agency and with that came egos.  I was brought into the company for my customer service skills, not my diving background, and that was fine by me. I did, however, have a decent knowledge of diving and was taken back a bit by individuals that did not want to deal with me because of my young age and gender.

It was almost a weekly occurrence that a customer would call headquarters and ask to speak with a man because they had a diving related question.  It was infuriating at first but after a while it would result in a good laugh between the office colleagues and they were put on the “dumb shit diver list”.  This was really tough to tolerate and believe it or not, although less frequently, we still get this type of ridiculous question at headquarters.

Legacy is all that is left behind

Men and women, especially at trade shows, would often ask me if I was even old enough to dive, if I understood the concepts of diving, and who I knew in order to get my job.  I’m not going to lie, it was annoying, hurtful, and confusing but the key was learning to move past it and not give it any more energy.  That was a hard lesson to learn and it took many years to let stuff roll off my back but it has proved to be very important in forming the person that I have become.

My age and gender were also manipulated in ways that others thought could be used against me.  During a business negotiation, three individuals and I were trying to come to a financial agreement to work together.  I was told that it might be difficult for me to work with numbers that were not whole such as $7.50 per unit so it might be a good idea, for me, if we round the numbers down so that it would be easier.  It was insulting. I was angry but had prepped ahead of time thinking that this might happen.  I told them that it was easier for me to deal with whole numbers, $9.00 per unit was best and that moving forward any other numbers would be whole and always rounded up for good measure.  It was hilarious to see the look on their faces. Of course, they brought this up to my supervisor at the time, Bret Gilliam, and were told that my terms were final.  It was moments like this that taught me to be prepared.

My first DEMA show was very exciting and was in New Orleans, of all places. I had just turned 21 and was excited to meet industry professionals and the people that I had been communicating with since arriving at TDI.  At the time, TDI was based in Maine and the only diving that was really accessible was cold North Atlantic diving, which was much easier to tolerate in a dry suit.  I had decided that I wanted a dry suit but because of my body size I needed a custom suit.  During the show, I went over to a vendor to get fitted for the custom suit that I had been wanting for a while. Several hours after my fitting, we had people coming over to the booth asking about me and my measurements.  The asshat that had taken my measurements decided to tell everyone to check out the “chick at the TDI booth along with my measurements”.  I was humiliated, felt stupid and wanted to walk out of the show. After my colleagues and mentors calmed me down, I decided to stay.  I will never forget the verbal lashing that individual received on the show floor for doing that to me, which I could hear many aisles away.  It made me feel a little better but it really did sting to know, that type of ridiculous behavior existed.

When people find out that I am heavily involved in the management of the company and its ownership the questions start to filter inWhy are you not more public?  Why do you not have a title?  Is it yours just because you are married?
Well, I want my company to be regarded based on what it is, a good company.  I do not see the need to have a title or publish my accomplishments since I know what I have achieved and I am a very private person.  Being understated has always worked to my advantage and I continue to do what works for me personally.  It was my choosing to be in the background and manage internally; I was not put into a corner because of my age and gender by anyone– it was my choice to be understated as there were enough egos to deal with in the industry.

When I am introduced to people as Stephanie from International Training, it is rare they know who I am and I really feel that it is a great way to know someone.  I have always liked the saying that you really learn the character of a person based on how they treat the service staff, whether it is at a restaurant, tradeshow or supermarket. That really has spoken volumes to me over the years.  I cannot tell you how many times people call in to speak to one of our VP’s or Brian Carney and do not even let me finish my basic greeting. This is also so evident at tradeshows, people don’t even look me in the eye or shake my hand but are in such a rush to make an appointment with someone that has “decision making power”.  It happens at almost every tradeshow and you can bet your bottom dollar that I remember their names and when it comes time for me to make the decision if our company does business with them or not – you can probably guess my decision.

My very favorite is: “Are you okay with your husband as the president of the company and do you feel slighted?” Why would I not be okay with it? It was our decision together!  He does a very good job and, even though I am perfectly capable, quite frankly I do not want to be in his position.  I have just as much of an influence on the company as he does but I prefer to do it in a quiet manner, internally.  Does this make me any less in favor of gender equality and age equality?  No Way!  I am doing my part by educating our staff – whether they are male/female, younger or older than me. Those that I choose to mentor are making the industry better.

How does sexism and ageism this affect the industry?

If you take a look at history and the evolution of society’s impacts on the economy you will notice that major changes started to happen in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s.  Specifically, I take note of the female’s entrance into the work force and the increased level of higher education amongst the general public.  Many shifts in the family unit, the size of the family, roles in and out of the household, and wealth accumulation started to evolve, making the world that we live in today.  The shift in household wealth, education levels, and dual income middle class families opened the door to disposable income and how people chose to spend it.

Can we attribute the growth of the diving industry to the shift in buying power in the American household?  I am not sure.  However, I think it would be interesting to note that a large segment of the diving industry today is made up of more women than ever before.  Also, it can also be said that this is turning into a family sport and a younger generation is entering into the mix.  Many astute marketing professionals have discovered that the buying power of a family is largely driven by the female head of the household.  Marketing to this demographic is essential if you want to grow and we have done just that at International Training.  Not capitalizing on, or understanding, this is a business foul.

The million dollar question…

So this begs the question: Have we as an industry evolved enough to understand this and are the biases of years past still present?

Why are women entering into the sport in record numbers?  I think that this can be attributed to several factors; disposable income, knowledge of the sport, better marketing on social media and an understanding of what is available to them as a consumer.  So why do we still hear of women working within the industry facing challenges and bias?  We can point out endless examples of how we as women are seen in a different way but what are we doing to change it?

Bias exists because there is ignorance – it is that simple.  Society as a whole has not matured and men, women and communities themselves are figuring out their roles in a very dynamic and technology advancing world.

I could be wrong here but I feel the younger generation have less social blinders on than previous generations.  We do not live in a utopia and there will be biases and unfair judgments.  However, through education we can enhance the lives of others and continue to decrease the imposed social discrepancies that exist.

Taking these thoughts back to the past 20 years in the industry, there have been many advancements and changes for many people across the board.  It is important to point out that this industry is still in its juvenile state and that there is much to be learned in both technology and business innovation.  It is no secret that the industry is declining and that we need to breathe new life into this sport if we are to survive and leave our legacies with the younger generations.  I think that learning from our mistakes, educating our youth, and explaining to those that have misconceptions are the keys to expansion in both our industry and others.

If you look at the previous examples of bias that I just stated there is a very worrying consequence.  People will leave this sport.  This is a small and expensive sport so meeting these types of criticism both in person and on social medial will affect their willingness to devote time and money to the sport and industry, and we as a whole will continue to shrink.  If we shun the younger generation and their enthusiasm they will find another sport and naturally their monetary contribution to diving will dwindle.  Neglecting to understand the needs of an aging generation with the disposable income will also translate into a loss of cash flow across the board.  I think as an industry we need to be very careful as this is a slippery slope, but that is for another article.

Each generation is sometimes befuddled by the previous and latter generations – that is common place.  It is just a matter of the times changing and understanding that social norms will be altered from what we know and find comfort in.  As an industry and as a society it is important to understand the view points of others so that we might all grow even if we don’t necessarily agree with them.  I have found that taking the time to listen to why someone feels or acts a certain way will net you more of an understanding and will help in your approach in the future much more than simply talking at someone.  But you have to be willing and open to hear another person’s point of view and then make a decision

Does it annoy me that my colleagues in the office and those in the industry are judged based on their age and gender?  Yes it does and if I could wave a magic wand and make it disappear then I would.  I believe that yes it is good to point out that there are inequalities and judgments made in this industry so that we can work together to level the playing field for all.  But let’s face it, this is life and it is not always fair, and people can be stupid.

So how do you deal?  Well, my advice to those that have asked is to always stay true to yourself and try not to let anyone’s comments affect you too much – sometimes easier said than done.   There is no one preventing you from taking that advanced course, learning a new piece of equipment, or working towards that leadership position except your own doubt. If you do not find what you are looking for with a potential mentor then you need to do yourself a solid and find another one.  I feel it is very valuable for all generations to have someone that you consider a mentor.  Find someone that you respect and you feel has your back and then allow that person to guide you.

Remember:  Life is short and someone else’s comments are just that, someone else’s comments and you have the power to decide how, if at all, they will affect you.

A glimmer of hope

As society develops and the next generation matures I think we are seeing a group of people that are beginning to look beyond the stigmas and incorrect perceptions that people hold of one another.  I can attest that I am raising my son to not have any social blinders on and to give people a base level of respect.  There is no doubt that my son will face “isms” be it racism, ageism, sexism, etc.  It is my job to arm him with a proper level of self respect and confidence to be able to look past someone’s ignorance and actually feel compassion for them. It is my (our) responsibility to help raise the next generation with the confidence to go after their dreams and give people a basic level of respect.  I am doing my part, are you?

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7 replies
  1. Sue McHenry
    Sue McHenry says:

    It happens at the other end too. I take cruises that allow me to get in some diving with cruise ship contractors, very carefully vetted and supervised. But now that i am approaching 70, the cruise line may be saying that I am too old to dive.

    Reply
  2. Reese Davis
    Reese Davis says:

    Hi Stephanie,
    3 things:
    * I can on board with SDI at the Atlanta Show and I have known you since those days.
    * I certainly hope I never “Slighted” you as I certainly appreciate the strong women who represent the scuba industry.
    * I hope it was Bret that gave the guy a tongue lashing! Wish I could have heard that!
    My regards to all of you at SDI HQ
    Reese Davis IT 3270

    Reply
  3. Richard Johnson
    Richard Johnson says:

    Stephanie,

    Thank you for this well written article sharing your experiences and bringing bringing this to light. As the husband of a strong, capable, intelligent woman and the father of two daughters that share their mothers capabilities, drive and determination I appreciate your willingness to open up and point out our societal shortcomings.

    We all work in our family business along with their younger brother. I strive to disallow this behavior. As a society, we must all be vigilant in our efforts to change perspectives; making decisions based on facts and results without regard for gender, age and other in appropriate classifications.

    Great Article!

    Reply
  4. Richard Taylor
    Richard Taylor says:

    Great article Steph…and a very well written personal insight that should not need to to written but, sadly, obviously reflects outdated attitudes that are sadly still current.
    Age, physical attributes and gender have about as much relevance to how someone performs as a dive industry professional (and now owner) as does choice of snorkel colour. Knowledge, understanding, commitment, intelligence and creativity, along with the ability to call upon experience when needed, are the key aspects, above & below the water.
    Having been around for a few of those years since you started with TDI I can attest that anyone who underestimates or under appreciates you, or anyone in this organisation, based upon age or gender is foolish at best. One of the best lessons for us “old men” is to remember that the force of change is like a tide, stand in its way and it will sweep over you…go with it and it will take you great places.
    And those that know you, don’t fear you…we respect you too much for that!
    (okay…your husband may fear you…but he probably needs to!!)

    Reply
  5. Michael Beeks
    Michael Beeks says:

    Well written. Unfortunately diving is a good example of the implicit bias associated with both gender and age in many if not most industries. I am a PADI instructor with a couple of TDI cards that I earned under one of the most competent instructors I know who happens to be a woman.
    Thank you for this article.

    Reply

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