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Breaking the gender barrier in commercial diving

Underwater Works Inc. instructor and dive supervisor, Glenn Cheddie, makes adjustments to a diver's equipment prior to his dive.

The thought of going 100 plus feet underwater with near-zero visibility, weighted down with 100 plus pounds of equipment and nothing connecting you to the surface but a two-inch thick ’umbilical’ that contains your air supply and communications, is enough to scare even some of the bravest men.

Yet, this is exactly what a handful of women have chosen to do right here in Trinidad.

Commercial diving isn’t a typical career choice for most women.

It isn’t even a typical choice for most men.

It’s a very physically demanding job that puts a lot of unique physiological stresses on the human body. All in all, diving has more than its fair share of inherent dangers. On top of all this and like the many other heavy work fields, commercial diving is still a very male-oriented area.

Sushma Ramlal's smile is a true indication of her love for diving.

So why would any woman choose this as their profession?

’I always loved swimming, and I love being in the water,’ is Sushma Ramlal’s reply. ’And they always say to do what you love doing.’

Ramlal is eager to dive. She grew up in New Grant and developed an interest in SCUBA diving at an early age, her first main influence being an old novel. In the novel the main character is on vacation in Hawaii and goes SCUBA diving for the first time.

’The description was so vivid. I remember getting a strong visual from it and really wanting to be there’, she recalls. However it would be many years later before Ramlal finally got into diving. ’I just never really had the exposure. I knew I liked diving, I just didn’t know anything about getting into it.’

Ramlal did however develop her inherent talent for art and became a graphic designer. Then a year ago, she got information about a class teaching SCUBA diving in Chaguanas. A friend referred her and she decided to go. She knew she would love it, she didn’t realise just how much.

’It was so nice! As soon as I started I wanted to do everything. I wanted to know everything I could about diving, I wanted to do everything I could in diving. And when I found out about diving for a living, (commercial diving) well I was all in!’

The school

Ramlal enrolled into the only diving school in the Caribbean that offers international commercial diving certification. Recognised by the Divers Certification Board of Canada - arguably the highest standard for diving in the world - Underwater Works Inc. was more than willing to accept Ramlal into their classroom. The company’s director and head instructor, Glenn Cheddie, who is also a commercial diving supervisor, has been working for years behind the scenes in the local diving industry, constantly lobbying for safety, higher quality, better regulations as well as gender equality in the field.

Mr Cheddie believes that when it comes to diving, women are just as capable as men.

Praising their skill and intelligence, Glenn, as he is better known by his class, laments on the long struggle ahead in securing women a proper commercial diving place in T&T.

’There are female divers in other countries. Commercial divers. Still not in great numbers, but they’re there. It will be only a matter of time, hopefully not too long, before Trinidad follows suit.’

Throughout the world, women are slowly making inroads into commercial diving. There has even a commercial diving company in New Orleans that’s run by a woman. Another US company has three female permanent divers out of a total of 200 divers. And still in other companies, more and more women are finding jobs.

’The ladies in my class are at the top of the class.’ Glenn boasts.

’They are better than most of the guys in the theory aspect of diving, the physics and maths and they are on the same level as the guys when it comes to the actual diving!’

He continues, ’I have no problem putting women to work. I run them through the exact same tasks, jobs and exercises as the men. Many times they even outperform the men!’

’For example, Ramlal is the first woman in Trinidad, and quite possibly the Caribbean to dive with a Desco Pot. There are male divers in Trinidad, diving for years, who’ve never even done that!’

The Desco Air Hat, more affectionately known as the Desco Pot, is one of the many diving helmets used in commercial diving. Made of solid copper with brass castings, it weighs a hefty 34 pounds.

’In your hands, it’s really HEAVY! Even for the guys.’ Ramlal said about the Desco Air Hat.

’I was very intimidated. And I remembered wondering how on earth I would be able to put that on and walk! But once I did, it actually wasn’t that bad. And in the water, you don’t feel its weight at all, so it’s really easy to move around in.’

Currently Underwater Works Inc. has three women pursuing commercial diving certification as well as Hyperbaric Chamber Operations (HCO).

Female divers

So what of the other women in this commercial diving class?

Cleopatra Thomas is a strong-willed and very determined woman with a fiery personality to match her name! Having worked as a bartender on a cruise ship for a few years, she’s no stranger to the dangers and joys of life at sea. A life she embraces with love.

’I love the sea,’ Cleopatra exclaims ’It’s just the best place. Rough weather, waves, them thing don’t bother me. And I love getting in the water!’

Having heard about commercial diving through her cousin Klevon who is also in the class, Cleo, as she is better known, decided without hesitation to fearlessly dive right in and take up the challenge of commercial diving. She is equally unfazed by the idea of being in a male-dominated field. ’I cool. Fellas don’t bother me. I don’t have any problem with them and they don’t have any problem with me.’

Growing up ’a little tom-boyish’, Cleo fits in easily with almost any group of ’fellas’. And her classmates joke that her being able to professionally mix drinks and play all-fours makes her a valuable asset on any dive job. Regardless of who one speaks to, the general opinion of Cleopatra in commercial diving is, ’she can handle herself’.

And then there’s Dana. Physically the smallest in the class Dana Mohammed is arguably the best SCUBA diver in the entire commercial diving class. This coupled with her academic performance puts her near, if not at, the top of the class.

Apart from her commercial diving training, she’s also well on her way to becoming the first female certified public safety diver in Trinidad and Tobago.

And how does she feel being in a mainly male dominated class, and then going into the male-dominated field?

’Not bothered. Most things don’t bother me. Respect me and I’ll respect you.’ She describes the class as being ’Not much different from Form 6,’ referring to the fact that she did her A’levels at CIC in Port of Spain, a boys’ school. Dana is known for her dry humour and matter-of-fact attitude but when it comes to work she is very no-nonsense.

Dana keeps very physically active., She takes part in 5K runs, hiking, swimming and anything else she may find the time for, plus she is an avid cricket and football fan. She got into diving because of the combination of ’water and challenge’.

’(It’s) not your typical everyday activity. I like being different!’

So is she enjoying the challenge thus far?

’Of course! Or else I would be doing something else with all my time and all my money!’

Yes, commercial diving is expensive but for a determined few it is well worth the cost.

Walking or driving passing a modern construction site, it is becoming more noticeable that among all the construction workers, there is an increasing percentage of women.

Women have long been making in-roads into traditionally male-oriented fields of work, yet those areas which are considered heavy labour, ie. construction, engineering, mechanical work etc., remain to this day very testosterone heavy!

However, like the business sector before it, the gender imbalance in the heavy industry sector is ever so slowly levelling out.

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