How Can We Encourage Saltwater Gender Equality?

Females involved in the aquarium hobbyThere’s a lot of conversation these days about gender equality with respect to income, career opportunities, education, and many other arenas of life. However, we tend to give it very little thought when it comes to participation in our hobby. Let’s face it, the perception—if not the reality—of the gender ratio in the marine aquarium hobby is that it’s largely tipped in favor of males.

But if this is true, why is it so? After all, there’s nothing inherently masculine about keeping fish and corals in glass or acrylic boxes. What is it that seemingly discourages many women from getting involved or, if they are hobbyists, from getting their voices and opinions heard just as much—or as loudly—as their male counterparts do?

As regular Saltwater Smarts visitor Louise Maggs helpfully points out, there are some persistent myths and misconceptions floating around out there that might be inhibiting women from participating fully in our salty pastime. That really got me thinking, so I’d like to dedicate today’s post to a discussion of those myths as I perceive them and invite all of you—whatever your gender—to weigh in with your thoughts.

Myth #1: Women just aren’t interested in marine aquariums

Anyone who has attended a major hobby conference (such as MACNA, which is coming to Washington, DC in just a few weeks) or spent any time perusing online forums or blogs knows this is patently false. Heck, just looking back at the comments I’ve received here at Saltwater Smarts over the past few weeks, I can see that quite a few of them were submitted by females. Clearly, gender has nothing to do with finding sea life fascinating and wanting to reproduce a slice of the marine realm in one’s own living space.

Still, there must be something underlying this perception. I suspect the gender ratio in our hobby resembles that of your average Rush concert (I should know, having seen them on every tour since 1982) not because women don’t find marine life interesting but because, for one reason or another, they don’t feel welcome here in the hobby. And that may have a lot to do with some of the other myths on my list, such as…

Myth #2: Women want to drive a wedge between their husbands/boyfriends and the hobby

Let’s call this one the “Marine Aquarium Yoko Myth”—you know, the perception that a hobbyist’s wife or girlfriend views his aquarium as competition for his time and attention and, so, attempts to sabotage his involvement at every turn. Are there some women that feel/act this way? I suppose so. But that certainly has not been my experience. I’ve been married to the same woman going on a quarter century now (we’ve known each other since grammar school), and she’s never been anything but supportive of my involvement in this hobby. In fact, one of her first gifts to me back when we were just dating was a 55-gallon tank and stand—hardly an attempt at sabotage!

Myth #3: Women resent the expense and/or mess of a marine aquarium

There’s no question that marine aquariums can take up/mess up living space and rack up the bills. So, when two people share a home and budget, there’s always a possibility that the addition of a marine tank to the scene will cause some tension and resentment, particularly if one of the two is a non-hobbyist or simply less interested than the other. But this can happen whether the dedicated hobbyist in the scenario is male and the non-hobbyist female or vice versa.

Falling back on personal experience, I have the good fortune of being married to someone who is extremely tolerant of my involvement in the hobby. Owing to my ever-present tanks (though I’m now down to just one), she’s never had a functional dining room in all the years we’ve been married. Besides that, recognizing how important this hobby is to me, she’s always been very indulgent when it comes to opening the purse strings to buy necessary items—even if it sometimes means making sacrifices in other areas.

Myth #4: Women are only interested if their husband/boyfriend is interested

I’m sure there are relationships in which this is the case, but more and more women today are taking an active interest in the marine aquarium hobby regardless of whether or not they have a husband/boyfriend who shares their interest. As I mentioned, we see this quite frequently right here at Saltwater Smarts.

What’s your take on saltwater gender equality?
So, fellow salties—men and women alike—those are my thoughts on saltwater gender equality. Now it’s time to tell us what you think! Let us know in the comment section below.

Photo credit: Ilya Ilyaskin

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About Jeff Kurtz

Jeff Kurtz is the Co-founder/Editor of Saltwater Smarts, former Senior Consulting Editor for Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine, and the aquarist formerly known as “The Salt Creep.” He has been an aquarium hobbyist for over 30 years and is an avid scuba diver.

Comments

  1. Maybe this links back to our brains. There appears to be a historical divide when it comes down to interests between the genders when it comes to the split between liberal arts and the math/sciences. This in itself can also be linked to some studies in the past that divide gender by how the brain of a gender is more on the creative side. Who really knows at this point… much are still inconclusive.

    • Jeff Kurtz says:

      Interesting perspective, Ellery! Thanks!

    • Anne Ross says:

      My husband was the one who was initially interested in getting in to marine fish but when he realised how much was involved it put him off, it had the opposite effect on me and I love all the aspects involved in keeping these wonderful creatures , I now have a 350L tank with sump( never even knew what one of these was a year ago ) and have an assortment of fish , corals and now a beautiful bta that is thriving , by far the best hobbie I could ever have gotten addicted to .
      Anne

      • Anne Ross says:

        Forgot say that when anyone comes to the house they always assume it’s my husbands tank and when I tell them it’s mine there like wow and sometimes very patronisingly say things like aren’t they hard to keep and I’m like not not really if you take the time to learn about them and being a woman yes I am capable of that lol, long pause and yes yes of cause you are !!

  2. I think its a fall back to the traditional gender roles as there is definitely science involved in this hobby, and as such falls into the ‘math/science=male’ realm. I’ve definitely felt the divide. I’ve had my tank up for about 4years now & even when going to stores I’ve been in before with my boyfriend (where they know I’m the enthusiast not him) he is the one fellow shoppers & even occasionally employees approach first. Sometimes feels like a ‘old boys club’ going into a new store . . .

    • Jeff Kurtz says:

      I think you might be on to something here, Kate. I’ve seen the same thing from the other side of the equation–situations in which my wife and I visit a new LFS and I’m the one who automatically gets the eye contact and the “Can I help you?” Some old perceptions definitely die hard. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  3. Jeremy Gosnell says:

    Well I must say, in my experience, several of these myths are true. Since I’ve been a marine aquarist since high school, I’ve been able to test these theories on several women. Out of all of my girlfriends over the years, all but one were wedge drivers. Some complained about the cost of aquariums, others were very upset about the time it took and others flat-out made fun of and ridiculed my love of my aquariums, to the point I told her to GIT! One girlfriend constantly asked me to give up the hobby and wished ill-will toward my tanks, in hopes their demise might increase the amount of time we could do what she wanted to do. Although one girlfriend who was studying to be a microbiologist when we were dating loved marine aquariums nearly as much as I. She was equally as excited to head off to different fish shops and even attended the 2007 MACNA with me. Over time she became equally as knowledgeable about marine life as I did, supported by her studies in microbiology. She also took up scuba diving with me, and even accompanied me on some shark diving trips that would make most men question their relationship. We parted on good terms a long time ago, but she alone is proof that there is no blanket ideology about women and our hobby that holds true for everyone.

    Interestingly enough recreational scuba is a male dominated sport, but over years of traveling and diving I’ve met equally as many women who enjoy marine life and scuba as men, with some being far more “bad-ass” in the water than men who were combat veterans. One girl I remember in particular was the shark feeder for Stuart Cove’s when I was working in the Bahamas. She looked like a Victoria Secret’s angel until she was underwater, where she looked more like Bear Gryls meets Steve Irwin.

  4. Jeremy Gosnell says:

    To touch on why women are not more outspoken in the hobby, I think a lot of broader social issues contribute to this. I think women in society sometimes feel like their voice is trampled out by men, especially in male dominated hobbies, sports, etc. There are so many men in the spotlight and at the forefront, that perhaps they feel a bit unwanted. While women’s rights in our society have increased by leaps and bounds, it’s hard to argue that a glass ceiling exists and sometimes men are creating the image of a “men’s only club” even if they aren’t trying too. An example was recently when a women’s only frag group had formed on Facebook, and several men were upset that such a group existed. Perhaps sometimes women feel better backed by one another, and as men we should accept that and offer only advice when asked, not condemning social commentary. I for one would love to see more women in the hobby. Women often bring clever intellectual ideas to whatever they do, with an empathetic approach to things that can bring about positive insights.

  5. Jeremy Gosnell says:

    **Correction**While women’s rights in our society have increased by leaps and bounds, it’s hard to argue that a glass ceiling doesn’t exist and sometimes men are creating the image of a “men’s only club” even if they aren’t trying too.

    • Jeff Kurtz says:

      These are all excellent insights, Jeremy! Thanks for offering your input. I especially love the image you created of a Victoria’s Secret angel transforming into Bear Gryls meets Steve Irwin. He he!

      By the way, how goes it over at TFH? Those Q&As used to kick my butt!

  6. Paul Baldassano says:

    I think the thing that keeps many females away is that it is a gadget driven hobby and girls are just not as interested in messing with lights, pumps and controllers as guys are. I go to aquarium stores every week and in all the years I have been doing this I can’t remember more than maybe five females buying fish by themselves. It’s almost always men or couples.
    I have been married over 40 years and my wife loves the fact that I have a tank. It keeps me home and not laying on the floor of a bar while tattooed girls are dancing around doing the macarana.

  7. Jeremy Gosnell says:

    Paul. IME scientifically inclined women aren’t so into the gadgets and how they work, but very interested in the chemical and biological processes that form an aquarium. Even my ex-gf that loved marine aquariums never really loved the tech side of it, but was very interested in how that tech effected the biology or chemistry of the tank. Then again, she was studying to become a microbiologist (now a phD biologist for the EPA) so she was already fascinated with microbes. In fact, while we were dating, she did a thesis paper on phytoplankton’s use in marine aquariums, which her professor was very impressed with. Make a guess at who wrote that paper 😉

    Jeff – things at TFH are going well. The Q&A column is a challenge, mainly in getting good questions that apply to the current state of reef keeping. Some questions are simply so basic, that they have been covered a million times over, some are too advanced to cover in a few paragraphs and others really don’t apply to modern reefing. Just getting questions that can be answered in a few paragraphs, and don’t create more questions for the reader, can be a real challenge.

    • Jeff Kurtz says:

      I know exactly where you’re coming from. For quite some time, I was doing both the freshwater and saltwater Q&As for a total of 24 questions per issue. I would sit there and second guess everything I wrote. Was I being too simplistic? Too technical? Unwittingly perpetuating some misconception that I had accepted as truth somewhere along the line? It definitely tests your chops!

  8. Jeremy Gosnell says:

    I just noticed Louise Mags’ (Ms. Saltwater Tank) videos. She turns all these misconceptions on their head, right down to tank equipment.

  9. It may be a combination of all those thing, but I know for a fact that of the 20,000-ish people that are subscribed to my youtube channel, over 90% are males.

    • Jeff Kurtz says:

      That’s definitely some hard data to support the notion that the balance of involvement tips in favor of males. Thanks Than!

  10. Anna White says:

    I started into this hobby about a year ago. I bought a cube as a gift for my husband. It quickly became apparent though the tank may be his, all corals are mine.
    When I started researching questions online, I found no urge to post in the forums, the responses went from unfreindly to downright rude.
    I understand it may be tiresome as a long time reefer to respond to another new reefer about lights, or cycle, or aiptasia, but honestly many responses were positively abusive.
    That’s ok, I was just there to glean information, but I can understand wanting to be silently happy with your tank in this endevour.
    I am now a member of an all woman online coral group, and find it much more pleasant to ask (and even answer, on occasion) questions there.
    One other point, I grew up in a scientific marine community, and there is a summer science program for children there, and I must admit, the teachers are overwhelmingly women.(Although the principals/administrators are male). And yes they do collect and maintain the tanks in their classroom.

    • Anna White says:

      Oh, I must add I’m not remotely sure I agree with the classification of art/science here. Though, admittedely my own training is in mathematics, a combination of art and thought, if you will.
      I would charachterize a reef tank as building a nurturing environment for animals, not neccessarily science.
      Sure there are tons of toys and meters out there, but there are also very fuctional “plug and play” reef environments out there.
      And a reef tank, is at least as much as a visual art medium, as the plumbing is an engineering feat. I’m sure you’ve all seen rockwork more or less attractive to you out there. Color combinations, layouts, all really an art form.

    • Jeff Kurtz says:

      I couldn’t agree more about the negative tone of many online forums. I suspect this puts off many women (not to mention quite a few men, such as myself), who typically have a more civil, egalitarian approach to communication. Also, I totally agree that the veterans at these sites should be more tolerant of having to answer the “same old questions.” Heck, back when I worked in the nursery business, I probably explained how to plant a tree a hundred times a day or more because every customer new to landscaping had no idea. It just came with the territory.

      In fact, one of the things that motivated Caribbean Chris and me to launch Saltwater Smarts was a desire to provide a more welcoming environment where rude discourse isn’t tolerated. Hopefully that’s getting across to folks.

      Thanks for your input, Anna!

  11. Christina Jayne says:

    When I first got into this hobby at around 13, for some reason I expected most aquarists to be women! I was surprised to find out it was mostly men.

    I don’t know why women just don’t seem as interested in marine aquariums, but in my experience as a female aquarist and a LFS employee for 5 years, I think one reason may be because it is a “men’s club” environment, as other commenters said. I belong to a women-only reefers group and women-only frag group on facebook, and many of the women there have joined because of how they were treated in other, male-dominated, reefer groups. Pretty much every female reefer I know has had a negative experience with male reefers. Mostly we have to “prove” ourselves before male reefers take us seriously. Even though I work at a LFS, most male customers are genuinely surprised to find out I have a tank (let alone 4!) and some have even tried to test my knowledge by asking me questions. (I find it hilarious when they realize I know more than them lol)

    I found this article because it was shared on a reef facebook page, and at least half of the comments on the post are jokes about women reefers. Sad to see :(

    Hopefully we can work together to create a more welcoming environment for more lady reefers!

    • Jeff Kurtz says:

      Well, Caribbean Chris and I are thrilled to have as many female visitors to this site as possible, so we hope you feel welcome here. Your story makes me think of what happens every time my wife and I go out to dinner. Invariably, when the check comes, the server plunks it down in front of me–despite the fact that my wife is the one with the cash and earns much more than I do. I guess some old myths die hard.

      I have to admit that the male dominance of this hobby seems somewhat incongruous to me, as well. When I think back to my school days, it was invariably the girls who excelled at science and math. The boys mostly sat around telling immature jokes, throwing spitballs, and generally making fools of themselves.

  12. Christina Jayne says:

    One other interesting note, in higher education and academia, marine biology, ecology and other ocean/reef related areas are often dominated by women. I wonder why

  13. "Caribbean Chris" Aldrich says:

    I feel the “boy’s only club” mentality permeates much further into the hobby than any of us would like to admit. But hey, broaching the subject is a great place to start casting that outdated ideal aside.

    I love the thoughts you *all* are sharing on this topic. Thank you for joining the conversation and, most importantly, thanks for being part of the hobby.

  14. In the 30 years I have kept aquariums I have met maybe five or six members of the other sex that were real aquarium keepers going at it with all they got.My wife of 20 years is not one of them,She tolerates it but always has something to say about the money it costs .If I ask her to deal with it for a few days that I am away she will do it,maybe not 100% right but she will make an effort to do everything.

  15. Paul Baldassano says:

    I have been married to the same woman for over forty years and although my wife is my SCUBA partner and knows many of the fish names, she doesn’t even know how to turn on the lights or how, or what I feed the tank. I would like her to have an interest in it but I already tried to not let her have any heat or food but she just won’t get interested. I can’t beat her up because she spends a lot of time in the gym and can probably take me in a fair fight. I don’t even have any friends with a tank. I would love to know someone close by that I could talk tank with, even a female, especially a female as they would probably be more interested. I have a Supermodel friend who comes over to feed the tank while I am on vacation but she only knows about dogs. So now all I can do is E Mail myself questions about the tank, then the next day, I answer them.
    My wife does love to kill Majano’s, but she killed so many of them that they are scared to death and won’t show up any more.
    http://i258.photobucket.com/albums/hh270/urchsearch/Dale005.jpg

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