RSS Women in the Hobby, and the lack thereof

MASA Admin

8 May 2007
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With it being Mother’s Day Weekend I thought it would be interesting to discuss a topic dear to my heart: The relative dearth of women in the hobby.  While reefkeeping has been around for approximately 30 years and the advances made have allowed more hobbyists than ever to have successful reef aquaria, the percentage of women in the hobby has not increased substantially. Sure we see wives and girlfriends being good sports getting dragged to frag swaps and shows, but the number of women in the hobby has been small from the start of the hobby and is still relatively low. 

In the early 1990’s Aquarium Systems commissioned a survey and found that approximately 95% of the hobbyists keeping saltwater tanks at that time were men.  Similarly a survey was done in Germany early this century and the percentage of men they found who kept reef tanks was 90%. A recent poll that I saw online on one of the frequently visited saltwater websites found that the number of women keeping reef tanks had climbed to 15%.  While over the past 20 years the percentage of women in the hobby has climbed slightly, the difference in numbers between men and women in the hobby is still significant.

This is interesting in that if you look at dog or cat ownership the percentages are almost equal, but if you look at individuals keeping exotic birds, the numbers are almost reversed.  That is, most bird aficionados are women.  I have jokingly suggested to Jake that the next MACNA should be held in conjunction with its exotic bird equivalent and as a result we would finally get an equal number of both sexes present at a show.  It would be a kind of college mixer for exotic pet owners. 

Woman Before an Aquarium. painting by Henri Matisse

So the question is: why are so many more men in the hobby than women? Going back to one of my developmental psychology classes I may have found part of the reason.  If you take newborn babies and present them with various stimuli you can readily see which ones are pleasing to the newborn. Female babies are pleased the most when presented with pictures of smiling faces or cuddly looking animals.  Male babies on the other hand were most pleased when presented with bright shiny objects or flashing lights.  So since our tanks are full of bright shiny things and all of the new technology provides lots of flashing lights, maybe this at least in part accounts for why more men are drawn to the hobby than women. 

Another aspect that may have some impact are some of the things that go into keeping a tank.  Studies have shown that women have a significantly better sense of smell than do men.  And as we all know at times there can be some nasty smelling aspects of this hobby.  In my own instance my ex constantly complained about the smells emanating from my tank whether it was ozone, the smell of a dead coral when it was removed, the smell of the food I was feeding the tank, or just the general smell from the tank. 

In my own defense, I really did not really smell anything on many of the occasions when she complained.  However it probably did not endear her to the hobby when I made her pull a mass of dead Xenia from the tank when I was away.  It also probably was not funny to her when I asked her to smell the Astrea shell to see if it was dead.  I know this was akin to the ‘pull my finger’ trick, but at the time I thought it was funny.  So it may be that the “smelliness” of the hobby keeps some ladies from pursuing it. 

Since I realize all of this is conjecture I decided to ask some of the ladies I know in the hobby for their insight as to why there are so few of them in the hobby. While I know this is not a scientific survey it did provide some insight into why such a large disparity exists. First, almost all of the ladies I spoke with got into the hobby on their own.  They were not pushed into it by a father, brother, husband or boyfriend who had a tank, which I found interesting.  So for women it is the same as for men, in that for the most part it is a hobby that you can pursue on your own.  Most of the women I surveyed have been in the hobby for at least 5 years, this may be author bias as most of the women I surveyed I have known for a while and have multiple tanks.  This is encouraging in that it is great to see that the women in the hobby are having the same long-term success as the men.

The most interesting responses I got though, were why they thought there were so few women in the hobby.  Some felt there was a bit of intimidation, at least at first, because there are so many more men in the hobby.  So until they proved themselves some thought their expertise and abilities to “understand” things were questioned.  Some also felt this way even when they went to a reef shop.  One described it as being akin to how Penny feels when she goes into a comic book store.  Some felt that the lack of science and math backgrounds from school that still exist today keeps some women from the hobby. 

But the most frequent reason given was cost.  Almost all made a reference to how expensive the hobby is.  And for many having extra money to spend on an expensive hobby like this one is not possible in that if they have extra cash they often spend it on their kids.  Or when both partners work they are often the one without extra money for a hobby like this one.  In addition to their belief that cost is keeping many women out of the hobby many also felt that lack of free time was a contributing factor as well.  Many of my friends are working women with kids and as a result in addition to their jobs they also have to manage their kids and home and let’s face it this hobby does take up some time.  So the lack of time is keeping more ladies from joining our ranks. 

All of the ladies I spoke with enjoy just about every aspect of the hobby and are just as big coralaholics as their male counterparts.  All of them are drawn to the diversity, beauty and coloration in their tanks.  Several also garden, and one felt it was like gardening on steroids.  All of them had long-term goals in the hobby and none of them looked at reefkeeping as a short term project.  They also enjoy the shows and frag swaps and felt once people knew them that they really enjoyed the friendliness and camaraderie that are the hallmarks of the hobby.     

I would like to thank all of my female friends for answering my many questions to help me write this article. And since it is Mother’s Day weekend, I would also like to thank all the mothers out there for encouraging their children in the hobby and especially my mother for putting up with the countless water accidents, baby fish bowls, and constant trips to the fish store that she took me to when I was a kid.  And I also might suggest that if you are getting your wife, mother or girlfriend a gift for Mother’s Day that you get her a nano tank instead of flowers or chocolate.  I say that as what could be better than doing something you enjoy together with your mom even after Mother’s Day?

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