(WOMENSENEWS)–On a recent hot summer day, Allie Carberry sat in a tall chair overlooking the country club pool. The 19-year-old lifeguard from Shrewsbury, Penn., keeps a watch over the swimmers while trying to ignore the boys and men who watch her, their eyes lingering longer than she wants them to.
“A lot of guys have this impression that we don’t really do anything but sit in our suits and tan and don’t pay attention to the pool,” said Carberry. “Which obviously isn’t true. They think that we are there as eye candy and nothing else.”
Kallie Bowman, 16, from Washburn, Mo., noticed a similar reaction at a public pool, where she lifeguards. People don’t take her job seriously and tell her that “female lifeguards are just ‘hot girls’ who are trying to impress boys,” said Bowman. She and the other lifeguards in this story spoke in recent phone interviews.
While many female lifeguards say they attract the leers and catcalling that could belong to scenes from the 90s TV show “Baywatch” and the 2013 movie “The Lifeguard,” they say that’s not the main feature of the work. Most of those interviewed described it as empowering.
The training for lifeguards is vigorous and involves the retrieval of diving rings from the bottom of a 10-foot deep pool, performing CPR, treading water for two minutes and swimming 50 yards of various swimming strokes.
In Lauren Victoria’s training class there was an even mix of boys and girls, said the now 23-year-old from Honolulu. “I didn’t notice any discrimination or harassment.”
Ashley Bray, 18, had a similar experience during her training in Waco, Texas.
“I didn’t notice a difference in the way they treated the girls versus the guys,” said Bray, even though “guys are generally stronger than most girls and girls usually learn faster than guys, and are usually more nimble.”
Most of the young women interviewed said the staffing at their pools had a fairly equal male-female split. To Samantha Slofstra, a manager at the YMCA in Fort Erie, Ontario, this makes sense. “I look for people that are positive and have an interest in teaching swimming lessons. I look for reliable staff as well as ones that can be coached or trained to work well in our program. I don’t have a preference in gender as I base it on what I have seen in the individuals.”
That said, Slofstra has also seen that discrimination isn’t really a factor in lifeguarding because the job is so skill-based. She, as an employer, has a unique perspective on gender differences.
“Sometimes the males are the ones who aren’t as responsible at the pool deck and I need to remind them to stay on task,” said Slofstra. “Indirectly, I know that my female staff are sometimes more responsible.”
Lifeguarding seems to have escaped the pay gap that can strike teens as well as adults. All of the teens interviewed started off at minimum wage and said the only thing that affected their pay was their level of experience.
“I make $8.67 per hour and it is based solely on how long you have worked and how seriously you take your job. It has nothing to do with gender,” said Kathleen Cullinan, 19, a lifeguard in North Platte, Neb.
Fort Erie YMCA manager Slofstra confirmed that “all guards are paid the same,” between $11 and $11.85 an hour.
Not Always Easy
However, it is not always an easy go. On the job in New Freedom, Penn., Kathryn Jackson, 17, doesn’t get hassled by her managers or her coworkers. But there was a time she bought a lifeguard sweatshirt and a boy around her age made sexual remarks to her.
“I was disgusted!” said Jackson. “I feel like female lifeguards are portrayed by the public as sexy and hot because of [the media]. They show women running around in hardly any clothing and do not show how important our jobs really are.”
But back on the job, with equal pay and a feeling of value, teen girls sound pretty happy.
At 5 feet 2 inches and 120 pounds, Brooke Sproat, a 14-year-old from Marietta, Ga., doesn’t have the same physical authority that a boy may have at the pool, but she doesn’t let that stop her.
“I was able to save a man who was over 200 pounds and who was resisting me in my guard training,” said Sproat. “I feel like people are a little surprised when I step off the guard stand and am a lot smaller than most of them, but I stand my ground. I enforce the rules and call people out. I’ve found as long as you do this, no problems come your way.”
Sproat said the training criteria for lifeguarding leave little room for discrimination. “You have to pass everything or you can’t guard. It’s more of a ‘capable guard’ vs. a ‘not capable guard,'” said Sproat. “If you can complete the skills, you’re in the same boat as everyone.”