Women at Sea: Why society needs to encourage and support more women working in the maritime industry

The maritime industry is dominated by men, with only a small portion (~2%) of the marine workforce held by women.

A majority of women who do work in the industry tend to do so in the cruise and ferries sector – primarily taking on service roles, such as hotel staff, catering, kitchen duties, cleaning etc.

Within the maritime industry, there is a long history of gender stereotypes and setbacks for women to overcome before they can be seen as equal to their male counterparts. Aside from the general challenges faced by anyone working out at sea, including fatigue, harsh weather, difficult working conditions, and long hours, women are also faced with the challenge of sexual harassment and discrimination, ongoing doubt over their capabilities, poor pay, and limited opportunities for job growth and promotion.

While seafaring is diverse in terms of race, class and ethnicity, the diversity of seafarers across the world has still yet to take on a noticeable mixture of men and women.

Many females hold back from entering the industry due to a lack of industry information regarding career options for women. There seems to be a general absence of training opportunities, workshops and seminars to provide women with a springboard to exchange ideas and views about the maritime sector. In addition, it is widely accepted that it is a male dominated industry, and so fewer women consider this as a career option.

Some women also have reservations about working in the industry due to perceptions that they are entering a man’s world and will be subjected to harassment or discrimination by co-workers. With this idea also comes the opinion that women cannot advance in their field due to performance pressures or constant comparison with male colleagues. This is compounded by the fact that many companies are unwilling to hire women seafarers (unless in a service role).

Finding a work and life balance as a seafarer can be a challenging task for many. Spending long periods at sea, away from family, friends and children, are commonly seen as obstacles preventing women from embarking on shipping careers. Social pressure and traditional social responsibility prevents women from pursuing a career as a seafarer – instead forcing them to select land based jobs, so they can look after their children. There is also a lack of job security, as many private shipping companies only provide contractual employment, with poor or no leave conditions and retirement benefits.

Over the last few decades, advances have been made in improving the participation of women in the maritime sector. While conditions have somewhat improved, equal opportunities still have a long way to go before the gender gap is alleviated completely. The long history of men predominantly being at sea, has undoubtedly created significant barriers to women entering the seafaring industry.

There are many ways, we as a society, can help enhance the recruitment and retention of women in the maritime industry, as well as break down any stigma’s associated with it.

An overhaul to the sector will come only from a unified effort that involves promotion by industry and government bodies, enhanced training opportunities, and efforts by the shipping industry to demonstrate the value that gender diversity brings to worker performance. In addition, more women need to speak up about their experiences in the marine workforce, and discuss the perceptions (and misconceptions) associated with sailing. Strong female role models can help shift the maritime industry and make it a more viable career option for many women.

According to a 2008 address by Efthimios E. Mitropoulos, Secretary-General of the IMO:
“Female seafarers are an under-utilized, underdeveloped but valuable resource that could provide part of the solution to the increasing problem of finding sufficient adequately trained personnel to manage and operate the world’s growing and sophisticated merchant fleet.

Ultimately, women need to be enticed into working in the industry. This needs to be supported by educational institutions who should provide female students with a stronger network to access maritime training and activities, mentoring programs and career opportunities.

Improving conditions for women at sea is also related to improving work conditions for all seafarers – regardless of gender. These changes extend to hours of work and rest, accommodation conditions, pay, and leave entitlements.

 Leadship commitment to gender inclusion must be written into company policy, systems and processes, and must be reflected in changing attitudes towards recruitment of women as seafarers.

For generations, women were traditionally seen as homemakers who stayed home to look after the kids while their husband was the breadwinner. This is no longer the case, as mothers seek careers of their own, firstly because they want to, and secondly, because, these days, families need two incomes due to the rising cost of living.

In order for the profession to be transformed, a greater work/life balance needs to be achieved and promoted. Women need to feel empowered, and to be encouraged and supported to work in the maritime sector. All this needs to happen alongside a changing human perception that seafaring is an industry exclusively for men.

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