Navigating equality: Female seafarers’ journeys to leadership positions

In an industry long defined by its male-centric culture, the presence of women at the helm used to be considered an anomaly. Now, over a decade after the first strong push for gender equality in the maritime sector, stories of women in positions of authority aboard ships have become testaments to resilience, capability, and a pursuit of equality on the high seas.

Capt. Cezan Villaruz Paulo, 35, hails from Castillejos, Zambales, and is one of the few Filipino women who has reached the top position in a ship’s command.  The first Filipina woman to become captain was Maria Kristina B. Javellana who achieved the feat in May 2017.

In 10 years, Paulo rose from a cadet in 2013 to master mariner in 2023. She first sailed on the bulk carrier Nord Tokyo and is now the captain of the CMB Floris, also a bulk carrier, sailing under the flag of Singapore. At the time of this interview, the vessel was in Australia and Paulo has been captain for exactly a year.

Paulo said: “Seafaring was not among my earliest ambitions – I can’t even say that I considered it,” she said. She originally aimed to become a civil engineer and had completed three years of her course at the Technological Institute of the Philippines in Manila. Changes in her family’s financial situation altered her course, so she had to reconsider the plans that she had set for herself.

“I was able to pass the entrance examination/screening and study at the Philippine Merchant Marine Academy (PMMA), one of the prestigious maritime schools in the Philippines. In four years, I completed my Bachelor of Science degree in marine transportation. When I started my cadetship, I told myself that I just have to face the challenges that are sure to present themselves and overcome them one by one.” 

In the end, her decision to stick to her new-found direction and career proved correct.

“To say that things were difficult would be an understatement. As a cadet, I had to do heavy work the same as my male classmates. I climbed frames, cleaned the cargo holds, lashed log cargoes and other maintenance tasks. I was really determined to not disappoint myself and to be worthy of the trust that the company owners had given me.” 

Capt. Cezan Villaruz Paulo. Photo credit: Capt. Cezan Villaruz Paulo

There are not many female seafarers on a vessel.  A number of obstacles continues to hinder their employment as current efforts to address gender imbalance appear to be insufficient. Certain career paths or positions are still limited – whether deliberately or not – as some stakeholders still think certain roles remain unsuitable for women. This automatically limits their career choices and progression.

According to reports, 94 percent of female seafarers across the world work in the cruise industry. 50 percent of female seafarers achieved mid-level or higher positions, and they also work aboard cruise ships.  They occupy positions that are unrelated to the control of the ship, such as cabin stewards or cashiers. In the meantime, the total percentage of female seafarers is only three percent of the 1.5 million seafarers worldwide.

Recent data from maritime research institutions showed that despite the strong push for gender equality, the growth in the number of women working as seafarers remains very slow. While many initiatives have been undertaken to enhance recruitment, the impact of these efforts has yet to become significant

Paulo agrees, saying that while in recent years, there has been a significant increase in the number of women graduating from maritime courses, landing employment is still a challenge.

“Some cadets have asked me for information on where they can apply for on-the-job training or cadetship, but I am forced to admit that majority of shipping companies are still reluctant to accept women. Ship owners tend to have different reasons for refusing to include women in their workforce.”

Capt. Cezan Villaruz Paulo (second from left) with her crew. Photo credit: Capt. Cezan Villaruz Paulo

Barriers to employment

Chief Engineer Karen Cacho, 30, from Palawan, is consciously striving to prove the capabilities of women aboard ships.  Like Paulo, she also obtained her marine engineering degree from the PMMA, and she is currently pursuing her Master of Science degree in shipping management from the PMMA Graduate School.

During her cadetship, she could not convince any of the companies she approached to take her on. There was even one instance when she took an application test, passed it with flying colors, and as she was preparing for final interviews, the company said it no longer was considering her application. 

“They said they weren’t ready to take on women cadets because the facilities aboard their ships were not meant to accommodate women. There had to be ‘special cabins’ with their own restrooms, and the ships were simply not built with women seafarers in mind.”

Chief Engineer Karen Cacho. Photo credit: Chief Engineer Karen Cacho

Chief Engineer Karen Cacho. Photo credit: Chief Engineer Karen Cacho

Inadequate facilities and accommodations, industry insiders pointed out, remain the biggest factor that prevents companies from accepting female applicants. Many ships, excluding luxury liners and cruise ships, do not have suitable facilities for female crew members, such as separate living quarters, bathrooms, or changing rooms. This lack of infrastructure can make it uncomfortable for women to perform their duties and ensure their overall well-being.

Additionally, because the maritime industry has traditionally been male-dominated, gender stereotypes persist. Female seafarers still frequently encounter biases and preconceived notions about their capabilities, which can affect their opportunities for career advancement and acceptance among their male colleagues. 

Cacho said: “They say that having women aboard created trouble. Men fight over women and this supposedly affects morale and makes working relationships difficult. I really have to ask – why is the women to blame? We just want to work the same as men, to be professional in conduct and to prove our capabilities. It is more than a little frustrating having to contend with the bias against women seafarers when the problem actually lies with men and their own behavior.”

Chief Engineer Karen Cacho. Photo credit: Chief Engineer Karen Cacho

Proving equality and capability

Another woman who made it as chief engineer is Sherrain Dominguez, 42. A seafarer since 2005, she is one of the first Filipino women to rise to the top in the country’s seafaring industry. Data from the Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA) show that in 2006, there were only 25 women officers, or 0.05 percent, of the 52,757 officers deployed at the time, and there were only 329 women, or 0.24 percent, out of the 136,250 ratings deployed.

Sherrain has college degrees in math, secondary education, and marine engineering, the last she secured from the Philippine Institute of Maritime Science and Technology.  She has also won several awards, and in 2015, was declared as one of the MARINA Outstanding Women of the Year and won the Philippine Transmarine Carrier Ambassador Award.  She has been a chief engineer since 2023, and has worked in the engine rooms of large gas carriers as well as oil and chemical tankers for 17 years.

For all her achievements, however, building her career was not always smooth sailing.

“I worked aboard European vessels and the standards were very high. It took me eight years to become First Engineer, and back then it was rare to see women in the engine room. It was not enough to have the brains needed to work with engines, one had to be physically resilient as well. It felt like I had to prove myself every day, to show that I could take on heavy responsibilities and be never rattled.” 

Chief Engineer Sherrain Dominguez. Photo credit: Chief Engineer Sherrain Dominguez

All three women agreed that gender equality reforms are being made in the maritime industry and despite the existing challenges, more women are finding their way into the seafaring profession.

Sherraine said: “There are all these policies and provisions now that encourage the engagement of women aboard ships.  Slowly but surely, the skills of women are being considered as equal to and in some cases even better than those of their male counterparts when it comes to positions of authority. Sure, there are still some bashers – the occasional complaint or low grumbling that women can never be as strong as men, that we would crack under pressure – but women are proving the opposite every day.”

This does not mean, however, that the pressure has lessened.

“It’s still there, and it will probably be always there because it comes with the job,” Paulo said. “Everything is just a little amplified because I’m always aware that to some degree or another, my performance is always being measured and weighed because I’m a woman and there have not been many women ship captains.”

Karen agreed.

“In the past, I sometimes sensed that I was being deliberately tested, my work being scrutinized by some male colleagues. They think they know me, think that I am somewhat weak or at least strong enough to take command and do my job well. The first weeks and months were always like that when I work with new people.” 

Her authority, she explained, was never openly questioned, but she felt that she often had to prove her skills and knowledge. As recently as 10 years ago, female marine engineers were practically non-existent because working in the engine room was exclusive to males. Some male officers who did not want women in their department usually assigned them to do paper work or to the control room

Biases were hard to immediately break down, but relentless efforts continued to be made.  All over the world, professional networks are working to promote female seafarers’ rights and welfare. They take their cue and directions from the United Nations’ International Maritime Organization and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly Goal 5 “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”.

Capt. Cezan Villaruz Paulo (left) and Chief Engineer Karen Cacho. Photo credit: Capt. Cezan Villaruz Paulo and Chief Engineer Karen Cacho

Capt. Cezan Villaruz Paulo (left) and Chief Engineer Karen Cacho. Photo credit: Capt. Cezan Villaruz Paulo and Chief Engineer Karen Cacho

Sexual harassment 

Paulo said she is aware how safety concerns arise when women are in the minority.  Issues like sexual harassment, assault, or bullying may be more prevalent, but the reporting mechanisms are insufficient or not well-established in many ships.

“It’s frustrating but it’s true that the pressure is still greater on women to act with utmost professionalism at all times.  We also have to immediately set limits, establish boundaries when it comes to friendships that arise from professional relationships onboard.” 

According to a 2022 online anonymous survey on the experience of women seafarers regarding sexual harassment, the majority of the 1,128 female seafarers from different nationalities were aware of incidents of the same onboard done against female co-workers. 

In the survey, 66 percent of the respondents said male employees had harassed and intimidated female co-workers; 60 percent reported experiencing gender-based discrimination onboard; and 25 percent opined that physical and sexual harassment is common in the shipping sector and occurred on board and often involved intrusion on privacy.

Among the respondents, 399 were from the Philippines, 98 from the United States, 57 from the United Kingdom, 51 from South Africa, 47 from Brazil, 41 from India, 36 from Peru, 35 from Columbia, and 35 from Indonesia. Ninety percent worked onboard cruise ships. The remaining 10 percent were employed aboard cargo ships, gas and oil tankers, container ships (>8000 TEU), general cargo/geared vessels, chemical tankers, bulk carriers and tugboats.

Capt. Cezan Villaruz Paulo and Chief Engineer Karen Cacho. Photo credit: Capt. Cezan Villaruz Paulo and Chief Engineer Karen Cacho

Paulo said despite the enforcement of many anti-harassment circulars and regulations, there were still “sweet-talkers” on board and these men were on the lookout for opportunities to take advantage of their female colleagues.

“There are men who think that women are trophies to be won, and this is, sadly, true aboard ships. This is why it’s crucial for all seafarers regardless of sex and gender orientation to attend gender sensitivity seminars prior to embarkation. Women seafarers should also be provided with proper mentoring and guidance so that they are not taken advantage of.”

Karen pointed out that an issue that concerns women’s biology.

“Having a monthly period can sometimes be an inconvenience. Women can get short-tempered, more emotional, more easily tired. Having your period at sea, month after month for almost a year, is something you just have to adjust to.” She added that the work onboard was more than enough distraction from the discomfort.

Chief Engineer Sherrain Dominguez. Photo credit: Chief Engineer Sherrain Dominguez

Sharrine said there were even times when her workload was so heavy that her menstrual cycle was disrupted and became irregular for a few months. 

Women seafarers also seemed to cope with isolation and loneliness better so long as they have other female colleagues they can speak to.

Sharrine said: “You can say that we are lower maintenance that way.” 

Reading, watching films, and web surfing also helped them cope.

Paulo said: “When we get on land, a bit of shopping is also a way to destress. Otherwise, doing exercises on deck helps – a few laps clear my head and lightens my mood.”

Chief Engineer Sherrain Dominguez. Photo credit: Chief Engineer Sherrain Dominguez

What the future holds

The presence of women like Paulo, Karen and Sherrain shows that the seafaring industry has become less precarious compared to what it was two decades before. All three shared that the companies they work for are very supportive of them as women in leadership positions, acknowledging and constantly affirming their capabilities.

Sherrain said: “We are fortunate that we work with companies whose management have progressive views about gender equality. The ship owners see that we can perform our duties as well as our male counterparts and sometimes even more.”

Paulo said: “Every time our vessel gets to port and maritime authorities go aboard to conduct inspections, they are surprised and then happy and proud to see that there’s a woman at the help. Some of them have been on the job for a minimum of 10 years and as long as 30, and meeting me was the first time that they’d seen a woman ship captain and a Filipino.

“They take pictures with me and say that they will show them to their colleagues and the commands of the other vessels they will inspect. I’ve lost count of how many times this has happened. I feel proud and humble at the same time.”

Paulo is the third child in a family of eight, having four sisters and one brother. Her parents are hardworking farmers.

“They did backbreaking work to make sure that all of us finished college. Their sacrifices and commitment to our education helped me become the person I am today. Our parents set great examples for us, instilling in my siblings and I the value of hard work, perseverance and gratitude. I would not be here had it not been for their love and support.”

The three female officers are at the prime of their lives and careers, and they currently have no thought of leaving their jobs at sea for something land-based. The main goal, however, is to continue learning, to always excel at their work, and to save for their families and their futures.

Chief Engineer Sherrain Dominguez (second from left). Photo credit: Chief Engineer Sherrain Dominguez

Responsibility of the industry

On March 8, the international maritime industry will join the rest of the world in celebrating Women’s Day, and the whole month will be devoted to activities giving tribute to female seafarers and their contributions to the industry. Observers said that while this is already an achievement for women’s rights and the struggle for gender equality, promoting gender diversity and inclusivity in the maritime industry remains an uphill battle and that shipping companies play a pivotal role in fostering this change. 

An important start, advocates of seafarers’ rights said, is for shipping companies to actively promote equal employment opportunities and eliminate gender biases in their hiring processes, including creating inclusive job descriptions, addressing unconscious biases during recruitment, and ensuring fair and equal evaluation of candidates.

Continuous diversity training is also needed. all employees, including senior management, should be given a solid grounding on the importance of diversity and inclusion to help create a more supportive and understanding workplace culture, and reducing stereotypes and biases.

Mentorship and sponsorship programs are also proving useful in supporting the career development of women in the maritime industry. Pairing female employees with experienced mentors can provide guidance, support, and help break down barriers to career advancement.

Finally, shipping companies should promote inclusive leadership by encouraging diverse leadership at all levels within the organization and on board. Having women in leadership roles, including aboard ships, will serve as positive examples and help break down gender stereotypes

Gender equality and inclusivity in the maritime sector still has a long way to go, but ongoing awareness, education, and policy changes have already begun to shape a more supportive and equitable environment.

This article was written with the support of Oxfam Pilipinas as part of its continuing efforts to promote gender equality and women’s rights.

Top photo credit: iStock/ JNemchinova

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