Women in Shipping: Overcoming Obstacles and Making Strides

Throughout history, the shipping industry has been one of the most male-dominated industries in the world. For some, the difficulty in finding a balance between the demands of maritime work and family was a common reason many women were not allowed to choose shipping as a career. Moreover, the occupational culture of marine work also embraces masculine norms and values in general. However, times are already changing.

Although shipping continues to be a male-dominated industry, with men accounting for about 98% of the 1.6 million seafarers in the world, women are nonetheless already making their mark in the industry, breaking through conventional barriers and gender stereotypes. As a matter of fact, the word “seaman” has already been replaced by the word “seafarer,” as the latter is now considered the politically correct term due to the increasing presence of women in the shipping industry in recent decades.

History and Progress of Women in the Shipping Industry

Historically, women were excluded from the shipping industry, which was considered a profession for men only. However, during the second world war, women played crucial roles in the industry. They were employed in various maritime jobs, including shipbuilding and welding. The war essentially made it clear that women have the same capabilities as men when it comes to doing naval work.

However, after the war, women were again forced out of the industry as men returned to their jobs. It was only during the 1970s that women were allowed to find employment in the maritime sector again. Even then, the jobs that the women could do on ships were limited to domestic roles, such as cleaning and cooking.

Over the decades, the shipping industry has undergone a substantial transformation, allowing more and more women to take up roles in the sector. Today, women can already be seen working in different areas within the shipping industry, such as management, navigation, and engineering. There has also been a significant rise in the number of women working as seafarers, with some even taking up leadership roles on ships.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) is considered to be instrumental in promoting gender equality in the maritime industry. The IMO is a specialised agency established by the United Nations to set standards regarding the safety and security of international shipping. It supervises almost all aspects of worldwide shipping regulations. Over the past couple of years, the IMO has been implementing policies and initiatives encouraging women to take up more roles in the shipping industry.

For one, the IMO has established a program called “Women in Maritime,” which seeks to promote gender equality in the maritime industry by encouraging the provision of equal opportunities in the industry to both men and women. The program essentially gives women a platform to share their experiences and challenges in maritime work, and it urges the industry to create a more diverse and inclusive workplace.

Challenges and Ways in Which Women Are Changing the Shipping Industry 

Even though significant progress has already been made, women in the shipping industry still face several issues and challenges. One of the most critical challenges women face in the maritime sector is the lack of female representation in leadership roles. To this day, only a small percentage of women take up senior management positions in the industry.

Another significant issue is the lack of awareness and understanding of the problems faced by women who work in the maritime industry. Although modern times have already rejected the idea of gender stereotypes, many people still hold traditional views regarding marine work. This serves as a barrier to many women who seek to enter the sector. There is also not enough mentorship and support for women in the industry. Many female seafarers need to rely on their own resources and initiatives to succeed in the industry, which can be quite difficult.

However, despite the challenges, an increasing number of women are proving that the maritime industry does not have to be a male-only sector. Significant changes can be introduced into the industry to make it more diverse, efficient, and overall better. Here are some major ways in which women are changing the shipping industry:

  • Eliminating stereotypes 

Women in the shipping industry are currently challenging traditional gender norms and combating gender stereotypes. The increasing number of female workers in the industry proves that women are just as capable as men in taking up various maritime roles, from seafarers to marine engineers and ship captains. 

  • Increasing representation

More and more women are entering the shipping industry at all levels, from entry-level to senior management positions. This has resulted in a more diverse workforce and allowed the decision-making processes of shipping companies to receive a broader range of perspectives. 

  • Advocating for change

Besides taking up maritime roles, women in the shipping industry also vow to advocate for change and call out discrimination, sexism, and harassment in the workplace. These female maritime workers are pushing for better working conditions and equal opportunities for women.

  • Giving inspiration to others

Women working in the maritime industry ultimately serve as inspirations for other women to consider careers in the sector. They act as mentors and role models for future generations of female seafarers.

Notable Female Leaders in the Shipping Industry

As mentioned earlier, one of the most significant changes in the maritime industry today is its increasing openness for female leaders. Over the recent decades, a number of inspiring women have proven that success in the shipping industry is not gender specific. These women have taken up leadership positions on ships with great efficiency and integrity. Among them is Ms Caroline Yang, the Chief Executive Officer of Hong Lam Marine and President of the Singapore Shipping Association (SSA).

Ms Yang is the first female to lead the SSA since its foundation in 1985. For her, gender stereotypes should have no place in the maritime sector. For as long as one is capable and willing to step up, one should be given opportunities to work and excel in the industry, regardless of gender. Through her leadership in the SSA, Ms Yang aims to make young women realise that they are no different from their male counterparts. With enough courage to stand up for their beliefs, women can absolutely make it big in an industry as competitive as shipping.

Another notable female leader in Singapore’s cutthroat maritime industry is Ms Quah Ley Hoon, who holds the distinguished position of Chief People & Culture Officer at CapitaLand. Prior to her current role, she served with utmost dedication and expertise at the Maritime Port Authority (MPA) for nearly four years. Ms Quah played a critical role in driving the global maritime aspirations of Singapore. She was instrumental in leading MPA through the COVID-19 health crisis, mainly by supervising vaccination drives for local maritime staff and crew members onboard ships docked in Singapore.

Under the dynamic leadership of Ms Quah, MPA came up with decisive responses to the enormous challenges presented by the pandemic and made big strides to decarbonise and transform the shipping industry. While Ms Quah is already set to step down from her position in September this year, her efficient leadership and significant contributions to Singapore’s maritime sector will always be remembered and will become a standard for future MPA leaders to come. 


Times are undoubtedly changing. In the past, the maritime industry was a male-only sector that prohibited women from establishing careers in shipping. Nowadays, more and more women are already taking up maritime jobs, proving that the traditional gender norms previously embraced by the maritime industry are baseless and have no place in the modern world. With an increasing number of women entering the shipping industry, there is a greater diversity of ideas, perspectives, and experiences that can ultimately benefit the sector as a whole.

Maritime Fairtrade provides a comprehensive source of information regarding the maritime industry in Asia, including our maritime guide in Singapore, which covers an array of critical issues, such as gender discrimination, illegal drug smuggling, corruption, and more. Aside from the guide, we also offer opinion pieces, editorial features, and news articles that cover a wide variety of topics concerning the industry, including regulatory changes, market trends, technological advancements, and environmental concerns. Feel free to visit our website to stay updated.

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