Women seafarers are still battling gender discrimination

The industry has to act against it to attract more passionate and qualified women seafarers.

In the 21st century where great strides have been made in gender equality, some women seafarers still fear for their personal safety onboard male-dominated ships.  Gender discrimination in the form of favoring male seafarers, prejudice against females, denying them professional career progression, and bullying and harassment are what women seafarers face on a daily basis.  Usually, issues like such are not raised as they tend to keep silent to avoid being perceived as a “troublemaker”.

Gender discrimination happens when female seafarers are mistreated and disrespected onboard a ship and denied promotional opportunities.  It stems from the nature, history and culture of seafaring.  Once and still is a male dominated industry, the existing societal expectations, beliefs and doubts about women’s abilities are what haunts female seafarers. 

Male seafarers who grew up in traditional family systems or conservative societies tend to perceive women playing a secondary role.  Moreover, when onboard a ship, seafarers are isolated and far away from boundaries like law, ethics and morality.  In such cases, it is possible that some male seafarers are unshackled, thereby allowing their basic instincts to manifest.

Gender discrimination can negatively impact a female seafarer’s dignity and security.  If left unmitigated, the industry may also face difficulty in effective recruitment and retention of women seafarers.  In a worst-case scenario, the fear of speaking up and the lack of an outlet to seek help, will possibly lead to accumulated stress and may trigger suicide attempts. 

A male dominated industry, women are severely underrepresented

The maritime sector is ever-expanding with its myriad of possibilities brought about by globalization and digitalization and it therefore needs to attract more talent.  The sector is opening its doors to highly skilled personnel and is becoming increasingly welcoming to women.  

However, there are still plenty of cases of gender discrimination and these have to stop to ensure the sector is truly safe and welcoming to attract the best talent possible.  As it stands, according to the BIMBO/ICS 2021 Seafarer Workforce Report, women only represent a mere 1.2 percent of the global seafarer workforce.  Despite the prejudices, many women are still pursuing a seafaring profession out of love for the sea just like their male counterparts. 

Thoughtless but harmful remarks impact women seafarer’s mental health

Amreen Bano is the first and youngest Electro Technical Officer (ETO) in India. In a case study published by Human Rights at Sea during a seminar facilitated by the Maritime Union of India, Bano recounted the many stereotypical remarks she received throughout her education and seafaring journey. 

“Girl, you chose wrong side. Stop dreaming about your career here”.  This was what Bano used to hear daily.  As a result, these supposedly harmless remarks filled her mind with negative thoughts. 

During a job interview at a “well reputed big shipping company”, Bano recalled that the interviewers called everyone Mister, even addressing her as Mister Amreen Bano.  This incident reinforced the fact that seafaring is a male dominated job and that all applicants would be males.

Marwa Elselehdar is Egypt’s first female captain.  In 2021, Ever Given, a huge container ship, became wedged across the Suez Canal, bringing one of the world’s major shipping routes to a halt.  Elselehdar was hundreds of miles away in Alexandria when she heard rumors that she was involved in the incident, according to a story by BBC.

According to Elselehdar, she felt that people were spreading false claims because she is a successful female in the field. 

Elselehdar also recited some of the sexist commentary she received at every turn. 

“Onboard, they were all older men with different mentalities, so it was difficult not to be able to find like-minded people to communicate with.  It was challenging to go through this alone and be able to overcome it without affecting my mental health.”

Stereotype of seafaring jobs for males must change

The jargon used also suggest the sector is male-dominated, e.g., “unmanned” ships and “seamen” etc.  In the UK, a seafarer’s government-issued document which records their career is called a “Seamen’s” discharge book.  

Clothing is also another issue.  In the UK, both male and female cadets are required to wear ties, an item of clothing that is traditionally considered to be male.  This unintentionally suggests that seafaring is a man’s role and females do not belong in the said profession.

Men are clearly preferred over women, and this is exposed by ILOSTAT data on gender wage gaps published in 2020.  The median gender wage gap for 115 countries with available data is 14 percent more in favor of men.  Some jobs have even higher wage premiums for men.  In the long run, this means that women work almost two months for free as compared to men, doing the same job.

Women seafarers need to work doubly hard

Women face challenges even in the early stages of a seafaring career like achieving the qualifications and Certificate of Competency.  Elselehdar said she had to have the Egyptian President’s approval after a legal review in order to enroll in the AASTMT, an academy that only accepted men at that time. 

Women seafarers also feel the need to prove that they are worthy of the job.

Maribel Villar Singian is a ROTC officer who on her first deployment was assigned to a bulk carrier at the tender age of 19.  According to a story by The Manilla Times, she faced numerous hardship and discrimination in the industry because of her gender. 

“I worked hard to prove my mettle, that female seafarers are not just good for paper pushing,” Singian said.  Women have to work doubly hard to build trust with their seniors and to prove they are qualified to take up high positions.

Women seafarers will face some sort of crossroad during their career – standing up for themselves or to remain silent in order to keep their jobs.  Often than not, they choose the latter and avoid confrontations in fear that they may cause “trouble” and disrupt the harmony on the ship.  They also feel that speaking out may put their career at risk.

Female seafarers should not be sexually harassed

In addition to gender discrimination, female seafarers are also facing sexual harassment.

A collaborative study from the International Maritime Health Association, International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network, International Transport Workers’ Federation and the Seafarers Hospital Society in 2015 revealed that 18 percent out of 595 responses stated that sexual harassment is an issue.

Sexual harassment takes up various forms from physical, verbal to non-verbal forms. It is a grey area that is open to perception and interpretation. According to researcher M Kitada, a German woman seafarer explained that she could wear sleeveless clothing in front of a Romanian crew, but it would be problematic in front of a Filipino crew.  It is unfortunate that women seafarers have to go the extra mile to protect themselves from their co-workers.

Despite the tough nature of seafaring work and discrimination towards women, there is an increasing number of female seafarers at top positions.  More credit should be given to women seafarers as they are more resilient than people perceived them to be.  Behind all the blood, sweat and tears, lie a strong independent woman.  They are actively standing up for themselves in their own ways and reaching greater heights in this male dominated industry.

Photo credit: iStock/pigphoto

Jessica Loh

Jessica Loh

At the time of publication, Jessica is a second year maritime student who is navigating her way through the industry.

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