Breaking down gender barriers at sea

Key takeaways on an analysis of working conditions for female seafarers

by Revd Ijeoma Ajibade

Shipping remains a male-dominated industry, with men making up 98% of the world’s 1.6 million seafarers. There are industry initiatives to bring more women into seafaring, but change is happening slowly. There are still many barriers to a life at sea for women, and there simply isn’t yet enough support, opportunity, or guidance in the maritime industry to help women overcome the issues they face.

The Mission to Seafarers created the 2022 Women Seafarers Report to reflect on what a life at sea looks like for women and how organisations can better support female seafarers. The following are some of the key takeaways.

Education and training: Discrimination against female seafarers is rife within maritime education and training. In certain countries, women are discouraged from enrolling on nautical courses, and when they do, training staff can be dismissive or contemptuous. Employers can also be hesitant about hiring female cadets or qualified seafarers, having a knock-on effect on college admissions, as organisations don’t want to jeopardise their statistics on being able to place cadets at sea.

Lack of respect: Female seafarers often feel animosity from their male colleagues. Attitudes range from hostility to discriminatory comments framed as jokes, all of which can undermine the confidence of women on board and leave them feeling isolated and ostracised. Women in senior positions also face insubordination from male seafarers who refuse to take orders from a woman.

Sexual harassment: Some of the worst issues women seafarers face are sexual harassment and intimidation. This can take many forms – from inappropriate remarks or threats to physical violence and sexual assault. Female seafarers may take extra precautions to protect themselves from sexual harassment. This can include withdrawing from on-board social situations, or if they do attend, they may choose to leave events early.

Some women also lock themselves in their cabins at night for safety. It’s worth noting that many organisations have implemented anti-harassment policies, which are backed up by company training
and courses. Women seafarers are positive about these initiatives and are more likely to come forward with any personal experiences of sexual harassment.

Health concerns

Female-specific healthcare: Access to quality healthcare is an issue for all seafarers, but can be especially difficult for women seafarers. Access to sanitary products can be limited, and on some vessels, seafarers depend on fellow crew members for medical consultations and treatment, most of whom are men. This can result in awkward or uncomfort­able situations for women and impact patient

Excluded by male seafarers: Crews have limited space on board a vessel and often operate under ‘majority rules’. As the overwhelming majority of seafarers are men, women can end up feeling excluded by certain activities taking place in recreational areas. For example, if pornography is being watched or openly displayed, or TV sets are dominated by shows targeted to a male audience, women seafarers may prefer to stay alone in their cabins. This isolation also extends to shore leave as male seafarers may not invite female colleagues to join them.

Maritime organisations must not only recognise the importance of better understanding issues facing female seafarers but take action to improve support and boost female welfare. On board, this may
include re-evaluating living conditions to be more gender-sensitive, issuing zero-tolerance policies for gender discrimination, or training on violence and harassment-free workplaces. Ashore, seafarer centres could provide sanitary products or gender-specific advocacy. Taking these steps will help the industry both recruit and retain
female seafarers, delivering fresh perspectives, new ideas and much­
needed skills to maritime.

Revd Ijeoma Ajibade is director for Europe at The Mission to Seafarers.