Many reasons to address gender imbalance

Better motivation and a retention rethink needed to encourage and keep women at sea

By Felicity Landon

Let’s start with statistics: when it comes to women at sea, most people quote the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) well-worn figures, which suggest that women make up only two percent of the world’s 1.2m seafarers.

However, responses to the International Chamber of Shipping’s (ICS) recent survey for its Diversity Tracker published in November 2020 indicated that 7.5% of seafarers are women – and the ICS says there are an estimated 1.6m seafarers globally.

Whichever percentage you take, it’s clear that in an era when it is difficult to convince young people to go to sea, a very large source of potential recruits is being missed. That, of course, is quite apart from the numerous studies that have demonstrated the benefits to businesses of increasing diversity.

This is a topic that is certainly being talked about; indeed, WISTA International, Anglo-Eastern Ship Management, the International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN) and the ICS are currently updating their Gender Diversity Manual first published in 2018, and the ICS also tackles many of the issues in its new Diversity Tracker.

Capt Kersi Deboo, director and principal at the Anglo Eastern Maritime Training Centre, observes that traditionally seafaring is perceived as a male-dominated vocation. “Parents, especially in Asia, are very reluctant to send their daughters to sea,” he says. “We have observed that those [women] that do apply have a very strong drive for the career and often have fought with their parents to permit them to choose seafaring as a career.”

Seafaring is perceived as a lonely life, with little social interaction and work fraught with danger and risk of injuries and involving long hours of physical labour, he says, and a drastic change of image is overdue.

Seafaring still has a ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ image, says Capt Deboo, with shipping viewed as a polluting industry rather than being portrayed as the lifeblood of the global economy.

“A ship should be viewed as a sophisticated floating township, with futuristic modern technology driving it. It requires well-educated, intelligent folks to run the ships and not brawny, muscular, ‘Popeye the Sailor’ types of seafarers. Regular magazines should carry articles featuring women who have gone on to command large cruise liners, tankers and container ships. This would act as a strong motivator for women to go to sea.”

Anglo Eastern is working hard to increase its women seafarer base and its recruitment team visits schools and colleges to promote seafaring as a career both to boys and girls. “These visits are bearing fruit,” says Capt Deboo. “We need to bridge the gap; even if we can bring it to 25% women-75% men, then the rest will equalise pretty quickly.”

Diversity goals

The ICS wants to see women on board (across ranks and ratings) rise by 12% in three years and 25% in 20 years.

Among a series of recommendations in the Diversity Tracker, it calls for companies to introduce flexible working patterns and childcare policies, ensure suitable onboard accommodation for women seafarers, publish diversity and inclusion targets, and provide ergonomically suitable PPE that meets the needs of all seafarers.

Irene, Engineer Officer (Credit: Irene, IMO, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Sanjam Gupta, a member of the Women’s International Shipping & Trading Association’s (WISTA) diversity commit- tee and a trustee of The Mission to Seafarers in India, says some challenges are as basic as having sanitary bins onboard or PPE and safety shoes that actually fit. “There are very few companies that go that extra mile to make sure there is equipment with women’s measurements. More often than not, women are drowning in overalls that are much too big.”

However, she says women can face far worse challenges than an oversized overall. “I have come across cases where women want to pursue a seafaring career. They finish their [shore-based] training but are not able to complete their sea training because shipping companies are not keen to take them or don’t provide for them. So, you can do the training but not be able to start your career.”

Companies wanting to promote diversity can make the mistake of ‘just putting women on ships’, with no preparation or changes made. The result can be women boarding a ship that does not have the right facilities, with a team that is also not prepared, says Ms Gupta.

“On board, women seafarers can face a lot of scepticism and sometimes bullying and harassment. They can feel unwelcome and isolated and that makes them feel they are not good enough. A lot of women decide to be quiet, say nothing and just move on. Many women just give up and come ashore. On the other hand, the ones that do complain can find that nothing comes out of it and the company simply refuses to hire them again.

“In some cases where they have had harassment and they complain, the company’s response is ‘it’s too much hassle, let’s not do it, the woman is the problem, let’s not have the woman on board’.”

Change the norm

While it is easier not to have women onboard than to deal with a legitimate complaint or change the system, and while some companies still say women don’t belong on board, what can be done?

Ms Gupta says it comes down to lack of awareness; what is needed is a change of mindset and a lot of sensitisa- tion. “The patriarchal norm needs to be changed.”

To suggest my own analogy: just as sports reporters talk about ‘football’ and ‘women’s football’ – implying that football is by default a male domain with women not really belonging – we talk about seafarers, and we talk about female seafarers.

Ms Gupta says: “Apart from facilities and suitable safety shoes, companies should try to sensitise the crew about women coming onboard – it could be as simple as comments and jokes that are not appropriate. These are simple things – but a lot of companies don’t want to do it because it isn’t something they can measure and show and say ‘OK we have done that’.”

Sensitisation should cover not only the captain, chief engineer and others in positions of authority, but also the people all around – she calls it ‘empowering bystanders’. “For example, if a woman is being harassed or intimidated and is not able to speak up, other crew members should be able to speak up.

What would help here is some positive animated videos highlighting the right and wrong way of doing things. It is about taking simple steps in a positive manner – the message being ‘you have an amazing team, this woman is coming on board, how can you make it easier for her?’ These things would be of huge benefit.”

Shipowners, managers and recruit- ers must send a clear ‘zero tolerance to discrimination’ message from the top down, says Ms Gupta: “If those onboard know that the company has a very strict policy of zero tolerance to discrimination that would go a very long way. You can’t change people but a company should make it easier for people to complain when they need to speak up.”

Still lagging

As a traditionally global industry, ship- ping is ahead of many other industries in terms of diversity of nationality, says Andrew Cook, global crew operations director at V.Group – “but in the gender aspect, we are definitely not”.

“It is not through lack of effort – but it is a difficult situation to crack,” he says.

The cruise and leisure sector offers a halfway house between ship and luxury hotel – jobs across hotel, spa, entertainment and other sectors, combined with seeing the world, are a real attraction for people from every walk of life. “But a nitty gritty tanker running between oil refinery and oil refinery – less so.”

Today’s cargo ships are far more user friendly and high-tech than 20 years ago and the skills needed are different, he points out. There is the attraction of sailing the world, too, “but there are only 20 people on board, most ships are alcohol free, and there is very little social life. Also, people see being at sea as an individual career and think they will work their way up but then have to start all over again when they come onshore. But that is not the case and we need to promote the fact that there is a huge shore-based industry – you can get to a certain level at sea and get a job ashore.”

In March, V.Group, which employs 47,000 people in onshore and offshore roles, said women make up 49% of its onshore team and 3% of its seafarers; it said there was still progress to be made offshore, especially as demand for seafarers is outstripping available resources.

Mr Cook says the group has 32 female seafarers serving onboard cargo ships – all are officers, including two captains and a chief officer. “And that portrays another issue. Officers have better accommodation generally, with en suite facilities and privacy – some- where to lock your door and your own space. For ratings, it is a different thing – you may have people sharing cabins and toilet facilities, and I don’t think that is attractive. Also, ratings supply is hugely dominated by the Philippines and India, which are countries with very traditional, conservative attitudes.”

Pregnancy is a general safety-related issue he mentions: “A ship is not an ideal place to be if there are two lives involved, not just one.” On a cruise ship, there would be a doctor and small nursing team to turn to if necessary – on a tanker, there would at best be an officer with advanced first aid. Also, seafarers are generally on voyage contracts, which means they are only employed when on the ship. “Once on leave they are out of employment and we re-employ them again each contract. That is good in one way, but if a woman becomes pregnant and is on leave, they are outside of a contract.”

A good welcome

Despina Panayiotou Theodosiou, WISTA international president, welcomes the growing number of discussions around gender diversity, emphasising the need to attract both men and women to a career at sea and to ensure that living, working and social conditions onboard are fit for purpose for all seafarers.

Natia Labadze, 2nd officer (Credit: Natia Labadze, IMO, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

There are several issues to be addressed to secure diversity, she says. Any career needs to be attractive, welcoming and relevant. Countries providing most of our crews need to ensure that maritime colleges and facilities are suitable for all young cadets and crew members. Girls need to know this can be a welcoming and attractive career for them – “and I think the word is getting out”.

Ms Theodosiou says even though her father was a ship’s captain, when the time came for her to choose a career, going to sea was not discussed. “At the grassroots level we need to get educated young women to be aware that careers at sea are of value – that is what we are missing. This needs work in schools and colleges, and we also need to reach the parents, who are involved with children’s educational choices. Also, the career opportunities need to be better explained to them – it is important to sell the varied career path beyond the seafaring part.”

An important point, says Mr Cook at V.Group, is that ships today are far less about sheer strength and are more technical, digitalised and automated. “As deck cadets, we used to learn navigation but also how to tie ropes and splice wires. There are still some things – such as mooring or anchoring a ship, winches to tighten up, and physical work, most of which is undertaken by ratings supervised by an officer – but more and more it is management skills that make a difference between an average and a really good officer. The old days where the captain cracked the whip and everyone did what he said are gone. Young people are pushing back and won’t accept that any more. A senior officer needs to have the same management skills as people have ashore, to adapt depending on the situation you are in. That absolutely plays into the hands of women with those skills.”

That’s echoed by Ms Theodosiou,who says working on ships requires a particular skillset and mental capabilities that are not gender specific.

“Seafarers need to be self-sufficient, have a troubleshooting mentality, be proactive and be reliable decision-mak- ers. We need people who are enthusiastic and engaged.

“This is a transforming industry. One of the attractions for all people is the ability to work hard and gain respect, to learn to make decisions and become a leader – and that is something we can sell.”

One of the common arguments against getting more women onboard ships is that they think and behave differently to men. But this is far too simplistic, says Ms Theodosiou. “Women are as varied as men and some would be more suited to particular roles than other women and men. So diversity is about finding the right person, regardless of their gender, race or social background – we need to finally leave those prejudices behind and find the right person for the job.”

Equal attraction

Capt Deboo also believes that the attractions of a career at sea would be the same for a woman as for a man. “In Asia, it is a decent tax-free salary, good vacation after every tenure, opportunity to visit different lands and interact with locals of different nationality and a certain love for the sea. Our experience has shown that women who chose this career had a more carefree streak about them and wanted to take on the challenges of a more physical career rather than a 9-to-5 desk job,” he says.

He believes that on a ship there should be at least two women: “A single woman will find it very lonely not knowing whom to confide in.” And he is positive about the impact. “A better gender split will bring in more diversity, better collaboration and a happier ship. Women with their more caring nature bring in a gentle approach which can smooth frayed nerves and irritability.

Also, during problem-solving, a woman’s thought process could be quite different from a man’s and could bring about a lateral viewpoint.”

We have come a long way: Andy Cook at V.Group went to sea in 1973, the year BP started its female cadet programme, and recalls: “For some old-timers, that was a big shock to the system. In so many ways we have moved forward. I always considered that having women officers onboard brought a sense of balance to the crew – instead of a bunch of lads together, they brought some realism to the whole vessel. It was positive in so many ways.”