Where are all the Women Seafarers?

4 years ago

t’s not exactly a secret that there is a significant lack of women working on the open seas. What isn’t as well known however is just how dramatic this gap is between men and women seafarers, and the possible reasons why this gap exists in the first place.

For starters, here are some statistics that’ll make you question what century we’re in (courtesy of International Labour Organization):

Women represent only 1-2 per cent of the world’s 1.25 million seafarers. However, in the cruise line sector, they represent 17-18% of the workforce. Ninety-four per cent of women are employed on passenger ships (with 68% on ferries and 26% on cruise ships) and 6% are employed on cargo vessels (i.e., container ships, oil tankers, etc.). As for jobs, there are women shipmasters and chief engineers, as well as other officers. However, generally, women are working as hotel staff on passenger ships. Of this latter group, 51.2% of women at sea come from OECD countries, 23.6% from Eastern Europe, 9.8% from Latin America and Africa, 13.7% from the Far East, and 1.7% from south Asia and the Middle East.

Much like in the engineering/technology industries, women only make up a fraction of the entire sector. The reasons behind this large divide have always been debated, but if the statistics above are anything to go by, that is, the majority of women finding jobs on passenger ships, it would seem that they are being pushed towards the roles that are more traditionally felt to belong to women (i.e. caretaking).

Of course, there are other reasons that might be keeping women off deck. Sexual harassment has long been an issue that requires immediate attention. While the cruise sector has strict policies that have helped to reduce the number of sexual harassment incidents, the cargo sector (aka a sector that is missing women) seems to have given the issue less attention. In her book “Sweatships: What It’s Really Like to Work On Board Cruise Ships”, author Celia Mather wrote that the number of sexual harassment cases could be even higher than they are as women are afraid to report such incidents for fear of dismissal. Similarly, maternity benefits is another concern as women who get pregnant without the same benefits that are usually expected may face immediate termination.

Still, despite all the roadblocks that women face to join the seafaring world, there are some groups that are trying to bridge the gap. The International Maritime Organization has announced plans to launch a global strategy for women in Korea in April, while also planning to release a film (which you can watch below) that hopes to encourage more women to enter the maritime sector. Yale Global Online notes the progress women have had in recent years when it comes to training:

“By 2001, the total number of female students at the World Maritime University (WMU) had risen to 21 per cent of the total university population compared to 8 per cent in 1995.” There is also growing support for women to climb the shipping sector ladder in organizations like WISTA (Women’s International Shipping & Trading Association), which offers seminars, workshops and more to help women develop a strong presence in this sector.

What happens next for women seafarers is anybody’s guess. While it is inevitable that the gap between the positions that women and men hold will begin to close, it is really up to the maritime community to determine how quickly and, if we do everything we can to eliminate roadblocks along the way, how easily that happens.

Photo by U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Mark Logico and licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

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