Women face turbulent conditions navigating the male-dominated maritime industry

Women face turbulent conditions navigating the male-dominated maritime industry

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Women seeking a career in shipping face multiple challenges ranging from education and recruitment to on board atmosphere and ignorant management.

Gender equality is an issue that is garnering attention around the globe, with high profile individuals ranging from Canadian president Justin Trudeau to actress Emma Watson and musical performer Beyonce lending their support to the cause.

Closer to home, the IMO itself has chosen to tackle the issue through its Integration of Women in the Maritime Sector (IWMS) programme.

The heavily-male composition of the maritime industry is so deeply ingrained that in some cases it is considered newsworthy by the mainstream media when a woman is appointed to a high-profile role in the sector.

Take for example the case of Karin Stahre-Jansen, who made headlines when she became the first female cruise ship captain in 2007 and even merited a special mention by the IMO for this achievement; or that of Inger Klein Olsen who was appointed captain of the Queen Victoria cruise ship in 2010.

While there are more women now visible, the shift within the industry has been gradual, noticeable through indicators such as sectors that they are active in.

As per data from a 2003 survey conducted by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), of all the women in the maritime industry, 96 per cent were employed on passenger vessels and a mere 4 per cent on cargo ships.

A more recent (2015) survey by International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN) shows a dramatic shift in these figures, with 60 per cent of all women working on cargo vessels and 40 per cent employed within the cruise sector.

That said, women still account for only a tiny percentage of total seafarers, less than 2 per cent out of 1,250,000 seafarers according to MF Shipping group CEO Karin Orsel, who is also the president of WISTA International.

This figure is supported by the results of a 2013 study by the IMarEST and recruitment firm Matchtech, which looked at the wider skills gap in the maritime sector, found over one-third of marine engineers worked in companies with less than a one per cent female workforce.

Obstacles to entry

There are a number of reasons that the female population isn’t flocking to shipping, one of which is the level of technical skill required, with a significantly lower number of women opting to study science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects.

Of these students, a majority opt for medicine and pure science careers rather then those offered by engineering, further fragmenting the low intake.

In fact, a WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) survey confirmed that in 2011, only 430 females completed an engineering apprenticeship compared to 10,800 males – a shocking disparity which may explain why across engineering as a whole, women account for just 8.7 per cent of professional engineers.

There is much debate surrounding the topic of ‘positive discrimination’, with arguments being made that this allows under-skilled individuals in to the work place and also the undeniable fact that this can cause staff resentment, particularly in cases where this is done as a tick-box exercise.

However, there have been instances where companies have gotten the equation right. Recruitment consultant Georgina Lee cites one of her clients as having downplayed the niche technical entry requirements required for a team so as to appeal to a wider audience – including women.

“Rather than asking for a chief engineer with 11 years of experience with an LNG vessel, which would have meant just five candidates – all likely to have been men, they invited in candidates from a variety of backgrounds and chose to up-skill through training as part of the job,” she tells The Marine Professional.  

She points to research has shown that men and women pay attention to different buzzwords when looking at prospective jobs. This means that the language used plays a major role in determining who would find a position appealing.

Some of her clients have cottoned on to this fact and ask for their recruitment advertisements to be have multiple incarnations in different media to appeal to a varied audience, with certain variations containing buzzwords that would indicate a female friendly environment.

Model impression

That said, women that do make it in the industry may find themselves with limited access to resources, particularly if they are seeking female role models. It would be wrong to assume that women exit the industry more than their male counterparts.

In fact, a NUMAST survey carried out in 2000 showed that 66 per cent of Nautilus’ female members work on ships for more than 6 years and 19 per cent have on board tenures of over 15 years.

While the gender imbalance definitely accounts for lack of female role models, the situation may also be exacerbated by the so-called ‘leaky pipeline’ effect, where women in technical industries leak out of the career pipelines before they reach senior positions – where they would be most visible and, arguably, do most good as mentors.

“When I started my career there were few women role models and they were very remote. All my mentors were men and they gave me huge confidence,” says Bridget Hogan, secretary WISTA UK and director of publishing and marketing at The Nautical Institute.

“Now, through WISTA, I gain inspiration from other women and try to pass that on to young people through my mentoring. Training is about competences; mentoring is more about motivating and instilling confidence.

It’s a positive experience from which both sides benefit. I also relish reverse-mentoring, from younger colleagues who can teach me elements of computer programs or other technologies. Showing them that I too need to continually learn can give them confidence,” she adds.

Perception problems

Another hurdle to gender equality is the atmosphere within the maritime industry, where women are subject to more stringent behavioural rules than men, including not being aggressive when making a point, as that may be deemed ‘emotional’.

One respondent (who wished to remain anonymous) recalled a number of professional settings where she was disregarded.

“If I am too animated, they just ignore my point, which can be very frustrating. I’ve definitely also experienced condescension on quite a few occasions, but I think you have to do a ‘Taylor Swift’ and shake it off so that you can get on with your job,” she quipped.

There is also a greater focus on women’s appearances as compared to their male colleagues, with this serving as a point for both criticism and sexualised attention.


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