Where are all the women? World Maritime Day 2019

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Where are all the women? World Maritime Day 2019

Lisa Otto

25 Sep 2019

6min min read
  • Maritime law
  • Women's rights

The International Maritime Organisation (IMO), under the auspices of the United Nations (UN), hosts an annual World Maritime Day in September, using the event to highlight a different key issue in the maritime sector each year. This year’s event centres around women’s empowerment in the maritime community, with the aim of raising awareness on gender equality in the maritime space in order to promote Sustainable Development Goal Five (SDG-5), which is to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. 

The status quo

Women have historically not been well-represented in the traditional or formal portion of the maritime sector. Much as in other sectors, women have often been and continue to be engaged in the informal sector, for example in sewing and repairing fishing nets and selling fish at market. Indeed, a 2016 report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the UN found that in West Africa and in Asia around 60 per cent of seafood is marketed by women, while they are also disproportionately involved in shellfish gathering and cleaning, which the report states is often an under-recognised fishery activity. In the formal sector, the International Transport Worker’s Federation (ITF) estimates that women make up as little as around two per cent of the maritime workforce, with 94 per cent of these women, according to the International Labour Organisation, working in service roles on passenger ships. The maritime domain, as such, remains dominated by men. 

This is much the case also in the armed forces, and in navies in particular. For many years women were not permitted to work in the armed forces, and when they did were not allowed to hold frontline or combat-active positions, with these circumstances only starting to change in recent memory. Where the navy is concerned, age-old myths, such as women aboard vessels being unlucky, had also held an impact for women’s representation. While pathways into the armed forces, and thus the navy, are beginning to clear for women, representation remains low, and recruitment has not necessarily been actively geared toward women. A recent study on women in the armed forces in the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe found that across 21 of the 57 participating countries, representation ranged from two to 17 per cent. Clear figures are difficult to obtain for African countries although conversations with female officers at a recent workshop on women in maritime security revealed that while overall representation in African armed forces may be growing (24 per cent in South Africa and 30 per cent in Eritrea for example), this is not necessarily true for navies specifically. 

The African Union’s (AU) Gender Strategy, which speaks to Aspiration Six of the AU Vision 2063, outlines a desire for women to have “equal voice, choice and control over their lives” as men. This, alongside SDG-5, highlights the importance of this year’s World Maritime Day theme, for Africa and for the world at large. 

Challenges faced by women at sea

It can be difficult to establish best practice for women’s inclusion and empowerment in the maritime space often because data is not gender disaggregated. This is the finding by a number of scholars at South Africa’s Human Sciences Research Council who studied women’s economic empowerment in the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) region, with a focus on the blue economy. Indeed, many small island states, such as those forming part of IORA, recognise that by virtue of their very geography, their national identities, economies, and strategies have the sea firmly embedded at their centre. With this in mind, it seems almost obvious that women, making up half of the workforce, should be actively engaged in formal and informal maritime industries; however, there is little by way of data to demonstrate the extent to which they are employed in these industries. 

Where information is available, it does not paint an encouraging picture for women, or at least displays many of the same challenges that women experience in other sectors. For example, the gender pay gap: the UN Conference on Trade and Development, in its 2018 Review of Maritime Transport references a survey conducted by Maritime HR Association the previous year which found the gender pay gap in the shipping industry to be high, with women earning an average of 45 per cent less than men and occupying only seven per cent of management positions. The review points to two main causes for poor representation of women in the sector, namely: working conditions that tend not to accommodate women and gender stereotyping.

"For many years women were not permitted to work in the armed forces, and when they did were not allowed to hold frontline or combat-active positions."

This brings us to a second challenge which is frequently cited as a barrier to entry for women in maritime industries, particularly for jobs at sea, which is that vessels are often not designed with gendered facilities in mind. Women may often be required to bunk with men, and may not have dedicated ablution facilities onboard. 

Further to this, there may thus be no safe spaces available to women aboard a vessel. Cases of unwanted sexual attention and harassment are not uncommon, while safety aboard vessels has traditionally been interpreted as dealing with the avoidance of accidents and general wellbeing. A recent case brought by a Swedish woman against a senior officer has also highlighted that companies may not have in place the requisite policies to deal with incidents of sexual harassment, nor may they have the company culture to deal with such cases with seriousness. 

A further challenge plays into gender stereotyping: a vessel is not seen as a space that a woman would herself want to be, given the nature of seafaring work meaning crews are away from their families for many months at a time. These conditions thus run, per traditional gender norms, counter to the female attributes of mothering and nurturing. This point of view quite obviously places the assumed wants and needs of women above their actual, expressed desires. It leaves out the many women who do not have or want children, as well as those who may have family arrangements that mean these working conditions do not impose impediments to her, in the way that they may not impose impediments to her male colleagues.

Creating a more inclusive space for women

This industry, much like many others that have historically been dominated by men or are seen to require so-called ‘male’ attributes, evidently has a long way to go to achieve greater women’s empowerment. This year’s theme is thus a worthy issue to be highlighted this World Maritime Day. There are many ways in which stakeholders can work to achieve this, but for the sake of brevity, I call attention to four key interventions.

  • First, is around awareness-raising and education. More needs to be done to raise women’s awareness of the sea as a place of work, and to conscientise them to educational opportunities that are pathways to employment in the maritime industry. This likely best begins at early stages of education, and is bolstered by awareness and recruitment campaigns designed specifically to attract women. 
  • Second, is gender policy and training. The ITF and International Chamber of Shipping have developed guidance on eliminating harassment and bullying, and this could be a first port of call to aid designing workplace policies to deal with sexual harassment. This, however, will require sensitivity training not just on the part of male seafarers, but also directed at management  to ensure that company culture can be shifted in such a way that such policies are adopted and implemented with sobriety, and that women’s concerns are taken seriously. Further to this, an environment where women feel comfortable to report sexual harassment is crucial. 
  • Thirdly, the design of workplace environments in the maritime sector will need to begin to adjust in ways that accommodate women and their needs. To this end, the workplace must be considered in a gender-sensitive way to not simply require them share all facilities with their male counterparts, but create spaces that serve women’s requirements instead. 
  • Lastly, more research is needed to better understanding the context for women employed in the maritime industry. This means that data must be gender disaggregated in order to allow for the recording of the number of women active in the various maritime sub-sectors, for example, and thereby to better understand the circumstances, problems and barriers that women in the industry face. 

These four interventions would be a start to working actively towards the achievement of SDG-5 and Aspiration Six of the AU’s Vision 2063, but speak more broadly to the kind of thinking that is required to empower women. Blinkered thinking and outdated gender stereotypes lies at the heart of the challenges outlined here, and addressing mindset will thus be pivotal to the transformation of the maritime sector. 

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI. 

(Main image: An Egyptian woman looks at the French frigate Courbet crossing the Suez Canal waterway near the port city of Ismailia, east of Cairo, on April 19, 2013 - AFP/Getty Images)