The challenge of getting women to sea continues

Views around women working the maritime industry have come into focus with more being needed to be done by the industry to help encourage women into it, if it wants to adapt for the future, writes Samantha Fisk.

Shipping is notoriously a male dominated industry, but the world is changing and adapting to new ways of working, the old and outmoded ways are being made redundant and replaced with a more diverse workforce being created with diversity in the workplace now being linked with more productivity and driving profitability.

Recent studies have shown that today, women make up only 2-5% of crew onboard the industry, which is mainly in the cruise sector, 98% of which work in the hotel sector and on land only 10% of the workforce is women. Pia Melling, President, WISTA Norway comments about the lack of women in the industry and factors that may deter women from entering in that: “It is seen as male dominated and old fashioned. It is also still closed as an industry and invisible to the general public. It hasn’t recruited from outside the industry and there is also a lack of awareness of the industry.”

However, today more is being done to get women recognised in the maritime workplace, through initiatives and programmes such as Women’s International Shipping & Trading Association (WISTA) and the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) own Women in Maritime. These organisations are pioneering to raise the image of women in the maritime sector through activities that they are carrying out and to help women step into more senior roles. In 2019 for World Maritime day the IMO themed its celebrations around ‘empowering women in the maritime community’.

The themed day was aimed at raising awareness of the importance of gender equality, in line with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and to highlight the important contribution of women all over the world in the maritime community.

WISTA also helps women in the industry through providing a mentor programme and individual mentoring. Through this and the WISTA network it is “about helping each other succeed.”

Not just girl power

However, these programmes aren’t just about ‘girl power’ in the industry. The programmes that are being run but the IMO and WISTA are open to all with WISTA also actively encouraging men to join as well. As keeping women separate from men in this will only be a step backwards. “How do we make it better if we don’t work with the men?”, Pelling adds. The industry needs to do more to raise the profiles of the women that it has in the industry currently to be able to attract more women in to it, as Melling points out that currently you do not see many women in the press being spoken to and it sends out an image that it’s  “a club for rich men”. The challenge going forward is to see more women take more of the top management roles, to see a broader range of expertise in the industry.

On the other side though it is also hard, Melling adds to get women to step forward in the industry and promote themselves, as women themselves want to appear less visible and are not always good at promoting themselves.To be able to allow women to take more senior roles will require efforts from both sides to help encourage the change that is needed

Rachel Arnold, 1st Officer, Celebrity Cruise also highlights that going to work in the shipping industry is quite challenging even from her own perspective: “There are still some companies and ships that do not have provisions in place for women, and it can be incredibly daunting to join a ship of 30 men, when you are the only woman”, she says. Arnold entered the maritime industry when still at college through a sponsored Deck Cadetship. From that and three years of training Arnold gained her sea service with an offshore company, that had ships that supported oil and gas infrastructure, including dive support, pipelay and heavy-lift vessels.


Since then Arnold has moved into the Cruise Industry where her responsibilities are much more with part of her role is monitoring the maintenance and condition of all the ships safety equipment. “My favourite part of the role is the feeling of being responsible for the safety of the vessel and all souls onboard when I am on watch – it’s a huge responsibility that I take very seriously, but it’s one that I am trained and prepared for,” she explains about the duties in her current role.

Helen Buni, programme lead, Women in Maritime, IMO also highlights that there are lots of physical challenges for women looking to enter the maritime industry, such as limited job opportunities, career progression, fatigue and long hours away from home. Arnold also notes that: “Onboard life can be really tough. In physical jobs like maintenance, steelwork and seamanship there can be cultural challenges, with some nationalities struggling to allow a woman to do ‘labour’ as such, because it goes against their beliefs and values.”


She adds that because of these unspoken prejudices that it can be felt by women that they have to do twice the work of a man to be recognised in the same role. Now with technologies coming on to the market pushing the industry to adapt with new skills and new ways of working being needed to keep the industry up to date there looks to be more opportunities opening in the market.


Melling notes that with these new technologies coming into play in the industry, it is now opening up jobs roles in which women can enter. “The job roles are shifting in future it could mean that you do a normal days work and not be months at sea”, she says. Arnold opines that through digital technologies autonomous shipping could have the potential to change shipping with more land-based offices and only technicians onboard vessels in the future.


Arnold concludes that the industry needs to raise its awareness to women outside the industry from a young age, also encouraging and getting more young women in to subjects such as maths, science and technology at school will also help them for a career in maritime.

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