Foreign Policy Blogs

My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean

Ocean Hue, courtesy NicoleAbalde/flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Here’s a little quiz to start you off with: In which profession do women make up less than 2% of the global workforce? I’ll give you a clue and exclude religious callings, firefighters and clowns from your choice of possible answers. (Hint: The title of this post might be a little bit of a giveaway!)

You would be correct if you had in fact chosen the maritime workers’ sector. As food for thought, a 2004 article found that in India, only 12 women were registered seafarers. Not 12,000, but 12.

As on land, so at sea

In land-based professions, women are disproportionately represented in the service sector and so it is for maritime professions as well. Women are mostly to found working “as hotel staff on passenger ships,” with only six percent of women overall employed on cargo vessels. As the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) notes, these ferry and cruise ship jobs “are among the worst paid and least protected of jobs at sea.”

The ITF also claims that in certain countries, women face discrimination when trying to enter the sector, with maritime training and education institutions forbidden from admitting women to their nautical programmes. Whether this is fact or hyperbole is unclear, as no sources are given. However, as the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO’s) website states that one of its objectives is to “encourage IMO Member States to open the doors of their maritime institutes to enable women to train alongside men and so acquire the high level of competence that the maritime industry demands” it would suggest this odd state of affairs is more fact than fiction.

As one of my favorite quotes from a 2003 ILO article marking the release of their first publication on the topic of women and seafaring shows, superstition may still hold sway:

What about the old saying that women are bad luck at sea?

An interesting myth, sort of like the myth that you will fall off the edge of the earth if you sail too far from port. But this is the twenty-first century, we know the earth is round and that superstitions have nothing to do with it. The ILO pursues a modern social agenda, with a strong gender component. Our work on behalf of women seafarers is a classic example of “mainstreaming” gender into all elements of a trade. In this case, mainstreaming extends also to all seven seas.

Aye aye, cap’n

And, similar to women being underrepresented in corporate board rooms, women also do not feature prominently in ships’ officer listings. However, this is slowly beginning to change — but not maybe the reason you would expect. Rather than simply being a positive attempt to achieve a more balanced gender structure, the motive is much more economic than altruistic. While the IMO describes its efforts as “making a concerted effort to help the industry move on from … tradition and to help women achieve a representation within it that is more in keeping with twenty-first century expectations,” research seems to indicate that this push is more out of necessity than due to any deep-seated desire for equality. In these tough economic times, there simply aren’t enough men competent enough to fill officer positions, a trend which began in the 1990s; with such a shortage of qualified candidates, “the focus now is on the possibility of recruiting more women into the maritime profession.”

Just over a fortnight ago, a conference on the Development of a Global Stategy for Women Seafarers was held in Busan, South Korea. With participants from various Asia-Pacific states and the World Maritime University taking part, the IMO thought it a good location to launch its promotional video, ‘Women at the Helm’ (below). The conference also saw the launch of the (very brief) Busan Declaration, in which parties agreed and committed to, among other principles, “Work towards enhancing greater awareness of the role of women as a valuable resource to the maritime industry and to the promotion of safe, secure and efficient shipping and the protection of the environment.” The right idea is there, however it seems a little “fluffy” in its wording. “Work towards enhancing” comes across as rather…pitiful in character, while “women as a valuable resource” seems a very unfortunate choice of words indeed. But it’s a start, right?

If you are even remotely interested in this sorely under-researched topic, I would highly recommend reading Momoko Kitada’s PhD thesis on “Women Seafarers and their Identities”, submitted in 2010. It provides a fascinating insight into the lives of women on merchant vessels, examining their approach to “fitting in” (or not) in a highly male environment, as well as their experiences on shore leave, where the gender balance evens up.



Cate Mackenzie

Cate works as an editor in Zürich, Switzerland. She holds an MA in Comparative and International Studies from ETH Zurich, and a BA (Hons) in International Studies with Political Science from the University of Birmingham (UK).

She has previously lived and worked in Fiji and the US.