The shipping sector is at a crossroads. While both the world fleet and seaborne shipments register healthy year-on-year growth, pressure is mounting due to a shortage of qualified seafarers and officers worldwide.

A mix between an ageing workforce, lack of skills diversity and the industry’s inability to attract young new talent has led to a labour shortage of about 16,500 officers across the world merchant fleet, according to a joint study by non-governmental organization BIMCO and the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS). By 2025, the report warns that the industry could be missing as many as 147,500 officers.

One of the most efficient ways to close this deepening gap is to attract a more gender-diverse workforce – not an easy feat for a traditionally male-dominated industry, which has only recently started to shed some of its archaic gender prejudices.

While the sector has come a long way from the earliest voyages, when nautical folklore believed that having women on ships could bring bad luck, the profession is still utterly male dominated and the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) estimates that today, only 2% of global seafarers are women.

Of course, this isn’t an issue the shipping industry faces alone.

This year’s report from the International Labour Organization (ILO) found that “gender gaps remain one of the most pressing challenges facing the world of work.” The global labour force participation rate for women is nearly 27 percentage points lower than the rate for men.

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“We need women’s skills at sea,” says Lena Dyring, assistant director for cruise operations
at the Norwegian Seafarers’ Union and an ITF women’s representative for the seafarers sector.Without them, it’s going to be much harder to meet the need for skilled seafarers. It’s extremely important that we do not automatically disqualify 50% of the potential candidates just because of old-fashioned notions that they cannot work at sea.”

Prejudice and abuse put up a wall

The dire lack of female talent in the shipping industry could be attributed to a vicious circle: while gender prejudice obstructs female participation, this in turns leads to a lack of role models to change the status quo and inspire new generations of young professionals to join the ranks.

At present, 94% of female seafarers work either on cruise ships or passenger ferries.

“It’s easy to forget, because oftentimes when we think of seafarers, we always think of the traditional, technical roles, whereas the Maritime Labour Convention does recognise hotel and catering jobs as seafaring jobs too. It’s important to keep that in mind,” Dyring says, pointing out that in recent years, the ITF has seen a slow increase in the number of female seafarers worldwide.

The increase can be tracked to the US, North and Central America, and Northern and Southern Europe. Countries in South East Asia, such as the Philippines, Indonesia and India, are still plagued by an old-fashioned approach from shipowners, who prefer to have “male seafarers in supervisory, managerial or officer roles.”

This can often have dark implications. The Gender, Empowerment and Multi-cultural Crew (GEM) project, sponsored by ITF Seafarers’ Trust, studied welfare and gender issues in three uniquely different maritime nations: the UK, China and Nigeria.

“The WISTA works specifically to help women achieve management level roles in the maritime industry.”

The study found that sexual harassment, abuse and bullying are the key issues women seafarers will face on board. The mistreatment faced by women, especially in the lower ranks and in the younger age demographic, was similar with that experienced by some vulnerable men and ethnic minorities on board.

“Some companies perform pregnancy testing as part of the employment medical examinations for women seafarers,” Dyring says, a practice that ITF deems discriminatory and is fighting to get it abolished worldwide. ILO also stipulates that pregnancy testing before employment may violate Convention 183.

Having a good work-life balance is a crucial factor for women workers everywhere. Putting in place more family-friendly working practices in an industry that is famed for keeping seafarers at sea for long periods of time could prove to be a game-changer.

Other measures could also include shorter contracts and more family-oriented conditions.

“Once a person is done working at sea, it’s important to ensure there are career options shore-side that tie into that person’s sea-going career and keep that skill set within the industry,” Dyring says.

The industry’s face is changing

Ongoing campaigns from organisations such as the ITF and IMO are instrumental in bringing about progress, both through in-depth research into the issue and by actively engaging with employers and reputable maritime colleges, to encourage the recruitment of more women seafarers.

In addition, the Women’s International Shipping & Trading Association (WISTA) works specifically to help women achieve management level roles in the maritime industry. Today, the networking organisation has over 3,000 individual members from 40 countries.

Notable achievements over the past few years include the commendation of Captain Radhika Menon, who became the first woman to receive the 2016 IMO Award for Exceptional Bravery at Sea for her role in the rescue of seven fishermen from a sinking fishing boat in tumultuous seas.

Also last year, Kate McCue became the first American female captain of a large cruise ship, commanding Celebrity Cruises’ 91,000t ship sailing between the Eastern United States and Bermuda.

In 2015, Courtney Hansen was appointed as the first permanent female captain for Australian cargo shipping company SeaSwift.

Better for everyone

Aside from advancing gender equality, having a diverse and balanced crew can have positive effects for everyone on board, a message that Dyring thinks should be promoted more.

“The working conditions, the morale, and the atmosphere on board actually get better for everybody, including male seafarers,” she says. “I think it’s so important to get that message across to everybody so they see that you’re not going to have women coming in and taking jobs from anyone, but as a matter of fact, it would be better for everyone to have a more balanced workforce.”

A series of sectoral meetings scheduled for 2018-2019 at ILO level will further cement the work done so far to promote women’s employment in shipping. ITF plans to carry out its own research before that, looking at the multiple barriers and shortcomings still preventing women from going into a career at sea, particularly in technical roles and high-ranking positions.

“We’re working to get more research and see exactly where we need to put the greatest effort in,” Dyring says.