The year 2019 is (hopefully) going to be a turning point for women in the maritime industry.

A minority across all parts of the sector, the recruitment of women in both junior and senior roles within shipping companies is on the rise, with maritime organisations increasingly promoting the benefits of a gender-balanced workforce.

A testament to this the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) decision to make ‘Empowering Women in the Maritime Community’ this year’s theme for World Maritime Day. Celebrated September this year, the day was marked by a number of national and international activities aimed at making shipping a more attractive workplace for women, as well as encouraging them to pursue senior roles.

A few weeks earlier, a two-day Women in Shipping Summit headlined the London International Shipping Week 2019. At this event, some of the most high-profile women leaders in the sector gathered to discuss tackling gender bias and mentoring a new generation of female employees in this traditionally conservative and male-dominated sector.

Considering that women currently make up just 2% of the global maritime workforce (according to figures from the International Transport Workers’ Federation), it’s fair to say there is room for improvement.

As the sector cruises into a new era of modernisation and inclusion, we asked female representatives form the industry: what needs to be done to attract more women to the maritime sector? And how is the sector doing on this issue?

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Postdoctoral researcher at Warsash School of Maritime Science and Engineering, Southampton Solent University, Dr Helen Devereux

There are lots of small things that the maritime sector could be doing to attract more women, for example by changing the language we use. Language in the sector is heavily male-dominated and we talk about ‘unmanned’ ships and ‘seamen’ etc. Rather incredibly, in the UK, a seafarer’s Government-issued document which records their career experience is called a ‘Seaman’s’ discharge book. Language – and other issues such as male and female Cadets in the UK wearing ties, an item of clothing which is traditionally considered to be male – are unintentionally suggesting that females don’t belong in the maritime sector.

Moreover, whilst the maritime sector does have some great women role models, more could be done to identify and promote these individuals. Research such as the GEM project also suggests that mentoring can potentially be useful for women and other minority groups in the maritime sector.

Lots of interesting pockets of activity regarding women in the maritime sector are happening. For example, Maritime UK has complied a speaker bank which provides a database of women speakers for panels and conferences to inspire the next generation. A Women in Maritime charter was launched in 2018 and it will be interesting to see how the charter can help gender equality in the sector.

In terms of cadet intakes across the UK, however, the statistics suggest those who take up a seafaring career are still highly unlikely to work on board with a woman seafarer.

International president of the Women’s International Shipping and Trade Association (WISTA), Despina Panayiotou Theodosiou

The maritime sector is becoming increasingly more welcoming to women, but unfortunately it does not have the historical reputation of doing so.

We need to promote the maritime professions, aboard and ashore, to young women, and show how a career in maritime can be both rewarding and exciting.

Innovation and new technologies in the sector are providing us with an excellent opportunity to do that, as they create new roles and opportunities. Traditional roles in maritime usually have certain requirements that can exclude women – one such requirement is seafaring experience. We all know that there is only a very small percentage of female seafarers. Digitalisation and cleantech solutions, for example, open the door to people with different sets of skills and this is opening up the prospect of creating a more diverse industry.

We see more shipping and maritime-related companies getting behind the message for diversity and inclusion because they understand that it is not only fair but also a good business decision. In certain parts of the world, we also see maritime academies giving incentives to girls to pursue a seafaring career.

Are things changing as fast we would like? No, they are not, however, sometimes a fast reaction does not bring the deep-rooted and effective change that we, in WISTA, and many others in the industry, are interested in and striving for.

Global head of shipping and energy at Michael Kyprianou Advocates and Legal Consultants, Gina Panayiotou

The IMO World Maritime Day theme for 2019, which is “Empowering Women in the Maritime Community,” attracted great publicity and we’re seeing that other associations and companies understood that there is an important role for women to play in the industry.

I believe that with this campaign, we raised awareness on the fact that there’s a lot for each business to gain from having a gender-balanced workforce and having more women in the industry and top management positions. And it’s not just about putting women there, it’s also about the capable women that are out there and recognising they can bring more to any association or company.

Generally, I believe that promoting and branding that diversity is something necessary in every organisation, and is the only way forward for a sustainable future. Thankfully, we are also seeing a lot of organisations like WISTA gaining greater impact and presence, counting [more than] 3000 members worldwide. WISTA is doing an amazing job and it also seems that there are a lot of initiatives being run at the moment trying to promote even further and bring women into the industry, which is very encouraging.

In respect of what more can be done, there’s a great debate on whether there should be more legislation, bringing quotas to the table into boardrooms. On the other hand, you have to find a balance, because surely you don’t want young females coming into the industry and being told that they’re there because there’s a quota, or making them feel that the only reason they’re there is that the company is obliged to do this by law.

If we can find some kind of a balance – so not making it per quota but convincing governments that it’s important to take steps or maybe give incentives to companies who promote female employees and empower them and put them on boards – rather than having a quota would work more effectively. Additionally, providing greater mentorship to women in the industry and empowering them from an even younger age, providing them with more role models of females succeeding within the industry, could be the best way forward to lead to greater gender equality in the future to come.

Director of the Merchant Navy Training Board at the UK Chamber of Shipping, Kathryn Neilson

There need to be career mapping pathways made available to give women clearer information on professional development routes

There also needs to be more 1-1 support for women onboard ships – mentoring support has been shown to increase retention rates and lead to women being given more opportunities to progress.

Men further need to be promotors of women in Maritime, as in many instances, women do not go to sea for cultural reasons.  Cultural differences are the most difficult to manage, but, getting the message out there through female seafarer ambassadors, is the strongest method of promoting the industry to other women.

We need to recruit more careers at sea ambassadors to raise the profile of women in Maritime and STEM subjects. There are still too few female senior leaders in the industry.

[Regarding how the sector is doing on this issue] We can always do more, but there are some great initiatives being implemented such as the Women in Maritime taskforce and WISTA.  The problem is that we can influence the way people think but Culture has a huge impact on the recruitment of women in the industry, particularly in Asia. Changing a culture is far more challenging.  It’s a global industry and wherever our seafarers sail the potential conflicts and challenges relating to gender stereotyping will always be a reality.

It’s important that we work more closely with other countries to collaborate.  A problem shared is a problem halved and together we can implement initiatives that are more effective and future proof.

Head of strategy at Nautilus International Debbie Cavaldoro

There are things which can be improved in the maritime sector, particularly life at sea, which would make it better for all seafarers and therefore also increase the number of women entering the sector. Things like better access to the internet, personal protective equipment which fits different shapes and sizes of people and rotas which do not increase the risk of fatigue may make the career a more attractive proposition.

To increase the number of women, we specifically need to ensure that basic things like women’s specific health requirements are catered for onboard. There is also a common saying which is ‘You need to see it to be it’. By profiling the women who have already made successful careers at sea, and increasing female take-up of STEM subjects, young women will realise that a career at sea is as open to them as it is to anybody.

Initiatives like Women in Shipping and Women in Maritime are helping to raise the profile of women in all parts of the maritime sector. The Women in Maritime Charter is also doing great work in getting companies to work on increasing their gender balance. The framework challenges companies to actually set a target for improving diversity and provides a toolkit of resources to help them achieve those targets.

Focal point for the Women in Maritime programme under the Technical Cooperation Division at the IMO, Helen Buni

For sustainability and success in the modern world, shipping needs diversity in the workforce and women helping to drive the decision-making processes. Women in the maritime world today are strong, powerful and constantly challenging old-fashioned perceptions.

Experience and research tell us that diversity is better; it’s better for teamwork, better for leadership – and better for commercial performance.

Exciting and rewarding career opportunities are opening up for women. And a new generation of strong and talented women are responding. They are proving that in today’s world the maritime industries are for everyone. It’s not about your gender, it’s about what you can do.

Barriers to women working in the sector are being addressed, although much more needs to be done e.g. some shipping companies are introducing flexible working arrangements to make their companies more attractive to parents.

[The industry should also] make a career in maritime appealing. There is a need for more role models. Job advertising needs to appeal to all, and to build an image of the modern, innovative workplace that shipping strives to be, so we can attract the best talent of the next generation. [Regarding how the sector is doing on this issue] The shipping industry needs to change, not only through adopting technological advances e.g. digitalisation, but also ensuring that the gender balance improves.

We are seeing change, albeit slowly, and there are many opportunities to be capitalised on. The sector needs to adapt to the modern world, and business models need to be agile and progressive enough to attract and retain women. There is some way to go in the shipping, seafaring and broader maritime sector – but IMO will continue to promote the empowerment of women in the maritime community.

This year, to help celebrate the World Maritime Day theme IMO has undertaken a range of initiatives and events, such as panel discussions and a social media campaign; and we have launched a new film called Turning the Tide. Empowering women is not a theme for this year alone.

IMO will continue our efforts through its Women in Maritime programme. Many women from developing countries will benefit from fellowships and networking opportunities.

IMO has also initiated a study with WISTA International to collect and analyse data on the number of women employed in the maritime sector. You can’t measure progress and training gaps if you have no baseline data to start with.

For women to be able to reach their full potential in a career in maritime, the industry needs to work to ensure that the challenges that women currently face in the sector are overcome. The drive towards the use of more automation, plus the shrinking pool of people with seafaring experience to come ashore and take jobs in shipping companies, means that women can benefit. However, women working in maritime face issues like developing leadership confidence and having to overcome unconscious bias, as well as having to contend with a lack of prominent role models within the field.