Around 80% of international trade is seaborne, making seafaring key to worldwide security, development and economic prosperity. It’s been 10 years since the International Maritime Organization (IMO) started paying tribute to those who work at sea. And this year on 25 June the IMO’s theme, Seafarers are Key Workers, reemphasised that seafarers are central to the global economy.
Brave people – both men and women – work in this industry that is often harsh and challenging, especially now during COVID-19. But women are not often visible in seafaring. Though the IMO has actively advocated for greater incorporation of women in the maritime sector over the past three decades, women are still largely underrepresented in this space.
Seafaring has historically been, and remains, a male-dominated sector. Few maritime spheres, including seafaring, have gender-responsive policies. The most recent study of women in maritime calculated that only about 2% of the 1.2 million seafaring workforce are women, and almost all (94%) work in the cruise industry. Maritime industries, legal regimes and educational establishments are geared more towards male seafarers and have largely excluded women.
Women also face numerous challenges not experienced by men. One of those is that their struggles and concerns are often invisible or ignored. According to a survey conducted among women seafarers in East and Southern Africa, women working on vessels often feel isolated, undermined and underappreciated. They have to work harder to receive the same level of recognition as their male counterparts.
Recently published Institute for Security Studies (ISS) research examines these issues and how women navigate their way within the male-dominated maritime sector. The ISS report argues that the United Nations’ Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda provides some guidance for women in the maritime industry.
Tackling the exclusion of women requires understanding and addressing structural challenges in a particular field, such as cultural beliefs and gender stereotypes. And because the maritime sector is considered a male space, a priority should be to attract more women to create a critical mass that would transform the industry into one that is inclusive and gender-responsive.
For example the South African Maritime Safety Authority has launched the Sisters of the Sea network. This initiative allows experienced female seafarers to mentor new recruits to ensure safety, security and better working conditions for women at sea.
Attracting more women will not take place overnight and needs commitment at all levels within the maritime space. The industry should implement changes sooner than later, as the global gender gap has been closing far too slowly. Current projections indicate that achieving equality in economic participation and opportunity for women will take 257 years. This is happening against the backdrop of an expected decrease in the supply of seafarers globally, while the demand for them is increasing.
For this transformation to occur, the maritime sector needs to be made more attractive as an employer for women. Addressing these challenges isn’t just a ‘women’s issue’. Research suggests that women’s meaningful participation should lead to better financial performance and greater economic productivity in any sector. A lack of gender diversity means that the seafaring business misses out on a more innovative, dynamic and productive environment.
The maritime sector should take advantage of progress made on the inclusion of women by the Women, Peace and Security agenda. This process recognises that increasing the number of women in peace and security efforts is a worthy goal in itself. It also fulfils the right of women to work in security services and take part in peace processes. This is underscored by the fact that gender-sensitive approaches deliver sustained and lasting peace.
The Women, Peace and Security agenda also shows the importance of generating consistent data on the roles and responsibilities of women. This allows the identification of entry points for interventions aimed at bringing gender equality.
Due to the dearth of sex-disaggregated data in the maritime space, especially in global labour surveys, it isn’t clear where and how women are represented. The data that does exist is either available only for selected industries, or shows women are absent or under-represented in key decision-making positions.
Another lesson from the Women, Peace and Security agenda is that awareness must be raised about opportunities for women in the maritime space. As long as seafaring is perceived as a less attractive career option, women and society at large will continue to consider it as exclusively male.
The Women, Peace and Security agenda has also shown that gender mainstreaming is key. Women’s professionalism is often questioned and put under scrutiny in the maritime industry. Because most male managers, both off- and onshore, are former seafarers, and not used to working with women, they can perpetuate harmful norms and values, creating an unpleasant working environment for women.
Women in the peace and security sector face similar challenges. These are slowly being overcome through mandatory gender sensitivity training that focuses on harmful biases. Integrating such training into the seafaring sector could help create a positive environment for women. Another important aspect is providing career-enhancing trainee programmes for women.
Barriers to women’s meaningful participation in seafaring not only undermine gender equality and diversity – they stifle progress in a sector that is central to international trade and development. Celebrating the crucial work of seafarers is important, especially given the challenging work environment brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. In the long term though, the goal must be to enable women to make a meaningful contribution to the sector.
Liezelle Kumalo, Researcher and Denys Reva, Research Officer, Peace Operations and Peacebuilding, ISS Pretoria
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