All hands on Deck: Fostering female inclusivity for a sustainable maritime industry

This year’s essay competition asked young people from across the globe to reflect on what an inclusive transition to a sustainable maritime industry means to them. One of this year’s winners is Shareefa Jewan from Mauritiana. Her essay explores gender discrimination against females as a global challenge facing the maritime industry. Through personal reflections on the topic and backed by a thorough review of existing academic literature, the root causes behind this issue are dissected.

October 09 2023

In 2021, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, I graduated with my master’s degree and was actively searching for a job in maritime engineering in Mauritius, my home country.

One fateful afternoon, I received a phone call for an interview, to be held the next day. As I hung up, I took a deep breath – I knew that acing this interview could be the turning point in my career.

The following day, as I was rounding off the interview, I remember feeling optimistic about its outcome. Rising from my chair, I held my hands together in a praying pose as a germ-free thank-you gesture when suddenly, one of the male interviewers asked me: “You look frail and small. Are you sure you’ll be able meet the physical demands of this position?”

My smile instantly faded away. I felt the small room getting warmer and my lips and throat felt parched. Mustering all my strength, I looked at him straight in the eyes and firmly replied: “Yes, Sir”. Swiftly turning around, I hurried out of the room.

I never heard back from them. I now work as a business consultant in the financial services industry.

This may seem like a one-off occurrence, but worldwide, countless female seafarers, port workers and other personnel in the maritime industry experience gender discrimination. Statistics from the International Maritime Organization (IMO) reveal that women currently represent a mere 1.2% of the global seafarer workforce.

Contributory factors to this low female participation rate include: an absence of gender-neutral recruitment practices; unequal pay for women; sexual harassment and abuse; segregation and open discrimination; and more.

The underrepresentation of women exacerbates the prevailing issue of labor shortage in the ocean-related industries. As such, the 2021 Seafarer Workforce report from the Baltic and International Maritime Council and the International Chamber of Shipping highlights that approximately 90,000 additional officers should be recruited by 2026 to operate the global merchant fleet. To what extent is attaining this headcount feasible if we continue favoring rampant workforce inequalities and unreasonably denying women seats at the table?

In today’s era, inclusion is a key value that every business sector – including the maritime industry – should focus on. In my opinion, an inclusive transition to a sustainable maritime industry is multidimensional. It encompasses several intertwined elements – financial, technological, social, and intellectual inclusion. In short, it leaves no one (and not any single economy) behind in the quest for green and considerate maritime practices.

Although social inclusion implies that everyone – irrespective of their gender, sexual orientation, age group, disability, national origin, race, and indigeneity among others – takes part in socio-economic activities, I focus on the inclusion of women in this article.

What prevents the inclusion of women in the maritime industry? In my opinion, the possible causes comprise a mix of deep- seated cultural, structural, and systemic factors. Historically and culturally, pre-conceived and fallacious ideas that maritime jobs are eminently “masculine-typed” have perpetuated a spirit of exclusion towards women. Superstitions such as women being a potential source of malevolence have kept them off board ships and vessels.

Also, by its very nature, the maritime industry involves limited contact with the end consumers. This obstructs the general public’s understanding of the day-to-day internal dynamics and challenges facing the industry. Consequently, the gender imbalance issue remains unaddressed. Furthermore, despite her potential, the “girl child” does not face parity in terms of access to maritime education, the gateway to her professional success.

So, how can we redress the situation?

Firstly, policymakers should seek to eliminate the barriers to entry for women in the maritime sector by building an inclusive educational system. More merit-based and/or needs-based scholarships or subsidized tuition fees should be made available for our female counterparts wishing to pursue maritime studies. Across all maritime educational institutions, the topic of gender equality should be incorporated in the curricula to render future professionals gender-conscious and sensitive.

Existing female workers should have access to adequate workplace support to undertake further continuing professional development opportunities to improve their retention rates and accelerate their career growth. As for women in higher ranks, employers should increase their visibility and encourage them to act as mentors. This may inspire more female seafarers to climb the corporate ladder.

Employers should establish new, or strengthen existing, diversity and inclusion policies and practices, which should be aligned to current local legislation and international legal instruments such as the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979) and the IMO International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (1978). They should clearly stipulate anti-harassment protocols along with the consequences for non-adherence in their employee codes of conduct, and these should be strictly enforced. Maternity policies, leave systems encouraging time off as well as sea-shore rotation programs should be deployed to support women’s career cycles.

With the shift towards automation and digitization, flexible work arrangements should be encouraged in favor of women’s well-being. The availability of gender-customized sanitary spaces and safety equipment designed to fit women’s physiques will equally make women feel more welcome at the workplace.

Lastly, gender equality trends and key performance indicators should be captured, monitored, and periodically reported to senior management to evaluate the effectiveness of the anti-discriminatory measures put in place. This will foster accountability and may ultimately lead to a more equal representation of women in the sea trades.

A word of caution: The success of all the aforementioned recommendations is heavily reliant on a change in mindset such that women are no longer treated as tomatoes that can be matched to any sauce! Overcoming long-held stereotypes and reframing one’s mindset may not be achievable in the immediate term. But, in the long term, it is.

It is high time to recognize that the true source of sustainability is talent, irrespective of gender. Thus, there is no excuse (absolutely no excuse) for the continued exclusion of women in the transition to a sustainable maritime industry.

The views expressed in this Insight are those of the author alone and not necessarily those of the Global Maritime Forum. Excerpts may be published with reference to the Global Maritime Forum.

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