Women in the Global Maritime Industry

Policies to foster the advancement and empowerment of women have been on the agenda of several international organisations. In particular, the promotion of gender equality has been a goal of the United Nations (UN) and its specialized agencies. The first programme to promote the advancement of women in the maritime industry was developed by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in 1988. It was called “Strategy on the Integration of Women in the Maritime Sector” (IWMS) and its main goal was to increase the presence of women in the developing countries’ workforce through education, training and knowledge transfer. The role of training in this programme was fulfilled by educational institutions created by IMO at the World Maritime University (WMU), Sweden and the International Maritime Law Institute (IMLI), Malta.

The IMO Strategy was accompanied by several initiatives implemented throughout different regions of the world during the 1990s, which were aimed at creating awareness of the situation faced by maritime women in their careers. The number of female alumni graduating from WMU and IMLI began to increase, and consequently these women began to take up positions as managers, administrators, policy advisers and educators in the maritime field worldwide. In the year 2000, the UN adopted the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which were aimed at encouraging development by improving social and economic conditions in the world’s poorest countries. Among them, MDG3, was adopted, resulting in many specialized agencies of the UN introducing changes within their programmes to comply with this goal. In 2003, the IMO started a process to establish regional support networks for women around the world. As a result, six regional associations for women were created, covering the regions of Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Pacific Islands.

The first phase of IMO’s Programme for the IWMS concluded in 2013. But this was not the conclusion of IMO’s efforts. Instead, this marked the beginning of a new programme that could be described as a merger between the MDG3 and IMO’s response towards strengthening the role of women in the maritime sector. During that same year, IMO released a film entitled “Women at the Helm”, thereby showcasing IMO’s efforts towards promoting a positive change for women in shipping, while highlighting first-hand experiences of women who have succeeded in the industry. IMO then announced its plan to develop a “Global Strategy for Women Seafarers” in order to continue to improve the diversity of seafarers.

Maritime Women Global Leadership (MWGL) 2014 dropped an anchor in the effort to strengthen women as maritime leaders. This figurative dropping of the anchor has initiated a multiplier effect, in that the impact of the conference has already made waves around the globe. The successes and challenges of women in the maritime sector are presented in a way that emphasizes the significant role of women leaders, and focuses on how organizations can improve their support in this area. Approaching the gender issue from various aspects is to bring the noteworthy success. The perspective was orchestrated from the key themes of policy, education, leadership and sustainability, but also from the private and public sector. Through these methods, policy, attitudinal and cultural changes have taken effect, positively impacting the global maritime industry to make the achievement of a sustainable maritime transportation system. The greatest asset notably the seafaring people – men and women alike.

The involvement of females is growing, albeit slowly. A large increase in the participation of women was seen in the last decades in the cruise industry. In the mid-1980s, only 5 % of personnel on board cruise ships were female, whereas at the beginning of this century, this has grown to 18–20 %. But also here we see that although these females are employed in the shipping industry, most of them are involved in the hotel and catering service, while only 0.5 % is in the technical maritime professions. A study undertaken by World Maritime University (WMU), found that reasons for these females to work on board in the western society, which contributes to 50 % share of all the females in this business, want to meet new cultures and see the world. For the women originating from other areas in the world, the financial aspects are the main motivation. The shipping industry to them, offers the opportunity to escape poverty. It is interesting to see that females in the cruising industry are more generally accepted by their male colleagues than in other maritime sectors. This is probably due to the fact that they are still involved in more female-oriented work. The stereotypical characterisation remains to this day. There is also a large difference between males and females in the amount of time they want to spend on board. Most females state that after a few years, they want to seek on-shore jobs and start a family. Combining a family with work on board is not what they want. So the females themselves help to preserve the cultural differences between the genders.

On the other hand, combining family and work is easier in an onshore job. That is probably the reason why the amount of women in onshore maritime jobs, such as port services, naval architecture, and national maritime affairs, is higher. In a study by the United Nations University, the effect of the technology advancement on women’s employment in the area of science and technology is described. As an example, it is stated that in China, before the arrival of technological advancements, only 1 % of the employers in the metal industry were female. Now, due to the presence of new technologies, this figure has increased to 28 %. The new technologies made the work less physically demanding, so more suitable for women. We are living in an era where technological advancements are ever growing. Technological tools can be used to make a lot of work physically less demanding. Furthermore, the information and communication technologies have also allowed to make it possible, to work away from the actual location of your work.

The IMO has adopted empowering women as its theme for World Maritime Day 2019; the ILO held global sector meeting discussing opportunities for women seafarers at the end of February; and the European Union has a dedicated platform for change to promote equal opportunities in the transport sector. In the United Kingdom, the new Women in Maritime Charter urges companies to sign up action plans setting specific targets on gender diversity. Susan Cloggie-Holden, a chief officer and a female champion for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA), involved in the formulation of the charter explains, “It’s a hidden industry and still seen as a man’s world. We will start to see little wins quickly, but big changes will take up to 15 years.”

Zaeem Hassan Mehmood
Zaeem Hassan Mehmood
Zaeem Hassan Mehmood is PhD scholar International Relations & Political Science at Greenwich University. He has a Masters of Philosophy in Strategic Studies from National Defence University Islamabad. He was associated in the capacity of Research Analyst with the National Institute of Maritime Affairs (NIMA), a center of excellence established by Government of Pakistan to provide policy guidelines to address various challenges in the maritime industry. During this time, he was an Associate Editor for Maritime Watch, Pakistan’s first monthly news digest on maritime affairs. His writings have appeared on reputed national and international policy platforms including Austral: Brazilian Journal of Strategy & International Relations, Malaysian Journal of International Relations and Andalas Journal of International Studies. Zaeem serves as a reviewer for International Journal of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences. He can be reached at zhmehmood42[at]gmail.com