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Dispelling myths around women at sea

June 25, 2019
D5 Milliangie Gonzalez
© Milliangie Gonzalez

The theme for this year’s Day of the Seafarer is ‘I Am On Board with gender equality’. Here, we tackle the common misconceptions still surrounding women working at sea.

Myth: Women are unlucky

According to an old nautical superstition, the presence of women on board would anger the sea gods, bringing rough seas and bad weather. The key word in that sentence is ‘superstition’ – there are no scientific grounds to that statement and we hope no one still believes this today! Rough conditions at sea are most likely to be a result of bad weather than anything else, so seafarers can rest assured that having female crew members would not affect their safe passage across the ocean.

Myth: Women are a safety risk

Women were also considered distracting to male crew members, which would pose a safety risk to all on board. In response to those who still hold this belief, let’s give men more credit! Men and women work successfully together in different professions all over the world, so why would it be any different on board a ship?

Myth: Female employees will just leave to have a baby

Some companies may be reluctant to employ women as seafarers if they believe that they will lose out when female employees leave to start a family.

According to a 2003 study published by the International Labour Organization (ILO): ‘There are insufficient numbers of women seafarers to allow for accurate statistical comparisons of male and female retention rates within the industry. However, despite the perception in some quarters of the industry that women seafarers stay at sea for shorter periods of time than their male colleagues, our evidence suggests that the retention rates of women coming from OECD countries, where most women in the marine sector are employed, are broadly comparable’1. Likewise, 66% of Nautilus’ female members were found to work on ships for more than six years and 19% had onboard tenures of over 15 years in a 2000 NUMAST survey.

Of course, it is inevitable that some women will want to take maternity leave, but if shipping companies can offer attractive maternity leave packages and employment options that give female employees a reason to stay, it may be more likely that companies can retain this talent in the long term. Fathers find it difficult to be away from their families too, and with so many men at sea missing the birth of their children, it would facilitate a happier and healthier crew if more shipping companies were to offer the option of paternity leave.

Myth: The ship environment is too tough for a woman

Women have proved themselves to be more than capable in the shipping industry, in roles from engineer to captain. Perhaps this myth needs to be turned around – a ship is likely to be a better place if the crew includes women. The ILO says that having women on board creates a more normal social environment and can reduce the sense of isolation felt by many seafarers.

And for women with safety concerns about working at sea – shipping companies have an obligation to safeguard their employees, male or female. A ship can be a lonely place if you are the only woman, but the Gender Empowerment and Multicultural Crew (GEM) study conducted by Pike et al. from 2015-2016 highlighted the value of mentoring in supporting women and men at sea, so this is an important consideration for shipping companies wishing to improve diversity on board.

For more information about Day of the Seafarer this year, visit the International Maritime Organization’s website here.

1Belcher, Phillip, Helen Sampson, Michelle Thomas, Jaime Veiga & Minghua Zhao. Women Seafarers – Global Employment Policies and Practices. Geneva: International Labour Office, 2003.

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