Talking Point: The issues facing women at sea and my goals for Maritime SheEO

May 14, 2020
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Talking Point is a series of thought pieces written by experts in the maritime industry, offering insights into different topics affecting seafarers. This month, we are sharing one of the expert briefings we send to our members early - a preview of what ISWAN members can expect to receive each month. Find out more about how membership of ISWAN can benefit your company or organisation here.

In the latest installment of Talking Point, Sanjam Gupta, Founder of Maritime SheEO, addresses the hurdles for women joining and working in the shipping industry and highlights what is being done to tackle them.

No other profession is probably referred to as a 'man's job' as much as seafaring. Being the daughter of a seafarer, and having lived my childhood hearing tales of my father's time at sea – piracy threats, a mutiny on board, seeing the world et al, led to my fascination for the sea and the maritime industry. My father left sea to set up his maritime business and I spun childhood dreams of working with him whilst still in my second grade. But what strikes me most now, is that never once did I even consider a career at sea, the thought that it was possible never even crossed my mind, even though I come from parents who are extremely progressive and believe in equal opportunities.

Traditional mindsets and patriarchal norms are the biggest hurdles to accepting women on-board. For instance, several years ago I approached a senior official in our Ministry to ask for his directive to companies to accept women seafarers. He told me patronisingly in Hindi: 'Daughter, if our girls will go to sea, who will look after the families and children?' I was so shocked I really had no answer – I don't know what was worse, his thought process or the fact he felt it was acceptable to state this unapologetically.

That does not mean we get disheartened and give up trying, we need good leaders of companies who create facilities and remove hurdles. The message seeps down from the top to the bottom rung. Even though he made that comment, he was ready to follow the government policy wholeheartedly.

In stark comparison to the above view, girls are encouraged to pursue their maritime education and careers at sea. In India, maritime training institutions such as Anglo Eastern Maritime Academy offer 50% fee waivers and follow UN principles. So we have these young enthusiastic girls wishing to make their career at sea.

The first hurdle is getting to complete their sea time. If their employment is not guaranteed by the institute, the girls applying say they go from company to company hearing 'we don’t hire women'. This is good because it helps identify these companies and the authorities can pursue these cases. In India some excellent work has been done by the Director General of Shipping Mr. Amitabh Kumar. What is challenging is when the companies have an 'unwritten' policy to not take women. This cannot be proven and is a challenge. A good case study here is of the Female Cadets of Bangladesh Marine Academy (BMA).

BMA opened the door for female cadets in 2012. Since then, female cadets have been recruited every year. So far, 55 female cadets have completed their Phase-I in 6 batches and all 55 have completed their Phase-II at sea (in Bangladesh Shipping Corporation fleet and a few in foreign flagged ships).

© Simran Mann

About 40 have achieved their BMS Degree from Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Maritime University, Bangladesh and CoC Class-III and are now working as Watchkeeping Officer/Engineer as 3rd/4th Officer or 3rd/4th Engineer.

Once this first hurdle of being placed is crossed, the next one is to be accepted on-board. While we have so many positive stories of girls having great support from their fellow seafarers, the ones that are bad are sometimes so unpleasant it's difficult to even talk about it. So we don't.

It is not only women but also men who are often forced to work, live and interact with predators while on board. The problem of women being sexually harassed on-board is known however still spoken about in 'hushed tones'. A video that was made by WISTA Sweden showed women speaking from the shadows – a reality that this topic is often hidden. It's unpleasant and easy to brush aside or stay in denial.

Last year, a company as part of their diversity policy hired two women and placed them on their vessels. Unfortunately they were unable to retain the girls and feedback revealed that men on board were unwilling to accept them. To put it mildly they were unfriendly, hostile and made sexual comments.

Lina*, a 3rd engineer, approached me several years back, to help her get placed. A few months later I got a call from her. She was home recovering from surgery – an oblique fracture in her right humerus. A lifeboat seat broke on-board and she fell from a height. When she complained of pain, the Captain asked her not to be 'such a girl about it' and instead massaged her arm which made the pain worse. A week earlier she had been invited by the Captain for a drink in his cabin and had refused. She completed her duties until the pain became unbearable. By the time she got medical attention and was rushed to surgery, the doctor said that any further delay would have meant her losing power in her arm. Prior to her coming ashore they recorded a video of her with her stating that she was treated fairly and had no complaints against anyone. In that situation she was so desperate for help she would have done anything. I think that was the turning point for me to step up, so I reached out to former WISTA International Chair Karin Orsel. Subsequently a Diversity Charter was drafted with Natalie Shaw of ICS which is a fantastic document and reads as below:

Seafarers have the right to work in a safe and secure and conducive environment that promotes and embraces diversity. Everyone has the right to work in an environment which is free of harassment and bullying and where the contribution of all personnel is equally valued. Unfortunately however there are seafarers who are victims of such behaviour on board ships and it is the responsibility of Shipping companies to ensure that policies are in place for the elimination of all forms of harassment and bullying of seafarers on board their ships.

Seafarers' organisations and unions also play an important role to ensure that diversity is valued and harassment and bullying do not take place.

Shipping Companies and seafarers' organisations should produce materials and provide training to draw attention to these issues and to highlight potential actions to ensure diversity is valued in the workplace.

Inappropriate behaviour such as harassment, bullying or discrimination on the basis of age, gender, sexual orientation, religion/ or belief, or gender reassignment are not acceptable on any Indian Flagged Vessel or if directed towards any personnel employed by Indian Shipping Companies or nationals employed on overseas owned vessels.

Training should be provided for all seafarers (and to those who manage them) as well as to manning agents and shore staff involved in deployment decisions. In addition, training should also be given to cadets to highlight best practices in this regard.

This should include:

  • Avoiding stereotyping
  • Valuing diversity and the benefits to the business and the economy
  • What is harassment and bullying and how it should be handled
  • Creating a safe and secure working environment where people are encouraged to report inappropriate behaviour so that it can be handled in an appropriate manner
  • When is a joke not a joke
  • Zero Tolerance policies
  • Encouraging and promoting best practice to ensure effective culture change.
  • Policies should also be put in place to reinforce messages which are being given during the training seminars


This charter has been a great starting point; in India, we have been lobbying for a mandatory course on gender sensitization for all pre-sea training. We are also reviewing the option of 'Empower the Bystander training' which would cover all forms of unacceptable behaviour.

In 2019, we conducted India’s first survey for women in maritime, the feedback we received from girls was that if provided with a safe, conducive environment, they would be happier to sail than come onshore.

Efforts taken by organisations such as WISTA, Women Offshore and Turning the Tide are commendable to create awareness. Likewise, the recently launched Maritime SheEO offers a bouquet of services focusing on the business case for diversity. It aims to create solutions that can impact the entire maritime industry – with a focus on diversity & inclusion (D&I), leadership, innovation, entrepreneurship and competitive advantage.


It employs D&I initiatives to address and eliminate unconscious bias, uses gender sensitisation techniques throughout the program and enables the smooth transition of women from ship to shore positions.

In closed forums women tend to discuss issues of harassment more openly without having to fear loss of employment or backlash. This is a global issue and there are many similar cases from around the world:

'When I was a cadet I went through harassment and assault. I luckily had a friend on-board but things still happened. I didn’t want to file because of getting stuck with being one of those that just wants to file on everyone and cause drama. I regretted it. Ultimately I stood up at a conference when the speakers tried saying that things were getting better out here and it wasn’t really happening. My school had three women that summer go through the nightmare of sexual harassment and assault. We were lucky that it didn’t go all the way. The company I sailed with was represented at the conference and they ended up meeting with me. And I was able to actually get everything off my chest about what happened. The industry has been letting one of the guys get away with this crap for thirty plus years. Nothing formally came of it except that the Ship/Crewing Agent doesn't put female cadets on-board when the one guy is on one of their ships. I talked to a counsellor at school which helped. I hope that they start learning and will grow up. And in time as we all keep standing up against them things will hopefully change for us and future mariners.'

Stories such as this are disheartening and one of many that we’re aware of. Most women don't report hostile working environments due to the fear of backlash, blacklisting and fear of being labelled a troublemaker. The other sentiment is that they feel they are tough, can hang with the guys, nobody is going to make them feel like a victim. That's what kept Robin* from reporting the captain and Chief that were part of creating a hostile working environment for her. She wishes 12 years later she would have said something and thanks those who do speak up for being a voice to those who felt unable to.

Reshma Nilofer Naha, India’s first and only marine pilot is very vocal of what she feels are the pitfalls. She craves acceptance. 'However hard a woman tries to blend in and work as much as or mostly harder than the men, she is never accepted. Can never blend in. Is always subject to quick judgements.'

Her experience points to lack of mutual respect, being taken seriously or getting decision-making roles, having no avenues to get back to sea after pregnancy breaks and even if they do move to office postings, are never or seldom given serious roles or challenging roles. She suggests it is high time, just like compulsory STCW courses, gender sensitisation courses need to be made mandatory and conducted by people like her. Another major issue which others too have highlighted is that women at sea have issues with their sanitary waste disposal because it is mostly plastic and wet bio/plastic waste. Many engineers throw into an incinerator and burn. Many throw with plastic waste and are often bombarded with some crew refusing to handle such. Finally she says employment for women seafarers still remains a challenge.

© Poonam Dewangan

I leave you with Amalia’s story, something that drives home the seriousness of why we need change and some solutions she thinks could prevent incidents like this from taking place.

'I am writing to you, as the powers capable of effecting change, about what was the worst Voyage of my Career. I am Amalia, a 23 year old 2nd Officer working in the Offshore Industry. Recently, I was faced with a situation where my Captain was sexually inappropriate with me while on-board, on more than one occasion. Then, when I rejected his advances he grew violent with me. I am forever changed by the events of this voyage. He stole not only my dignity but also, my sense of security. While in the heat of everything that took place, I promised myself that I would fight and become the advocate for change. It shouldn't be Ship Owners' and Crewing Companies' discretion that decides how these matters are dealt with. Standard Policies and Procedures should be in place on how companies handle these situations. The lack of these procedures and policies have empowered Predators, because they know that they can and will get away with their actions. I have been thinking about what should be done. Here are some of the suggestions I have come up with:

'Overall, there needs to be a change in the culture within the industry. The solution to these problems should not be that companies no longer want to hire females. Women should not have to fear being victimized for standing up for themselves and stepping forward in these situations. They shouldn't have to worry about losing their jobs for being 'whistle blowers' and most importantly, they should not have to worry about the weight of what they have said being diminished or dismissed because of the rank of the person being accused.

'"The industry stands proud with me" but I sit on-board vessels and face situations like these. The Conversation is not enough.'

*All names have been changed.

Sanjam Sahi Gupta is Director for Sitara Shipping Ltd. and an Advocate for Diversity in the Maritime Industry. She is a founder member of WISTA India and Board Member of WISTA International. She is also a member of the Executive Board of Directors of the World Maritime University. In 2014 the International Women's Leadership Forum awarded her 'Leading Woman in Shipping Business' and was also awarded in 2014 by SPJIMR Business school as Outstanding Family Business. She's committed to seafarers' welfare and she was a major force in bringing out the 'Diversity Handbook' in 2018 along with ISWAN and Anglo-Eastern. In May 2018, she was the recipient of the Sandvik Gender Award for her outstanding contribution and commitment to gender equality. As part of her award she conducted India's first survey for gathering data on women in maritime. She has now launched 'Maritime SheEO' to further her commitment to create the next generation of female maritime leaders. Glenmark Pharmaceuticals awarded her 'Woman of the Year 2019' in March 2019. In June 2019 she was invited as part of a High Level panel initiative by The Norwegian Prime Minister, Erna Solberg for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, comprising a group of world leaders from coastal states committed to ocean action in support of the Sustainable Development Goals. This panel will advise 14 heads of government across the world that will drive the transition to a new and sustainable economy for a healthier and wealthier planet. She has been invited by the IMO to speak at various panels and conferences. She has been acknowledged for her role as a change maker – advocating diversity and sustainable shipping.

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