‘From words to action’: Addressing the maritime gender gap

May 18, 2023
IMO Women in Maritime Maria Kapsopoulou cropped
© IMO Women in Maritime - Maria Kapsopoulou

To mark the second International Day for Women in Maritime, ISWAN explores the challenges that continue to face women at sea, as well as potential solutions to address gender inequity in the maritime sector.

Women account for only 1.3% of the global seafaring workforce, according to the latest BIMCO/ICS Seafarer Workforce Report. Despite the International Maritime Organization (IMO) first introducing a gender and capacity-building programme 25 years ago in 1988, the level of participation of women in international seafaring has remained broadly unchanged over recent decades. A number of factors have contributed to the lack of progress towards achieving greater gender parity, including the maritime sector’s lack of visibility as a career path, particularly for girls; the lack of flexibility for women who seek to start a family; and, the failure to appropriately adapt the physical environment and working culture of ships to ensure that they are a safe and supportive environment for women seafarers.

In recent years, however, there has been growing recognition of the vital importance of the maritime industry taking steps to address the structural inequalities that continue to underpin shipping’s gender gap. In 2019, the IMO designated 'Empowering Women in the Maritime Community' as the theme for the World Maritime Day, bringing increased focus to the issue of gender equity, which has been given further momentum by organisations such as WISTA and MaritimeSheEO. Furthermore, shipping is facing a recruitment crisis, with BIMCO/ICS highlighting a current shortfall of over 26,000 officers, with an additional 89,510 officers needed to operate the world merchant fleet by 2026. Effective action to make the shipping industry a more appealing career option for women will be key to addressing this growing shortage.

The image of shipping as a male-dominated industry is undoubtedly one of the issues that will need to be addressed if young girls and women are to be able to imagine a rewarding career path for themselves at sea. There is, however, considerable work that must be done for the maritime industry to be in a position to offer a safe, just and inclusive environment that will both attract women and encourage them to remain in shipping. Several research studies have highlighted the manifold and highly gendered issues that women seafarers routinely face. Most recently, the All Aboard Alliance, which was established by the Global Maritime Forum in 2022, identified 15 'pain points' for women at sea, including gender-based discrimination in the workplace; abuses of power, including sexual abuse and sexual harassment; inflexible employment conditions; and, physical conditions onboard that are not adapted to the needs of women, for example, appropriately-sized PPE or access to sanitary products and disposal facilities.

© Vidar Strønstad

Data from ISWAN’s SeafarerHelp, a free, confidential, multilingual 24/7/365 helpline for seafarers around the world, reflects both the underrepresentation of women in global shipping, as well as the specific challenges that women seafarers face onboard. In 2022, women seafarers accounted for 3.8% of calls to SeafarerHelp, where the gender of the caller was known, slightly higher than the estimated proportion of women in global shipping, but nonetheless reflective of the industry’s large gender imbalance. The issues raised by women seafarers who contacted SeafarerHelp were markedly different to those raised by their male colleagues, further demonstrating the gender-specific challenges onboard ship, in particular in relation to experiences of abuse, bullying, harassment and discrimination (ABHD).

For men, the most frequent reasons for contacting SeafarerHelp were to seek information about seafarer centres (12.0%), support for seeking employment (8.7%) or support for repatriation issues (7.9%). For women, however, ABHD was the most frequent reason for contacting SeafarerHelp, accounting for 16.7% of issues raised, excluding grant applications. In half of these cases, women turned to ISWAN for support after experiences of sexual harassment or assault at sea. Experiences of ABHD frequently contributed to mental health challenges, which was the second most frequently raised issue by women seafarers, accounting for just under 10% of all issues raised.

Issues raised by gender on ISWAN's SeafarerHelp helpline in 2022

Enhancing the participation of women in shipping: the road ahead

In response to the consistently low representation of women in shipping, the European Transport Workers’ Federation (ETF) and the European Community Shipowners’ Associations (ECSA) commissioned a detailed report to identify concrete steps that could be taken towards greater gender equity in European shipping, although the recommendations are applicable internationally. One of the report’s key messages is that it is time to 'move from words to action' as regards creating more diverse and inclusive environments and that the industry should be proactive and take the initiative, rather than waiting for regulation and legalisation to enforce change.

As the report emphasises, life at sea is highly complex; factors such as nationality, age, leadership culture and onboard hierarchies interact with and can potentially compound issues relating to gender equity. With this in mind, the report sets out a wide-ranging vision for achieving greater gender equity, through a combination of good practice at a company level, regulatory reform, benchmarking and a more nuanced approach to promoting the industry to young people.

Key recommendations include:

  • Sharing and implementing best practice: In order to create safe environments for women seafarers, companies should adopt and implement best practice policies including anti-harassment and bullying; flexible working; parental leave; and, corporate diversity and inclusion. Health and safety policies should include the provision of ergonomically suitable PPE that meets the needs of all employees.
  • Gender-informed accommodation and provision: Companies must also ensure suitable onboard accommodation for women, including menstrual health and hygiene provision.
  • Data collection and benchmarking: In 2020, the International Chamber of Shipping Diversity Index issued a set of objectives to significantly increase the number of women on board from 7.5% to 12.0% by the end of 2023, and to 25.0% by the end of 2040. The shipping industry should work towards achieving the goals that have already been agreed and set, instead of trying to set others up and reduce the impact of these agreed goals. There is also a need for improved country-level data about many aspects of women’s participation in the maritime industry, which would provide a baseline against which to measure progress.
  • Increase women’s participation in shore-based jobs: Specifically, the report recommends setting a target of at least 40% of women in maritime management positions within 20 years.
  • Regulatory reform: STCW Basic Training and Human Element, Leadership and Management (HELM) Training should place greater emphasis on diversity, culture and gender. The Designated Person Ashore (DPA) should be legally accountable to take the appropriate actions in formal complaints of sexual harassment, bullying and discrimination.
  • Promoting the industry more effectively to young people: Barriers to shipping’s career visibility need to be addressed in such a way that young people can visualise themselves within the maritime industry.
© IMO Women in Maritime - MATPAL CADETS

As the report clearly stresses, any initiatives must place achieving change at their heart, rather than simply attempting to improve the maritime sector’s public image. It is equally not possible to work to increase the number of women seafarers in isolation, without addressing wider cultural and systemic factors to ensure that women are entering into a safe, tolerant and supportive working environment.

There are many examples of shipping companies that are taking a proactive and innovative approach to improving gender equity in the maritime sector. ISWAN member BSM, for example, has adopted a strategic goal for 2023 to increase the number of women in management by 5% and to provide anti-bias training for all HR staff and managers. The Synergy Group now has tailor-made PPE for women, which it is rolling out to all of its vessels. Maersk has pioneered India’s first Women Seafarers’ Cadet Programme and set itself the goal for women to make up 50% of its new cadet intake by 2027. Anglo-Eastern Group launched its ‘Anglo-Eastern Women of Sea’ network earlier this year to provide a global platform for women seafarers to share their knowledge and experiences, provide mentorship and support in overcoming the challenges they might face in their careers, and identify where policy change is needed in the maritime industry.

On the International Day for Women in Maritime 2023, ISWAN calls for the shipping industry to share evidence-based examples of good practice and collaborative effectively to address the longstanding maritime gender gap, in order to build a more inclusive and safe working culture for all seafarers.


Enhancing participation of women in European shipping: The opportunity to increase gender balance in the EU maritime sector was written by Dr Kate Pike and Sue Terpilowski OBE, commissioned by the European Community Shipowners’ Associations (ECSA) and the European Transport Workers’ Federation (ETF) and funded by the European Union. It forms part of the ECSA and ETF Working Environment in the Shipping Sector (WESS) project. The full report, an executive summary and a range of related resources are available to download at the EU Maritime Women website.

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