The journey of women to find a place in maritime industries has not been an easy one.

We’ve all heard the nautical superstitions that women on board a ship were bad luck, sure to distract sailors and anger the sea (redheads also shared this burden).

“Although it was probably not believed by everyone, it was symptomatic of the male-dominated industry for centuries,” said Sherice Arman, president of the Cayman Islands’ chapter of the Women’s International Shipping & Trading Association, an organisation for women in management positions involved in the maritime transportation business and related trades worldwide.

“For example, both land- and sea-based jobs in the industry were typically held by men. It would be unheard of to have a female captain or senior crew member,” she added.

The industry has always been male dominated, with any women involved being exceptional and playing mainly background roles. While they pop up in maritime history at times as famous pirates, merchant captains’ wives, sailors disguised as men, nurses on hospital ships and wartime shipyard workers, evidence of their involvement is more muted than stories of male counterparts and reveals very limited roles.

Tannya Mortimer

Challenges for women in maritime

In addition to ideological barriers to assuming any form of command, women have faced various obstacles in the maritime industry, even in modern times.

“In many countries, women are not allowed to be recruited to nautical courses, or even once trained, they may face prejudice when seeking employment,” said Tannya Mortimer, single point of contact for the Ministry of International Trade, Investment, Aviation and Maritime Affairs.

“In addition, women working in shipping also face other issues such as having to overcome unconscious bias, developing leadership confidence, as well as having to contend with a lack of prominent role models,” she said.

Challenges also include more practical ones.

“There are challenges that women in the industry continue to face including appropriate unisex work attire and ensuring that the work environment is equipped with adequate facilities such as separate cabins and washrooms,” Arman noted.

Shifting tides

Times are changing, however. Not satisfied with a background role, women in today’s maritime industry are stepping forward and upward.

Their impact – in shore-based and seagoing roles including female seafarers, captains of mega-ships, CEOs of shipping companies, and maritime lawyers, to name but a few – is thankfully becoming increasingly hard to ignore.

While their place in the industry is undeniable, and numbers are growing, there is still a way to go.

According to the International Maritime Organization, women represent only 2% of the world’s 1.2 million seafarers and 94% of female seafarers are working in the cruise industry. It is often difficult, however, to pinpoint exact numbers, especially in areas where official training is not necessary. In late 2019, the IMO initiated a study with WISTA International to collect and analyse data on the number of women employed in the maritime sector to improve accuracy of statistics.

Sherice Arman

Increasing diversity

Organisations worldwide are working to increase these numbers, expose women to the industry, enhance their contribution and move them from the peripheries of the maritime sector and into the mainstream.

“Although women represent only 2% of the world’s 1.2 million seafarers, their numbers and influence are growing steadily,” Mortimer said.

“Over the last decade, shipowners, international shipping organisations and companies have set out to create greater awareness and have launched initiatives to highlight career opportunities for women and contributions they are making in maritime professions.”

Arman added, “The attitude of the industry towards female participation is changing significantly and consciousness of inclusion and gender diversity is at an all-time high, culminating with the theme for the IMO’s World Maritime Day celebrations 2019 being ‘Empowerment of Women in the Maritime Community’. The inclusion of women is now seen as a position to aspire to and men are now quite often the largest advocates for female participation and inclusion.”

Initiatives and advocacy seem to be working.

One big example of results is that Celebrity Cruises has increased the percent of women working across the brand’s growing fleet from 3% in 2015 to a record 22% in 2019. The Celebrity Edge, a frequent visitor to Cayman’s waters, has a bridge team made up of 30% women, who will be led by female captain Kate McCue this year. The cruise line, whose CEO is Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, also launched the #crewupwithwomen initiative, taking the conversation about diversity and gender equality public and challenging companies worldwide to join in.

The existence of such initiatives is evidence that challenges still exist for women in today’s maritime industries.

“Although it has not stifled women adamant about a career in maritime, the fact that various international efforts are ongoing to achieve gender equality and empowerment of women, signifies a glass ceiling to women in shipping does exist,” Mortimer said. “Notably, the year 2019 was said to have been the turning point for women within the shipping/seafaring industry due to the IMO launching the theme ‘Empowering Women in the Maritime Community,’ for the 2019 World Maritime Day. This certainly sent a strong message that there is an important role for women to play within the industry but more so, raised awareness that there’s more to gain by having capable women in top management positions.”

While numbers are still low, women are taking up positions in a range of maritime industries.

“Generally, I believe that women have become increasingly active in less traditional, formerly male-dominated careers insofar as maritime education, training and leadership positions,” Mortimer said.

Arman agreed, noting a shift in reliance on physical strength in historical roles to a focus on training and brain power on modern ships.

“The shipping industry itself has changed with changes in technology, the rise of digitalisation, globalisation and environmental consciousness over the last 50 years. The types of jobs in the maritime industry have also changed, giving rise to further opportunities, including for women in the sector, especially with a growing shore-based element to the industry,” she said.

“In addition to careers at sea, women can now find career opportunities in maritime administrations, ports, logistics, software development, artificial intelligence and the advent of autonomous ships, shipping agencies, ship-management companies, naval architecture firms and engineering companies,” Arman explained. “Globalisation and world trade has changed the industry completely. Ninety-seven percent of goods traded globally are carried by sea. It is still the most economical means of transporting bulk cargo and the industry will need more and more talented people for it to thrive.”

Bright future

With increasing opportunities and role models such as Captain Radhika Menon, the first female captain in the Indian Merchant Navy, and Celebrity’s Captain McCue, the future looks bright for women in maritime industries, both those looking to enter and those looking to climb the ladder.

“As world trade grows, technology develops and stereotypes are broken, there will be more opportunities for women in the industry,” Arman said. “Roles that have always existed will be filled by more women and as decision-makers embrace diversity, women will increasingly put themselves forward for roles – feeling more empowered and more confident to challenge expectations of the industry.”

Mortimer agreed, saying, “[The recent WISTA conference held in Cayman] emphasised not only how women in the maritime world today are strong, powerful and challenge old-fashioned perceptions; but also that there is a new generation of talented women who are responding to career opportunities which are opening for women; proving that in today’s world, the maritime industry is not about your gender, but about what you can do.”