Happy Women in Maritime Day: Time to navigate the unresolved challenges

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) International Day for Women in Maritime is celebrated annually on the 18th of May and aims to honour women in the industry and encourage recruitment, retention and continued employment in the sector.

Image credit: IMO

This is the second International Day for Women in Maritime and it seeks to highlight the importance of collaboration and networking in achieving gender equality in the maritime sector.   

“Women are working in all facets of the maritime sector across the globe, on shore and at sea to support the transition to a decarbonized, digitalized and more sustainable future for the industry. There is still a significant gender imbalance in maritime. Times are changing – but we need to accelerate that change. The benefits for the whole sector of improved diversity in the workforce is evident,” IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim said.

Women have made strides in the maritime industry over the recent 30 years, however, gender disparity remains a major issue in shipping, which is a male-dominated industry.

Women represent only two percent of the world’s 1.2 million seafarers and 94 percent of female seafarers are working in the cruise industry, according to the data from the IMO.

The IMO has been working on gender balance since 1988 and has helped open doors for female training and employment through its capacity building initiatives and programs.

Unfortunately, women at sea still face hostile environments, prejudice and are often harassed at work due to gender biases while being pressured constantly to prove their worth.

Moreover, women, and also men, have been victims of sexual harassment in the industry.

“Sexual misconduct has long been under-reported amid the muted undercurrent of the maritime industry. But with incidents becoming more frequent as more women enter the industry and more victims are willing to talk publicly, the problem is gaining global attention,” Human Rights at Sea (HRAS) said.

At the end of 2022, the Women’s International Shipping and Trading Association (WISTA International) released results of an in-depth survey in the maritime industry, describing the figures on gender-based discrimination against women, onboard harassment, and bullying as ‘shocking’.

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Nmalely, the survey found that 60% of respondents reported encountering gender-based discrimination onboard.

A total of 34% of the respondents acknowledged feeling alienated or neglected due to their gender, while 29% of the respondents had encountered harassment and bullying on board. A resounding 66% of the women seafarers concur that their male employees had turned to harassing and intimidating female co-workers, WISTA said.

As explained by HRAS, increasing focus from the #meToo movement sparked #maritimemetoo, which was further sparked by the alleged rape of Hope Hicks, a student at the US Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA).

Hope first made the allegations anonymously as “Midshipman X” in October 2021, posting a detailed account of the alleged rape on “Maritime Legal Aid” – a website devoted to confronting what it describes as “rampant sexual abuse in the maritime industry.”

The post was a bombshell — not only at the academy but in the wider industry.

Maersk Line Limited (MLL), a wholly-owned subsidiary of Maersk, has settled litigation with Hope Hicks, a former midshipman on the Maersk Line’s ship Alliance Fairfax, filed against the company in New York Supreme Court in June for sexual assault and harassment during her cadet Sea Year in 2019.

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In April 2023, the Global Maritime Forum, along with the All Aboard Alliance, issued a new study that found 15 key pain points for women at sea, including difficulties in succeeding professionally at sea; challenging social relations on board; employment challenges; and physical conditions.

More than 100 anonymous women seafarers from all ranks form the basis of a multi-year effort by the All Aboard Alliance to improve living- and working conditions for women at sea.

As the industry celebrates the great achievements of women across the board, this day should also serve as a reminder that a lot of challenges remain to be tackled to make the industry more welcoming to women.