Why aren’t more women serving at sea?

Every week Dalian correspondent Jason Jiang is tasked with writing a topical, in depth feature. This week he tackles the gender gap at sea.

Shipping has historically been a male-dominated industry and that tradition runs long and deep, especially for those jobs at sea.

According to the ITF, women make up only an estimated 2% of the world’s maritime workforce. Women seafarers work mainly in the cruise and ferries sector, often for Flags of Convenience vessels. These are among the worst paid and least protected of jobs at sea. Women also tend to be younger, and fewer are officers than their male crewmates.

“Their low number means that women can be subject to discrimination and harassment. The maritime unions are alert to these dangers and strive to protect the interests of women members, who now number about 23,000 worldwide. It’s still rare to find women workers at sea but, largely thanks to trade unions, more women are confronting prejudice and becoming valuable members of ships’ crew,” ITF says.

“I think the reasons for that—societal, cultural, religious, practical—are all pretty well understood. But the bigger problem is that the shipping industry only promotes ex-mariners into senior positions in its companies. That means that a lack of women at sea feeds directly into a lack of women in the boardroom, and that—to me—is a far more existential issue than whether there are women onboard,” says K D Adamson, ceo of Futurenautics Group.

“The way we view industry-specific careers,” she continues, “is going to change radically in the coming decades.”

The way that any industry recruits and retains men or women and the skills we want from them will alter, Adamson contends.

“Shipping needs a wholesale reevaluation of how the digital revolution changes its ships, technology, roles, requirements and objectives,” she says. “We’re going to need creative thinkers with an aptitude for technology and the ability to communicate. And we’re going to have to fight hard against other industries to get them. What shipping needs more than gender diversity is cognitive diversity—people who think differently—and that doesn’t just apply at sea, it applies everywhere.”

According to ITF research, in some countries, maritime education and training institutions are not allowed to recruit women to nautical courses. Women tend to enrol in navigation rather than engineering courses. Even once trained, they may have to face prejudice from shipowners and managers who won’t employ women.

Once employed, women seafarers may also face lower pay even though they are doing work equivalent to that of male colleagues. Women may also be denied the facilities or equipment available to male workers, which is a form of discrimination.

A Women Seafarers’ Health and Welfare Survey jointly carried out by the International Maritime Health Association (IMHA), International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN), International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) and the Seafarers Hospital Society (SHS) showed that 17% of the participants identified sexual harassment as a problem, and nearly 50% of participants in an earlier pilot study said it was an issue. About 40% participants said they did not have access to a sanitary bins onboard. Access was usual in the cruise and ferry sectors (85%, 63%), but much lower elsewhere especially on tankers (27%).

Nicholas Fisher, ceo of Singapore based shipping line Masterbulk, agrees that women seafarers face many issues onboard including accommodation/bathroom arrangements.

“Doing something about it demands that management takes the lead and deliberately creates opportunities. Masterbulk and other companies have done this, and in our company’s case we have a dedicated female cadet programme for Filipina and Singaporean cadets and we also have qualified junior officers serving at sea. It demands that appropriate codes of conduct are in place to guide ships staff, as well as appropriate onboard facilities, equal opportunity and gender pay equality,” Fisher says.

“Expecting change to happen by itself is unrealistic, and setting targets and KPIs is also inappropriate. However, it should be a boardroom topic, and driven from the top,” Fisher maintains.

Karin Orsel, ceo of MF Shipping Group and president of the Women’s International Shipping & Trading Association (WISTA), agrees with this sentiment.

“First of all, there is a lack of engagement of various stakeholders to close the gender gap,” Orsel says. “Women seafarers are faced with barriers throughout their career – at different stages- and without the support of the stakeholders this will not change,” Orsel says.

She lists a number of problems. First, there is a lack of awareness of maritime career opportunities. Gender stereotyping of careers in the industry as well as our industry low profile is an issue.

Secondly, there is a limited number of women who study Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Many maritime education and training institutions still do not accept women on the same conditions as men, Orsel observes.

Then there is the stereotyping that women cannot do seafaring jobs.

“To some extent women are perceived as incompetent due to being physically less strong and in many countries cultural barriers are still existing – women should be home taking care of their kids and not sailing,” the WISTA president says.

The lack of onboard training berths for cadets is an increasing global problem, more acutely felt among females, as owners feel female cadets are unlikely to pursue a shipping career for as long as their male counterparts.

The WISTA president is urging the strengthening of national legislation promoting the employment of women in maritime professions.

According to UK maritime HR firm Spinnaker Consulting women are 52 times less likely to join the maritime industry than men.

The fact is the gender gap in this sector – among the largest of any profession in the world – is unlikely to change until massive perception changes take place from on high.


Photo: Wallem Group


Jason Jiang

Jason is one of the most prolific writers on the diverse China shipping & logistics industry and his access to the major maritime players with business in China has proved an invaluable source of exclusives. Having been working at Asia Shipping Media since inception, Jason is the chief correspondent of Splash and associate editor of Maritime CEO magazine. Previously he had written for a host of titles including Supply Chain Asia, Cargo Facts and Air Cargo Week.


  1. Clearly the issue here (from an American viewpoint) is cultural. You can’t realistically expect women to work alongside men aboard a ship where ‘normal’ social hierarchy gives way to a structured undemocratic living and working environment. We do it in America on US flag ships/tugs. And from what I can tell, its relatively easy for western Europeans in general, as well. I don’t mean to say anything to offend anyone, but most Asian cultures simply don’t accept women as their equal. Similarly with other cultures as well. I live in Hawaii and have been surrounded by Asians my entire life; Koreans, Filipinos, Japanese, Chinese, everyone. You guys treat women differently. I don’t see any shipboard scenario that will work well for women…EXCEPT, onboard a cruise ship or ferry. There, women are everywhere and are the norm. In upper level staff positions and even as officers. Cargo ships, thats a different gig altogether.

    I married a woman I met at a maritime academy. She sailed deep sea for 10 years, rising up to a Chief Mate on supertankers on the US West Coast oil trade. Trust me, I have heard ALL the horror stories. She was there during the transition phase in the US fleet from no women at all to plenty of women everywhere. This was the late 80’s to 90’s. It was tough for all of them. The ones that survived deserve all the accolades that are thrown their way. they earned it.

  2. Hey Ed,

    from my experiences you have hit the nail on the head! My job entailed me carrying a gun and knives. I suspect some of my ‘incidents’ would have been much worse had I not been armed for my role. Your wife has my utmost respect! Its not an easy gig. And I don’t think the lack of sanitary bins is the most significant barrier. However, I did also work with some amazingly decent and protective guys from many nationalities, some really surprised me! So the bad apples were outweighed. Maybe I was just lucky.


    Lynn Simpson

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