Why shipping’s gender imbalance must change

Nicholas Fisher from Masterbulk tackles one of shipping’s perennial controversial topics.

I was recently asked to comment for a Splash article on the issue of industry attitudes to female seafarers. A topic which receives sporadic annual coverage…usually following an embarrassing public scandal.

The most recent example of this was a hiring manager at a well-run and widely respected shipmanagement company, turning down a female cadet applicant because she was, well, a woman. The company justifiably jumped into crisis management mode, ‘we are an equal opportunity employer’, ‘these were the actions of a single individual’…all of which may have been true. But the incident itself reflects a far greater problem – for it may as well have been topless/body-painted models at NorShipping, or the ever-present shipping trade-show models doing their bit to help rectify shipping’s gender imbalance. The specific incidents come and go….but the overall trend is deeply concerning.

We’ll be fine as long as there is an excuse

Seafaring is a traditional male bastion kept alive by chauvinistic reasons to explain why women cannot be accommodated, either due to accommodation/bathroom arrangements, physical ability, or a desire not to have to deal with harassment and other mixed gender issues on board.

But how is it then, that the US and UK Navies are currently made up of around 17-18% (US) and 9% (UK) female crew? For commercial shipping the figure is around 1%. We have a long way to go.

It is only a matter of time until shipping companies have to answer some very difficult questions. The lack of opportunities for women in shipping is an issue which demands far more discussion and action by the industry’s leaders.

Pick your change agent – ethics, opportunity, or fear

Other industries – such as the tech/start-up sectors – are regularly publicly shamed for their gender imbalances; even Facebook and Google are not immune. Kevin Roberts, the well know advertising guru from Saatchi & Saatchi, recently lost his high profile chairmanship for suggesting the equality issue had been solved. In the US, the (now) former CEO of Fox News resigned after he was accused of widespread abuse of power. The world is changing, has changed, and shipping needs to get its act together.

First and foremost this should be seen as an issue of ethics and equal opportunity. None of us would want our daughters treated in such a manner if they went for a role at a law firm or TV station…or shipping company. Simply put, this behavior is wrong and should not be tolerated.

If you need a commercial driver, gender imbalance is also going to be an issue of investor/stakeholder relations. It will only take one journalist’s investigation of a listed shipping company’s gender-related hiring practices to scare off banks, institutional investors, and clients. For an increasing number of people and businesses ethical investment is a guiding philosophy. One of the most telling aspects of Kevin Roberts’ situation was the reaction of major corporates and clients. How many shipping companies would be comfortable if their ultimate clients took a long hard look down the supply chain?

But finally, changing our attitude towards female seafarers also opens up huge opportunities. Internationally there is a huge battle for talent. Every company wants the best people. Most shipping companies face the same people issues – a diminishing and aging workforce, and difficult attracting new people to the sector. It’s our own fault…we’ve already discounted half the world’s population.

Where to from here?

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 put in place a dedicated female cadet programme for Filipina and Singaporean cadets. We also have qualified junior female officers serving at sea. It demands that appropriate codes of conduct are in place to guide ships staff, as well as appropriate on board facilities, and equal opportunity and gender pay equality. None of these have been insurmountable problems. Interestingly, the problems have not been as great as many would have predicted.

Much is said about a looming officer shortage…. At Masterbulk, we don’t see that as an issue. Women at sea are part of the solution.

Expecting change to happen by itself is unrealistic, and setting targets and KPIs is also inappropriate. However, it should be a board room topic, and change needs to be driven from the top. Afterall, both the risk of inaction, and the rewards of successfully implementing change will sit with those in charge.


Photo: Wallem Group


  1. Fertile young women of the age group shown the photo would better serve society if they took jobs closer to home where they can properly care for their children. It is easier to run ships and rigs when there is no sexual tension between crew members. Look at the problems being swept under the carpet in the US Navy. Sailing on ships at sea has traditionally been a man’s job for good reason.

    1. 37 years in the industry.
      1st Combined marine engineering certs. 54 year old woman

      You make me laugh at your comments.

    2. Yes of course! Nothing a good stoning or hanging or lashing can’t take care of, yes? Oh the joys of living in a culture that embraces the stone age. Brilliant comment Mr. Budi.

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