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Women in the maritime community – Closing a gender gap as wide as the ocean?

Written by Marketa Pape,

© biker3 / Fotolia

The maritime industry lacks qualified personnel. Traditionally male-dominated, women today make up about 2 % of the global maritime workforce. Onshore professions taken up by women include work in ship inspection, port services, logistics, research, legal and accounting services, ship classification and marine insurance. In comparison, few women are to be found among seafarers and most of these work in support services on ferries and cruise ships.

Sea-going jobs are very demanding, not least due to long hours and irregular rest periods. Once trained, women choosing to work at sea need to overcome difficulties linked to getting hired, gender stereotypes and isolation, but often also face sexual harassment, violence, discrimination and unequal employment opportunities. Nevertheless, sea-going experience is highly valued in the sector and opens further career opportunities.

Efforts led by two specialised United Nations agencies have opened the way for women into the maritime world: the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) has long encouraged and supported women to train for both shore-based and sea-going jobs. For its part, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) set the minimum standards for seafarers’ employment conditions, men and women alike, and for eliminating violence and harassment from the world of work. To affirm the importance of women to the maritime sector and of gender equality, IMO chose ‘Empowering Women in the Maritime Community‘ as the theme for the 2019 World Maritime Day.

Promoting gender equality in its policies, the EU began to pay attention to links between gender and transport only recently. In 2012, it funded a project under which transport trade unions prepared a ‘gender training package‘ to make transport a better place to work for both women and men. In 2017, the European Commission launched the Women in Transport – EU platform for change. Focusing on the barriers that prevent women from taking up and retaining jobs in transport, it also helps exchange information on measures that companies can adopt to improve their gender balance.

To attract more women, transport trade unions argue, working conditions for all seafarers need to improve. The global nature of shipping makes it difficult to enforce seafarers’ rights. Working conditions on board are determined by the country of registration, whose flag the ship flies. For cost reasons, many ships owned by EU companies trade in European waters while flying a flag of a non-EU country and, as such, do not have to respect EU labour laws. To eliminate the low labour standards, EU trade unions have proposed to set up a European Maritime Space, where all shipping companies operating in EU waters would have to follow EU rules.

In general, workers’ rights can be better enforced under EU law than under international instruments. That said, seafarers had been excluded from EU several labour laws and their rights were only recently aligned with those of workers based onshore. Somewhat inconsistently, the 2019 EU rules for transparent and predictable working conditions again treat them as a special category, to whom some provisions do not apply. Nevertheless, better working conditions at sea for all maritime workers would also benefit women in the industry.

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