Founded by three pioneering women seafarers of India in 2017, the Inter- national Women Seafarers Foundation (IWSF) works enthusiastically for the benefit of the female seafaring community around the world, with an overarching goal of gender equality in the maritime profession.
Over the past four years the Foundation has partnered with administrators, maritime unions, ship owners, ship managers and several maritime representative bodies to provide training, education, guidance, mentoring, policy and execution support at various levels. With close to 500, and rising, women seafarer members, the IWSF is relentless in pursuit of its aims.
Co-founders Capt Radhika Menon, chief engineer Suneeti Bala and engineer Sharvani Mishra speak with The Sea about their ambitions for the future.
The Sea: Why is there a need for an organisation to represent female seafarers?
IWSF: “The percentage of women in seafaring is below 1% worldwide, which is much lower than several other shore-based industries. This is despite years of good efforts and intentions by governments and the shipping community. Because of this low percentage, the acceptance of the handful of women seafarers currently serving on ships is difficult and they are never given fair treatment on board.
Women seafarers become the victim of social biases and harassment (including sexual harassment) on board. Due to a lack of experience within the crewing, ship management, chartering and owning industries, on board issues are rarely properly addressed. In most cases, the companies end up getting discouraged and choose not to hire women seafarers. The IWSF was created to bridge the gender, knowledge and training gaps among companies and seafarers with the aim of increasing the number of women seafarers and eventually bringing about gender parity.”
The Sea: What can female seafarers do to improve acceptance of them on board and ashore?
IWSF: “Just as every profession has its own set of challenges, so too does the maritime industry. As it has been an overwhelmingly male-dominated industry for many years, it presents some unique and unusual challenges for women seafarers. The entrance of women into the seafaring trade is a small, but growing phenomenon which we support.
The Sea: What can companies do to help remove bias, and change perceptions and behaviours?
IWSF: “Companies should take a systematic approach to address this. This includes:
- Training: adequate gender sensitisation training should be provided to all seafarers (including women seafarers) and shore personnel about dos and don’ts, and codes of conduct when working on board.
- Policy: stringent policies on a company’s outlook and behavioural expectation on board should be established and all employees, including seafarers, should be apprised of the consequences of deviating from such policies.
- Shore guidance: since the industry lacks experience in handling social issues involving women seafarers, we invite companies to partner with IWSF to ensure that the women they employ on board always have the right guidance for social situations.
Government and industry commitment to increase the hiring of women seafarers will, to a great extent, help ease the social gaps on board.”
The Sea: What should regulators be doing to achieve the same?
IWSF: “Regulators need to come out with mandatory policies that companies should follow to ensure a fair working environment for women seafarers. For example, sexual harassment is a common reality for many women at sea. This can range from persistent verbal harassment and inappropriate comments to physical assault. However, cruise sector companies that have established high-profile sexual harassment policies seem to have been able to reduce the number of incidents of harassment and have encouraged women to seek company support in such situations. But there seems to be less attention paid to these matters in the cargo sector. With regards to other issues, such as maternity benefits and the availability of certain products required by women on board, it seems we have a long way to go. The IWSF has worked extensively with the Indian Government to come up with guidelines for companies for hiring women seafarers which was published as DG notice 7 of 2019. We still have several works in progress and need international support to enable us to achieve progress at a fast pace.”
The Sea: Do you think that the outlook for female seafarers has changed since you were established and if so, how?
IWSF: “Since the establishment of IWSF in India, we have seen tremendous improvement in the comfort levels of Indian companies when it comes to hiring women seafarers. In the past four years, we have seen a mindset change in companies like Synergy Maritime, Scorpio, Maersk, Fleet Management, MMSI and several others. We now see a lot more demand for women seafarers than before. So yes, we do believe the outlook is changing, although it could have been faster. IWSF partners with administrators, maritime unions, ship owners, ship managers, and several maritime representative bodies to improve hiring of women seafarers and to ensure a reduction of gaps in social understanding. We also provide mentoring and webinar sessions to our members to improve their behaviour at work and conduct conferences to create an interactive platform for women seafarers and shipping companies. All these efforts have paid off, but we will travel further if more organisations join with us.”
The Sea: How has the Covid-19 pandemic impacted female seafarers and does that differ from the impacts on male seafarers?
IWSF: “The pandemic has affected both male and female seafarers equally. The short supply of vaccines, missed ship embarkations, overstays due to travel restrictions, and a lack of empathy from owners and charterers has affected the entire seafaring community. Women seafarers were no exception. We know some seafarers who have had to stay longer than eight months on board.”
The Sea: What practical advice would you give to female seafarers currently at sea that are facing challenges?
IWSF: “It is important to know your work well, and to know your strengths and weaknesses to succeed in any kind of working environment. For those on board facing tough situations – sometimes so hard that they actually quit at the end of it – I advise them to have patience and have faith in their abilities. Always do your work sincerely and dedicate time for more study. On board is not usually a social place, it is a workplace, so respect this environment.
Also, never mix personal pleasures with work and stay focused. And if you ever need help, we are just a call or a WhatsApp away.”
The Sea: If seafarers reading this, male or female, would like to help the IWSF in its aims, what can they do?
IWSF: “To all seafarers who wish to help us, please have an open mind and accept and respect female colleagues. Treat them equally on board – you can inspire your co-workers to cast off a gender bias mindset. If you can instil a work/social culture on board that is inclusive for all genders, you can drive this forward and be the harbinger of change when you shift to a role ashore, bringing in the best practices, the work culture, and the right training and policies that will encourage a gender- neutral seafaring world.”
This article is shared by courtesy of The Mission To Seafarers – www.missiontoseafarers.org – The Mission to Seafarers is here to support the men and women working at sea when they need us most. To compensate for the lack of facilities available, all of our Seafarers Centres, spread across 50 countries.