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If women are not the answer, we’re asking the wrong question

Photo: Mintra siren_berge_180123_2.jpg
Siren Berge, Chief Technology Officer, Mintra
As an industry in transition the maritime sector is faced with massive challenges, including the most talked about digitalisation and decarbonisation and having enough skilled people for this transformation.

Less talked about is the challenge of having a workforce that can rise to these transformative issues and the cultural changes necessary that will take the industry into a new technological and environmental era.

The industry is already anticipating a shortfall of seafarers according to Bimco and the International Chamber of Shipping an additional 89,510 certified STCW officers will be needed by 2026.

That requires the industry to make working in the sector attractive and to find workers that have the digital and technological skills that will fill this yawning gap, which is expected to grow in the short-term.

One solution is to recruit from the whole of the world’s population rather than excluding half the people on spurious grounds such as gender.

Mariana Noceti, IMO’s Principal Programme Assistant, Women in Maritime (WIM) Programme, who is celebrating the IMO’s Women in Maritime Day today, told Seatrade Maritime News that women represent 51% of the world’s population, but only 2% of the seafarer work force.

“Increasing women in seafaring roles would certainly be one solution to tackle the increasing demand,” said Noceti.

She added: “The industry’s move towards digitalisation and automation will lead to the creation of new careers in shipping, and the need for seafarer retraining and reskilling to adapt to new requirements, which presents a wonderful opportunity for the inclusion of people with non-traditional backgrounds in the seafaring profession.”

It is a situation that the IMO is on top of according to Secretary General Arsenio Dominguez: “The gap is in qualified staffers and how we also enhance the training of seafarers, we have to look at the whole process of how shipping is evolving, because we're also introducing autonomous ships so we need to look at how we support this development.”

Dominguez points to projects now being undertaken by the IMO along with the International Chamber of Shipping, the International Transport Federation and Walmart analysing the challenges that we have to attract people to the industry.

Speaking at an event in Singapore recently Karrie Trauth, Senior Vice President, Head of Shipping and Maritime for Shell, also noted the officer shortage projections from Bimco.

“Simply there aren't very many people who look like me that do this job,” she said. “And I want a world where we attract men and women. I want a world where we attract people, full stop to our industry.”

ShellKarrie Trauth, Senior Vice President, Head of Shipping and Maritime for Shell

Karrie Trauth, Senior Vice President, Head of Shipping and Maritime for Shell

Trauth believes that the biggest issue is the industry is invisible to most and therefore doesn't come on the radar as a career choice for young people. She challenged everyone in the audience take the time to talk to someone about the industry and “how cool it is”.

“Get the attention particularly of families with young women. Young women make their decisions about their careers, kind of in the eight-to-twelve years old range, find a way to communicate with families and children find a way to communicate with schools,” she urged.

Siren Berge, Chief Technology Officer, at training company Mintra, tackles the training conundrum: “We are at a critical junction where the training technology exists, but the task is vast. The Maritime Just Transition Task Force has identified that up to 800,000 seafarers may require additional training by the mid-2030s to handle zero-carbon fuels and the shift in digitalisation and decarbonisation.”

Training programmes have already changed according to Berge: “I know that maritime training is ready and able to evolve at the fast pace required to meet these needs. However, it will require the industry to move away from traditional practice-oriented training to new ways of delivering training, such as simulator training, digital training and learning in the flow of work,” said Berge.

The change is already underway, says Berge, who believes the industry will see far more women enter the industry as the training requirements for new technology are accelerating at such a fast pace and the number of new roles and retraining of existing staff will not be met without expanding the labour pool.

“A lot is going on to pave the way for a work environment that embraces diversity and equality,” explained Berge, “Many companies have started changing their policies, changing recruitment processes and encouraging women to apply.”

If Berge is correct, then there will need to be a major cultural shift in the industry, not just at sea but onshore too.

It is a theme that Namrata Nadkarni, CEO at Intent maritime public relations company takes up readily: “We need buy in from men to have more women as part of the mix. This buy in can then impact how we recruit, what working environments are like, what retention efforts can be put in place and a lot more.”

According to Nadkarni one of the major issues that can be addressed is the thorny problem of childcare, “I am a proponent of parental leave being gender neutral so that families can make the right choices for themselves and will allow men to bond with their offspring,” she argues.

A recent study of Chinese women in maritime published by Wenyu Lyu and Lianbo Li of Dalian Maritime University, highlighted the other issues that face women in entering the maritime workforce.

The study, entitled “Sailing into rough seas: The difficulties and challenges Chinese women seafarers face”, identifies five major challenges faced by women in maritime, including: limited access to vocational education and training; employment difficulties because of stereotypes; prejudices and sexual distinction; safety and healthcare concerns; bullying, abuse and sexual harassment; as well as traditional ideas of family and childbirth.

None of these issues will be a surprise to women. However, Wenyu and Lianbo surveyed both men and women in China’s maritime labour force and perhaps a striking factor to note was that the major obstacles noted were “unsettling working and living conditions cannot ensure women’s health and safety (men 28%; women 27%) and the second biggest difficulty lies in lack of job opportunities and career development (men 24% and 23%; women 25% and 24%)”.

“It seems that the unfair access to vocational education and training (men 12%; women 10%) and on-board abuse, bullying and sexual harassment issues (men 13%; women 14%) are not major concerns for Chinese seafarers,” wrote Wenyu and Lianbo.

Nadkarni, believes this is false dichotomy: “That makes it seem like sexual harassment training is not important,” she argues, and there is a “hierarchy of needs and career development and the reassurance that we are working in safe environments is a fundamental need for women.”

Some of these issues were also mentioned by Noteci at the IMO who said that female seafarers have reported a reticence from some companies to recruit them, and “the existence of toxic cultures onboard where women get treated as less competent than their male colleagues and have unequal access to on-the-job training onboard.”

Nadkarni points out that, “An environment in which women are sexually harassed is not conducive to a good career path - for actual career progress, we need people of all genders to be treated with dignity and respect so that they can focus on the job of getting our industry to where it needs to be.”

According to Nadkarni training in maritime is too often a “tick-box exercise” with the emphasis placed on the individual to complete the training.

“What we actually need are policies across companies that create a culture of inclusion. This could be in the form of quotas that ensure that there is a good gender balance - in fact, there is a diversity@sea pilot programme where vessels have at least four women onboard a ship including a senior member of the team, and I think this is a great idea.”

Diversity in the workforce benefits everyone including men says Nadkarni.

While Berge sees light at the end of this particular tunnel: “In a multi-gender maritime world, training and retraining are essential for all seafarers, regardless of gender. What is new is that in addition to training in new technologies, new legislation and safety, cultural competence and gender sensitivity have found their way into the training matrices and are considered important for creating high-performing teams.”

Dominguez is keen to point out that that “all the parts of the maritime domain” need a culture change, a change of perceptions.

“We can find solutions and the International Labour Organisation is one of the good partners that is working with us. We're introducing mandatory requirements for training for any kind of harassment. Including sexual harassment and assault. All of these things help create and focus on a better environment to attract women,” said Dominguez.

For Dominguez and the IMO the issue is not just about change, but about creating a lasting change that is not merely superficial, such as Nadkarni’s tick box training exercises.

“Employers,” said Nadkarni, “have to stop treating workers like cost centres. We are human beings with diverse body shapes, brain patterns and ways of problem solving and it would be best to have a mixture of people that bring their best efforts to the team.”

So, to the question are women the answer to the maritime skills gap? The answer is yes but….

Additional reporting Marcus Hand