Gender and diversity

Gender inequality in maritime industry: Could systems thinking help?


Today, for the very first time, the world celebrates
the International Day for Women in the Maritime.

In announcing it, the IMO stressed that among other things
the day is intended to "support work to address the current
gender imbalance in maritime".

WoMen+Sea celebrates this with the launch of a
new article series on gender equality
in the maritime.

Gender bias in the maritime

What is the problem with gender equality in the maritime sector?

Behind the launch of International Day for Women in the Maritime lie some hard truths about women’s reality in this age-old industry: ‘Imbalance’ refers to the fact that less than 1,3 percent of STCW certified seafarers on internationally trading merchant ships are female (ILO, 2019 and BIMCO 2021). This number includes women in non-operational functions such as catering. The same number shrinks to an estimated 0,12 percent when focusing on deck officers and engineers (Kitada in Gekara, 2021) making the maritime one of the most male-dominated industries of all, affecting the economic prospects of millions of women around the world.

So, against this background, it is not surprising that most women in the industry have at some point in their career faced uninvited questions or comments on why they want to join the industry and whether they are suitable for it – be it from fellow students, co-workers or their own family and friends. Even worse, women in the maritime face multiple career barriers, and, at worst, sexual harassment.

The fact that member states of the IMO have agreed to instituting today’s International Day is an extremely important acknowledgement that gender equality and women’s empowerment – as laid out in Sustainable Development Goal 5 – must be addressed head-on in the maritime industry. This cannot be celebrated enough.

Why is gender equality important for the entire maritime sector?

For us, gender equality is – in the most direct sense of the word – a question of sustainability for the maritime sector. Put more bluntly, it is a question of economic survival! Why is that?

The simple answer is: Rampant workforce inequalities and instability are becoming barriers that prevent the industry to access the resources it needs. So, the sector is struggling to attract new talent and tapping into the second half of the population is becoming an imperative.

The longer answer is: Since the adoption of the 2030 Agenda, market demand for sustainability (i.e. businesses doing their part to counter rather than drive economic inequality, environmental pollution or inhumane working conditions) is gaining momentum. So, the slow pace of progress in the sector presents serious risks to the mid- to long-term growth of maritime businesses. For a long time, the maritime has been less visible than other sectors (a situation often referred to as ‘sea-blindness’) and maritime actors have felt less market pressure and public scrutiny to address sustainability issues affecting their industry. But this is changing.

Recently, the Covid 19 pandemic, the 2021 incident in the Suez Canal, and the on-going war in Ukraine have put a spotlight on global supply chains and reminded the world of the critical role the maritime sector plays in global trade as well as its challenges and vulnerabilities.

So, while demand and incentives for driving change and seizing sustainability opportunities have not been strong enough in the maritime, the sector will soon face a situation where clinging to the status quo will be riskier than embracing change. When this happens, gender equality performance will become either a reputational risk or an advantage to attract talent, both female and male.

Why is the maritime sector lagging behind on gender equality and what can be done about it?

Gender inequality in the maritime has been discussed for decades without yielding significant results. Beside insufficient incentives and pressures for change, the slow progress is also due to the way the issue has been approached. With efforts primarily focused on addressing symptoms – such as availability of women candidates, absence of women at senior levels, violence against women, etc - without also addressing their deeper root causes the rate of progress can only be limited.

As other wicked problem such as climate change, human rights abuse, deforestation, corruption, etc. addressing gender inequality in the maritime sector requires essential shifts in the way we approach the issue.

Shift 1:

Adopt system thinking to embrace and work with complexity:

Develop a deep understanding of the stakeholders involved, map the different layers and root causes of the issue; identify interconnections, barriers and drivers of change; identify trade-offs and synergies; refrain from oversimplify results for expedient communication but work with complex findings; adopt integrated approaches that can address multiple levers of change; and remain agile to adapt to continual contextual changes.

Shift 2:

Adopt effective collaborative approaches that help work with complexity:

Map stakeholders' interests; invest in building trust between them; identify rather than ignore power dynamics; deal with challenging actors; ensure inclusive representation and diversity to increase innovation; foster collaboration with all institutions and groups needed instead of matching the work to a single institutional agenda whose remit is too narrow; and prioritise collective action over single point interventions carried out by one actor.

Shift 3:

Build a compelling business case for change to mobilise influential actors:

Use innovative approaches such as design thinking and futures methods to co-create with a small group of actors precompetitive strategies; build partnerships to help finance implementation; create incentives so that the adoption of new practices gives champions a comparative advantage that offsets the upfront investment and disruption such transition requires.

How can a systems approach help address gender issues in the maritime sector?

What is system thinking?

Systems thinking refers to a way of examining social issues, emphasizing linkages and interactions between elements rather than just elements individually. Systems thinking allows us to “see the forest for the trees” and to consider ways that a system may or may not be functioning optimally. We believe that systems thinking is a strong tool for social entrepreneurs to adopt, enabling them to address the complexity inherent when innovations are integrated into existing systems.

World Economic Forum / Schwab Foundation (2017)

This introduction kicks off a series of articles to illustrate how system thinking can help analyse challenges and opportunities to strengthen gender equality in the maritime.

Written by several authors associated with WoMen+Sea, the series takes a birds-eye view at the broader maritime sector, not any specific industry within it.

Facts and opinions included in the articles are based on a literature review and interviews with professionals (mostly but not exclusively women) conducted in 2021 across ranks and maritime industries and builds on the authors’ experience working on various sustainability issues over the past 20 years.

Complementing existing research and opinion pieces on the topic, this series intends to enrich the debate on ‘gender in maritime’ by introducing systems thinking to look at the issue differently.

We hope that this will inspire donors, international organisations, governments, educational institutions, and businesses to undertake new forms of collaborative research that can further unpack the issue. We also hope that it will help change makers develop more integrated strategies and programmes to tackle an issue that affects not only women and girls but also employers and seafarers at large.

What does the article series cover?

The first article looks at the importance of the maritime sector and the evolution and nature of past gender efforts. It also identifies the visible challenges and barriers preventing women participation and gender equality in sea-going professions.

In the second, third and fourth articles we draw attention to less visible aspects that prevent women from successfully integrating and thriving as seafarers and that indirectly affect the safety of all seafarers. We examine in more depth their root cases. More specifically, we consider the patterns, underlying structures, and mental models, including power, interests, and regulations that maintain the status quo, shape organisational cultures, influence leadership and ultimately breed gender inequality.

In the last article we explore how the above factors interplay and identify the needs for additional collaborative research. We conclude with recommendations for designing integrated pilot programmes that could help demonstrate that change is possible at scale.

Bottom line

  • Today's IMO International Day for Women In The Maritime is an acknowledgement that gender equality and women’s empowerment (SDG 5) must be addressed head-on. It is an important call to private sector, governments, and international organisations to work together towards a maritime industry that is equitable, inclusive, and free from bias and discrimination.

  • Gender equality is a question of sustainability and economic survival for the maritime sector. Talent shortages and workforce inequalities and instability will increasingly prevent the industry to access the resources required to achieve the transition the world increasingly expects.

  • As the industry becomes more visible, demand for economic, environmental and social sustainability of the maritime is also increasing. Soon, gender equality performance will become either a reputational risk or an advantage to attract talent, both female and male.

  • While gender inequality in the maritime has been flagged for decades, progress has been slow with efforts primarily focused on symptoms rather than root causes.

  • Embracing systems thinking and collaborative mindsets and building a strong business case for change are needed shifts to work with the issue's complexity and accelerate progress.

  • WoMen+Sea is launching a series of articles to illustrate how these shifts can help analyse challenges and opportunities for gender equality in the sector. The purpose is to inspire collaborative research that further unpacks the issue, and help maritime actors develop more integrated strategies and programmes on gender equality.