WoMen+Sea celebrates the Day of the Seafarer 2022 and the start of the 2022 UN Ocean Conference.
On this special, dual occasion, we publish the first article in our series on how systems thinking can help analyse challenges and opportunities for strengthening gender equality in the maritime.
This initial article sets the scene by reiterating why gender equality in the maritime sector is an issue, outlining how 50 years of ocean and maritime governance has hardly contributed to addressing gender equality in the sector and what it would take to change this.
As discussed in our introductory article, 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: Because rampant workforce inequalities and instability are becoming barriers that prevent the industry to access the resources it needs. So, as the sector is struggling to attract new talent, tapping into the second half of the population is becoming an imperative.
The 2022 theme of International Women’s Day “Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow”, the “#BreakTheBias campaign”, the “International Day for Women in Maritime” on 18 May 2022 and the “Day of Seafarers” on 25 May 2022 are all important reminders of the differences that persist between men and women in the maritime sector. They are important calls to encourage private sector, governments, and development actors to work together towards a maritime sector that is more equitable, inclusive, and free from bias and discrimination against women - all year round.
These calls do not happen in a vacuum but build on a long legal and political history of attempts to advance gender equality and women empowerment more broadly.
The two very first articles of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights declare that "All human beings are free and equal in dignity and rights, without discrimination or distinction of any kind".
Subsequent human rights conventions in the 1960s reiterated the principle of non-discrimination and made it legally binding. Nevertheless, UN member states realized that “extensive discrimination against women continue[d] to exist” (cf. CEDAW preamble) so they decided to adopt a specific treaty, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1979.
In the following decades, political and policy efforts on gender equality and women empowerment gained pace. The landmark Beijing Conference in 1995 set strategic objectives and actions on key areas of concern.
Building on these legal and political commitments, in 2015, all UN member states agreed to “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls” by 2030 through Sustainable Development Goal 5 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
At this point, they made it explicit that “the achievement of full human potential and of sustainable development is not possible if one half of humanity continues to be denied its full human rights and opportunities”. (para 20 of the 2030 Agenda).
Ocean governance has evolved fast, too. The rapid growth of shipping, Oil & Gas, and fisheries led to international conventions and agreements as early as the 70s. These were primarily focused on regulating the use of the world oceans, safety at sea, and the working environment aboard ship.
The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) came into force in 1974; the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW) in 1978; and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), in 1982.
While these advanced many issues that seem critical for women to join the maritime, such as labour conditions, they did not create a platform to address women participation and gender equality in the sector more systematically.
In 1988, the “Integration of Women in the Maritime Sector” programme (IWMS) by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) was the first initiative tackling the issue directly. It sought to enable more women from developing countries to join the seafaring labour force through increased access to training and education.
In 1991, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) introduced a report called “Changes in shipboard environment and in the characteristics of seafarers’ employment” as an item on the agenda of the 26th session of the Joint Maritime Commission.
The Commission then urged the ILO and the industry to revisit the overall working environment and employment conditions aboard ship, and to reconsider career paths and enhanced training in line with the innovations and technology enhancements taking place on ships.
After this initial impulse, it took another decade for the issue of women participation to receive some interest from the sector.
In the early 2000s, through IMO’s “Programme for the Integration of Women in the Maritime Sector” six regional associations (WIMA) were created across Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Pacific Islands (2003).
On the regulatory front, it was only in 2006 that the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) was established by the ILO. The MLC was the first, all-encompassing document covering most aspects of life at sea, including the roles, responsibilities, rights, and obligations of various stakeholders in relation to the employment of seafarers.
The MLC has become the maritime labour “constitution”. Its goal is to set a standard baseline to improve the overall employment and working conditions of seafarers. As such, it was a step towards creating better conditions for more women to enter the sector.
In 2008, the first Conference on Empowerment of Women in the Maritime World was held at the World Maritime University. With a growing number of female students enrolling at the WMU, the movement for greater gender parity started to gain momentum throughout the industry.
In 2013, the MLC from 2006 came into force as binding in international law. The same year, the IMO adopted key resolutions and amendments on a mandatory audit scheme – a fundamental tool to assess Member States’ compliance with national and international regulations at sea, including health, safety and labour laws.
In 2019, 28 years after issues related to working environment and employment conditions aboard ship were formally tabled as a major concern for seafarers – the IMO increased its efforts against unlawful practices through a resolution to "Prevent the Fraudulent Registration and Fraudulent Registries of Ships".
Aimed at further detecting and reducing the number of Flag of Convenience vessels and uncompliant ship owners and eradicating irregularities and exploitative practices in the operation and management of ships and crews, this belated resolution has the potential to benefit all seafarers – especially women as a more vulnerable group – but only if and when it translates into a binding international regulation with an effective enforcement mechanism.
In parallel to voluntary standards and international regulations contributing to a more enabling environment for women participation, the last five to ten years have seen a noticeable increase in the number of initiatives and organisations – civil society groups, associations, companies, educational institutions, research and consulting firms – committed to the issue or women in the maritime.
These entities focus on raising awareness, improving access to education and training, building institutional capacities, improving leadership, offering individual support to women seafarers, helping companies improve policies and practice, and on increasing the visibility and appeal of the maritime sector for women.
In summary, it seems fair to say that while ocean and maritime governance has established important foundations for safety at sea and employment conditions, decades of debates on gender equality have yet to improve participation, safety and equal opportunities for women in seafaring professions.
Despite growing interest from some progressive maritime actors, inequality, exclusion, bias and discrimination continue to be deeply rooted and tolerated in the sector. Countless seafarers – women but, interestingly, also men - experience these shortcomings on a regular basis. When the address by IMO’s president on the Day of the Seafarer 2022 fails to highlight gender inequality as a challenge for the future of the maritime industry, it seems that we have reasons to be concerned.
Where does this inertia come from? Does the maritime sector simply face the typical challenge of global governance frameworks which lack monitoring and enforcement power? Or are there also more specific challenges that are rooted in the sector itself? **
It is becoming clear that barriers preventing women participation and gender equality in sea-going professions are numerous, interconnected, and deeply rooted. As such the challenges faced by the sector are complex and require more integrated approaches in the way governance, incentives, leadership, and operations come together to tackle gender related issues.
An understanding of the underlying complex dynamics behind these challenges can bring valuable insights in developing such new integrated approaches. The use of systems thinking methodologies can help understand these dynamics as well as the context, interdependencies and feedback loops which different actors in the maritime sector are confronted with.
The forthcoming articles by WoMen+Sea will examine the events, patterns, structures and mental models and contribute to a deeper understanding of the systems that perpetuate inequality in the maritime.
We hope that this will help change makers and governance bodies develop more integrated strategies and programmes to address the gender issues that affect women and girls as well as employers and seafarers at large.
Gender equality is a question of economic survival for the maritime industry.
The 2030 agenda states that “the achievement of full human potential and of sustainable development is not possible if one half of humanity continues to be denied its full human rights and opportunities”.
All member states signatories of the 2030 Agenda have agreed through SDG 5 that gender equality and the empowerment of women are foundations for peaceful, prosperous, and sustainable futures.
Despite growing interest from some progressive maritime actors, inequalities, exclusion, bias, discrimination, continue to be deeply rooted and tolerated in seafaring professions.
The address by IMO’s president on the Day of the Seafarer 2022 fails to highlight gender inequality as a challenge for the future of the Maritime industry.
Over the past fifty years, there have been global efforts to achieve gender equality through major human rights treaties such as CEDAW, sector-specific regulation to improve working conditions and safety of seafarers such as SOLAS, and some initiatives to make gender inequality in the maritime more visible. .
Despite these worthy efforts, half a century later, ocean and maritime governance has yet to improve participation, safety and equal opportunities for women in seafaring professions tangibly.
Barriers may include the inherent challenges of global governance frameworks and shortcomings attributable to the very culture of the sector. Challenges remain numerous, interconnected, and deeply rooted. A systems approach is useful to analyse this complex context, underlying dynamics and feedback loops which maintain the status quo.
To complement existing research, the forthcoming articles by WoMen+Sea will examine the complex system of patterns; structures; and mental models that perpetuate gender inequalities in the maritime industry. **
We hope that this will help change makers and governance bodies develop more integrated strategies and programmes to address the gender issues that affect women and girls as well as employers and seafarers at large.**