Plight of Women in the Maritime Industry

Pragya Dixit and Richi Jain

Student Editor - Tharun Rana | Junior Editor - Shreya Choudhary | Senior Editor - Rajnandini Muduli

Reshma Nilofer Naha, India’s first and only marine pilot is very vocal of what she feels are the pitfalls. She craves acceptance. However hard a woman tries to blend in and work as much as or mostly harder than the men, she is never accepted. Can never blend in. Is always subject to quick judgments.


One might come off as naive if they were to deny the fact that women face adversities and get exploited at their workplaces. It has become so tremendously normalized that many just shrug it off and say, “What can we do?” Maritime industry is no stranger to it. Maritime and shipping industry has been traditionally recognized as one of the male-dominated sectors. The representation of women in the sector is so meagre that it goes unnoticed. There are many reasons behind this poor representation. For example:-

a) Recognition of women as a weak gender who cannot handle the adversaries of the sea.

b) The nature of the job which forces you to leave your home for months thus making it harder for them to fulfil the socially stigmatized responsibilities of theirs etc.

c) Patriarchal ideas and age-old stereotypes, to this day, influence our policies and opportunities. Its vitality and importance is so much heightened that we focus so little on these earlier mentioned problems.

The Maritime sector has been facing the wrath of these factors for a long time now. Out of 1.2 million seafarers in the world, only 2% of them are women. Out of that 2%, 94% of these women are mainly engaged in the cruise industry. While this less- than- impressive number raises concerns in our minds, what is worth mentioning is back in 1998 when International Maritime Organization (IMO) conducted a survey, it had been reported that there were approximately 2% women in the Maritime sector, out of which only 0.12% were actual female deck officers and engineers and were working onboard on cargo vessels.

The huge wage gap in the sector is not a myth and monumental, close to 47% in 2017, according to a study conducted by HR Consulting. Very few women are seen in leadership roles and women get lower-ranking jobs despite having a higher education. If they are a part of an onboard crew they face challenges like sexual, verbal and physical harassment. When a woman is courageous and ambitious enough to cross all such social, professional and industrial barriers, the impending threat and harm to her body and dignity acts as a major deterrent forcing her to give up. The woman has to perform above average to earn her place, whereas her male counterpart has to fulfil the bare minimum. Thus, placing a foothold in this industry is nothing but an arduous as well as emotionally and physically challenging task for a woman. All of this contributes in discouraging women from choosing it as a future career option.

From the discussion above, it is evident that among the many reasons behind the lack of representation, exploitation and challenging performance of the women in the sector, sexual harassment is a major concern.

However, what here is so appalling, is that there is little to no change in representation of women over two decades. This raises pertinent questions- whether local and international bodies are concerned about it, or working for the same and if they are, where is the implementation?

Various Conventions and their measures

Sexual harassment is not only a disorderly conduct, but it is also an infringement of legal rights of a human being. The awareness of legal rights in relation to sexual harassment at the workplace has started gaining attention recently and can be traced back to as early as the 1970s. There is no specific law which deals with the problems of sexual harassment in the Maritime industry. However, there are certain conventions and institutional bodies worldwide which attempt to address these concerns.

Every year, 24th September is celebrated as International Maritime Day. In the year 2019, recognizing the need of impending threat to women identity, safety and participation, International Maritime Organization (“IMO”) organized the theme for the same as “Empowering women in the Maritime Industry”.

CEDAW - Convention on Elimination of discrimination against women

Adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly, CEDAW does not mention sexual harassment in particular. In 1992, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, established by UN provided recommendation 19. By way of this recommendation, Article 17 of CEDAW convention stipulated that the discrimination against women as defined under Article 1 includes “any act of physical, mental or sexual harm or suffering, threats of such acts, coercion and other deprivations of liberty, against a woman because she is a woman.”

ILO - International Labour Organization

Following CEDAW’s footsteps, ILO took the initiative and provided directions as to the form Sexual Harassment may take in a workplace.

a. ‘Quid Pro Quo, when a job benefit such as a pay rise, a promotion, or even continued employment is made conditional on the victim acceding to demands to engage in some form of sexual behaviour; or

b. A hostile working environment in which the conduct creates conditions that are intimidating or humiliating for the victim.

IMO - International Maritime Organization

IMO is under an obligation to prevent such gender disparities. Initiated in 1988, its gender development program has been able to achieve certain goals but is still far behind in achieving the intended result.

Various actions which IMO intends to take are as follows -

First, IMO through its women in maritime programme flagship under the slogan of Training-Visibility-Recognition, has been trying to increase women participation in the field of both Offshore and sea going posts.

Second, under the UN's 2030’s agenda of sustainable development goals, it is trying to promote goal no. 5 –Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”.

Apart from Major Conventions, various New Guidelines were developed by the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), and the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) called Guidance on Eliminating Shipboard Harassment and Bullying’. ITF General Secretary, Steve Cotton, said: “Bullying and harassment in the workplace are unacceptable wherever they happen – but they have a particular horror at sea, where those affected may be isolated and alone, hundreds of miles from home. Until now there has been a lack of practical common-sense guidelines and we’re delighted that we have been able to work side by side with the ICS to address this need.”