Employing women on board ships: a solution to the problem of seafaring shortages

Compared to 2015, the number of women employed on ships has increased by 45% to around 24,000, including 7,300 officers and 16,800 ratings. Still very few, less than 1.30% of the seagoing personnel, with a prevalent use in the cruise sector

The cruise ship the Norwegian Jewel sits near dozens of container ships off the coast of Long Beach, California

di Giorgio Carozzi

Genoa – It is a conflict that transforms territories, seas, ports and the world of work into variables dependent on the short-sightedness of political and financial strategies of companies, in a market system based on competition between countries, on costs and social rights. A disruptive model that fuels a race to the bottom and worsens living conditions for millions of people, increasing fragmentation, precariousness and loss of rights. And at the centre, right in the eye of the storm, are seafarers, the sacrifices of seafarers and the unattainable gender equality, which is often consumed with the cancellation of women as persons.


The chronicles bear daily witness to how the pandemic has profoundly affected the quality of life of many workers. But those who have suffered most of all are seafarers, whose sacrifice has kept the world economy going at a very high price. Despite the efforts of many shipowners and crew management companies, many were unable to disembark for more than a year, some even for two. A huge sacrifice has been made by an enormous number of workers.
Last year there were more than 1,880,000 seafarers certified under the STCW (Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping) Convention, including 883,780 officers and 997,540 ratings. Nearly 350,000 more than five years ago, but still insufficient to meet the demand resulting from the increase in the world fleet. According to the ICS, with growth of 2% per year from the yards’ order books, there will be a shortage of around 90,000 officers by 2026. This is therefore a vital sector with a strong growth trend, offering respectable salaries, but in urgent need of a series of rewards to ensure a better quality of life for its employees.

To stay at home, local elections were held in many municipalities last month, with the choice of mayors. But the seafarers on board could not vote, deprived as they still are of a fundamental right. Yet they are not convicts, but people who work for us.

Many seafarers are exhausted and looking for alternative jobs ashore. It is time for a change if the industry is to remain attractive to young people. And the transformation should start with gender equality, not only in the administrative offices but also on board. It is decades since Cecilia Battistello, Angelo Ravano’s right-hand person, had the ships of the Contship group painted pink, almost as a challenge. To characterise female leadership in the chain of command, signalling even at that time the barriers that women in the maritime industry must overcome and the absence of gender equality: equal respect, rights and opportunities for all. A strong business message but one that fell on deaf ears. Compared to 2015, the number of women employed on ships has increased by 45% to around 24,000, including 7,300 officers and 16,800 ratings. Still very few, less than 1.30% of the seagoing personnel, with a prevalent use in the cruise sector. The reality is that out of nearly 1.9 million seafarers, 98% are men and only 30% of women employed on board have reached the rank of officer. A 50% increase compared to 2015, but still too little compared to the goal of gender equality. Change is starting in schools, where concrete measures are being launched to motivate women for a maritime career. There are many opportunities, given that today only 2.3% of officers are female. Of course, it is a job that requires great sacrifice. It is no coincidence that 45% of the workforce comes from five countries: the Philippines, followed by Russia, Indonesia, China and India.

But it is precisely from the Philippines, the country that accounts for by far the largest number, that worrying signs of disaffection are arriving, due to the penalising management of the pandemic. According to the ICS, the chronic shortage of highly specialised personnel capable of handling increasingly sophisticated vessels risks becoming unmanageable. To prevent this from happening, it is urgent that even a traditionally male-dominated industry like shipping sets aside organisational reasons and prejudices and takes all possible measures to ensure real gender equality. From 2023, seafarers will be required to have new skills to enforce regulations towards decarbonisation. It will therefore be necessary to adapt the STCW Convention as well, perhaps starting with equal opportunities.
It therefore seems essential to intervene in the time still available, with a view to a different social model, on the need for training and above all for a revolution in gender relations, to overcome the historical hierarchical separation. In the perspective of a radical change in the balance of gender relations and decision-making processes. Perhaps the secret is to let women know that shipping needs them, their skills and commitment. Overcoming gender diversity can only benefit and improve an industry that has too often proved resistant to change, both in terms of working conditions and environmental protection.

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