People often ask Taalke Middents to take photos of the container ships he helps operate in ports and corridors like the Suez Canal. That’s because she’s a rarity in the Maritime: a female officer.
When local pilots come on board to help crews navigate large ships in tight spaces, they are often surprised but most welcome, said Middents, head of Hamburg-based Hapag-Lloyd AG, the world’s representative company of top 5 container conveyors.
As a chief officer, Middents is the captain’s commander-in-chief. On his last trip on the 368-meter (1,207-foot) Brussels Express, this leadership role was also filled by a woman.
“Some people take pictures with us and say, ‘Two women doing this work?'” No problem. “Maybe my daughter, niece, or neighbors will be inspired,” she said.
Despite Middents’ experience, the global shipping industry remained a laggard in gender equality. Of the 1.9 million seafarers, less than 2% are women, and this gap is one of the reasons why shipping companies are expected to fall short of the 89,500 additional officers they need by 2026. Shipping companies have made big promises to increase the number of female sailors in their ranks, up to 50% of new hires in some cases. The goals are particularly high in the pandemic era, which has its own recruitment barriers.
Attracting women to a career that involves long, unpredictable periods away from home in a predominantly male, sometimes unfriendly workplace has always been a challenge, but the pandemic has made it an even tougher sell. While much of the world huddled at home and panic-ordered much-wanted goods, shipping crews worked long after contracts ended to keep world trade moving and fuel unprecedented demand.
Some sailors were forced to stay for up to a month because travel restrictions prevented them from returning home.
“Before COVID, it was difficult to attract people,” said Elpi Petraki, the newly appointed president of the Women’s International Shipping and Trade Association, or Wista. “Now it’s even harder.”
There are numerous reasons for large, publicly traded airlines such as Hapag-Lloyd and Danish A.P. Moller-Maersk A/S to want to hire more women. In addition to a global workforce shortage, the International Maritime Organization, the UN’s shipping regulatory body, is committed to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal for equality.
At the same time, several studies have shown that sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination against women are likely to be more common in male workplaces.
Last week, Maersk’s U.S. unit said it had settled a sexual assault lawsuit against a former employee, ending a case that saw the world’s second-largest container ship dramatically change how it manages crew. Maersk now distributes its female employees to ships in groups of three or four so that no woman is alone at sea.
The threat of ship harassment is widespread, according to a new study. When Wista surveyed 1,128 female seafarers from 78 countries, it found that nearly 60 percent of respondents had experienced gender discrimination in the workplace, and 25 percent said physical and sexual harassment was common. According to data published last month, about 90% of those interviewed worked on cruise ships and the rest on cargo carriers.
“The maritime sector is at risk due to a lack of new talent,” said Sanjam Sahi Gupta, founder of Wista India. “One of the best and most effective strategies to stop the growing gap is to introduce gender equality in a safe work culture.”
Stephen Cotton, general secretary of the London-based International Transport Workers Union, said that increasing gender equality in shipping is a “big challenge” because of the cultural change required, especially for international teams that tend to work on contracts.
“The entire supply chain needs to look inward to become a more inclusive culture for women,” said Cotton, whose organization brings together nearly 700 unions in 150 countries.
She said the transition from shipping to more digital operations and cleaner-burning fuels in the coming years offers an opportunity to change the macho image of the industry and create conditions that can attract more women.
Sailors generally enter the industry in two different ways: either starting as a ship’s mate and working their way up through the ranks, or through specialized training programs that offer a more academic pathway to seafaring. Either way, it can be hard work at times.
Higher up the functional chain, aspects become more academic, especially as engines, navigation systems, and other ship functions develop technically.
“I would say the work is more brain than brain,” said Middents, who grew up in a small port on Germany’s northwest coast. He went through cadet training, which was partly due to the breadth of subjects—from physics to navigation to medicine—that he had to study in officer training.
In 2005, when Silke Muschitz started as a seaman’s apprentice—education was required before college—there were only two women in her class of 37. In 2018, she became the third woman to be promoted to captain of a Hapag-Lloyd container ship. He served in this role for two years before moving to senior positions in the country in 2020.
director of fleet management, he recruits at job fairs and highlights the various skills needed to work on an ocean liner to aspiring engineers. He said that both male and female team members should be offered a better work-life balance. A tenure of about three months or longer is typical for officers.
Gone are the romanticized times when a sailor’s life was a ticket to a world tour. “Yes, there are occasional beach magazines and great sunsets, but that’s not how we sell the work today,” Muschitz said.
The necessary change also requires new thinking about seafarers’ wages, said the ITF’s Cotton. “If you treat people like hired help, especially if there are younger people.