Women at sea

By A Oro

When I was at college there was a training video ‘floating’ around college as a teaching aid from the 60’s/70’s where the only mention women on boats is the obligatory pair of high heels being left at the top of the gangway!  This may be extremely offensive to many in the industry today but remember that women are still in the minority and prior to 1980 almost unheard of working at sea. Thankfully the values and attitudes have changed dramatically towards women working at sea.  Depending on your company, crew you work with, type of ship and your conduct on ship you will probably not notice any difference than if you worked shore side.

As you will know or are about to experience, you are the only (or one of a handful) women in your department.  Even on Cruise Ships where a vast amount of women work; being a female deck/engine cadet will put you among the few/only one on-board.  This should not scare you by any means; if you worked in an office, hospital, shop, factory I doubt you would even notice that you were the only female unless you specifically paid attention to the fact.  ‘As a women you are equal to a man in all respects when carrying out your duties and should expect no extra help or training while at sea because of your gender’. I am surprised I need to say that but I have heard about the ‘princess’ going to sea, it has not been a pleasant experience for her or for the crew she has worked with.

How to keep a good reputation and remove the preconceived cultural ideas of women at sea:

  • Do not sleep around!  This keeps you healthy/out of pregnancy trouble and will stop you gaining a bad/notorious reputation.  Being the only female in your department or on ship can be seen as a challenge for certain men to claim you as a prize, it is a disgusting part of life but unfortunately happens.  If you are away for months and do not think you can last without sex, then take a toy (preferably one that has no metal & is very quiet).
  • Women are classed as the weaker gender in many areas of the world and cannot do everything a man can!  As you know this is a false statement, men & women are equal when it comes to working at sea.  There are of course biological differences but both genders can fix an engine or navigate a vessel to equal quality.
  • Socialising; if you sail with only your nationality of crew you can behave as you would at home normally.  If sailing with varying nationalities ‘be a lady’; keep a clear head, be careful about allowing friendly touching (stop it immediately if you feel uncomfortable) and do not be one of the last to leave.
  • Set clear boundaries; this is where you act professional and expect your colleagues to do the same.  Do not flirt to gain favour or get out of a reprimand. Remember you are the same as a man on ship and there are not many men who would use their gender to gain favour, they like you, want to be judged on what they can do.
  • Be confident; no one knows you on your first ship so you can ‘reinvent’ the shy timid person you used to be into someone who is able to take charge of any task asked of them.  Even if you do not feel super confident ‘fake it, till you make it’ and eventually you will no longer be ‘faking it’. This goes for whatever gender you are; don’t go too far, remember you are on this ship to learn not to teach!
  • Do not cry in public; no matter what happens or how upset you feel try to control crying.  You may accidentally gain favour because the male superior just wants the crying to stop or your female superior may become annoyed that you cannot handle your job.  You have a cabin and there are bathrooms where you can regain your composure. If it does happen in public try to regain control as soon as you can. This is valid for both genders.

Harassment/bullying at sea; this happens to nearly everyone it will depend on how you feel, how the perpetrator does it, what happens, how often it happens, etc as to how soon you notice it or how soon you report it.  You must always report it as this needs to stop, the old ways of ‘breaking in’ someone new is no longer acceptable.

Once again I need to keep an obvious point clear; there is a difference between harassment/bullying and reprimand/following orders of your superiors.  The management skills of your superiors are not always going to be of a good quality and with language/cultural differences there is a possibility of confusion.  

The definition of Harassment is ‘a behaviour intended to disturb or upset and is characteristically repetitive’.  

The definition of Bullying is ‘the use of force, threat or coercion to abuse, intimidate or aggressively dominate others’.

Harassment &/or bullying can be very subtle; my own experience was of a subtle form.  There is dual watch-keeping on a ship I sailed on, my co watch-keeper told me straight up that he did not know what to say to me because I was a female (he had no problem chatting up women in different departments though).  This meant that every watch I had with him (8 hours every day) we would not speak unless it was to do with the safe navigation of the ship. It was compounded by other little touches; at the end of each watch there was always a short summary of what had happened this watch written down.  I would always discuss what was to be written and complete my duty, as soon as I had completed my end of watch duties he would come and erase what I had written and word for word re-write the summary. He then started to get others involved to ensure that my isolation grew within my department.  As this was my first trip with this company & my first trip as a qualified officer I was nervous about reporting it to the captain who was of the same nationality as they all got along so well when the regularly spoke in their native language. This happened luckily in the last 2 months of my contract and steadily got worse as another superior (a known chauvinist within the company) decided that I was now an easy target.  Looking back with my experience, knowledge and confidence I should have reported it but as a newbie it seemed impossible. I did keep a record of everything they did to me and the dates/times it happened and when I left the company I submitted it to HR who implemented new training on how to report harassment & bullying.

So please do not be like me; report anything you feel qualifies harassment or bullying and keep a record.  It will always be ‘he says/she says’ so keep detailed notes with dates & times, the bully/harasser will not have a leg to stand on as I guarantee they will not be keeping a record.