Adjusting the lens

As marine professionals prepare to mark International Day for Women in Maritime later this week, is enough done to showcase the efforts of females who work in the industry?

As marine professionals prepare to mark International Day for Women in Maritime later this week, is enough done to showcase the efforts of females who work in the industry?

Maritime history is packed with figures who have gained semi-mythical status for their exploits, from buccaneering pirates, admirals and explorers to pioneering navigators, engineers and shipbuilders. And almost all of these heroes, and anti-heroes in some cases, are men – specifically white men.

Now work is underway to find the stories of those hidden from the official literature yet who played vitally important roles in building and shaping the modern maritime industry as we know it. Led by Lloyd’s Register Foundation’s Heritage and Education Centre, supported by Lloyd’s Register Group, the project is calling for organisations to search their archives and submit stories of women’s vital role in global shipping through the ages. 

This is, says Louise Sanger, Head of Research, Interpretation and Engagement at Lloyd’s Register Foundation, something akin to detective work. “You can be researching something else and you stumble across the women,” says Sanger. “They are hidden but they are there.”

Archive retrievals

One such example is Mary Ross of Rochester (c1770-1847), a naval shipbuilder on the Medway discovered by historian Dr Helen Doe. When Mary’s husband died in 1808, leaving her widowed with seven children, she continued to run the shipyard, with a speed and confidence that suggests she had been intimately involved in the running of the business prior to her husband’s death. 

Other stories are surfacing from the archives, such as the female chart makers who helped map our world and the welders and electricians who undertook nationally important work on the Clydeside shipyards during World War I and II. The fishermen who braved the seas over centuries to land their catches only did so with nets mended by women, catches processed and sold by women and protected by the ganseys knitted by women. 

And this isn’t just a historical exercise, says Sanger, but an opportunity to effect real change in the lives of women working in the industry today by reframing the narrative of a predominantly masculine industry and showcasing the enduring expertise, experience and leadership women have demonstrated for centuries in this vitally important industry. The She_Sees project is retelling the stories of women currently in the maritime industry through a conceptual visual approach.

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Using a conceptual visual approach, the She_Sees project shares stories of women in maritime today such as Dr Cleopatra Doumbia-Henry, President of Sweden’s World Maritime University with women she has bought into leadership roles (Credit: © Emilie Sandy, 2023)

The hope is that this will attract more women into an industry screaming out for new recruits, particularly in the merchant fleets that keep our global supply chains moving. According to research by Copenhagen-based owners' association BIMCO and London-based industry organisation the International Chamber of Shipping in 2021 just 1.28% of the global seafarer workforce were female, found predominantly in the cruise ship and passenger ferry sectors. It makes sound commercial sense for the industry to widen the pool of potential recruits by reaching out to women.

Representation matters

Captain Ann Pletschke of Trinity Maritime agrees with the re-writing of women back into maritime history as diversity brings business benefits as well as being the right thing to do. “A lack of female representation can limit the amount of visible role models to attract the best talent into the industry,” says Pletschke. “Retention is also a challenge, as a lack of properly fitting personal protective equipment (PPE), concerns over physical or psychological safety onboard and lack of sanitary product provision can all, unnecessarily, increase the challenges for women.” 

It's not just seafarers who face challenges. Most maritime careers are actually office jobs, with the workforce at sea just the tip of a much greater iceberg of shore-based roles, from maritime law to supply & logistics roles to surveyors and engineers. 

Rose George, author of Ninety Percent of Everything, an investigation into the freight shipping that underpins our modern lifestyles, says she rarely saw women on the ships she travelled on while researching the book – other than when she joined an anti-piracy frigate in the Indian Ocean for part of her journey. “Most of the women I have encountered in shipping are shore-based,” she notes.

And while women are better represented on shore, there’s still much to be done to make workplaces safe and welcoming for female employees. “We don’t want to just focus on the past but to also use this work to reflect on how we can improve conditions for women in the present,” says Louise Sangar, who has been hugely encouraged by the response from companies keen to open their archives and also signpost other initiatives designed to improve diversity and inclusion. 

Lloyd’s Register Group, for example, is campaigning for equal access in shipyards to make sure female surveyors always have suitable facilities that are private and safe to change. And companies are finally waking up to the fact their female employees tend to be a different size and shape to their male counterparts, a difference that can have important safety implications if PPE is ill-fitting. Baggy oversized boilersuits or boots that are too big increase the risk of fall hazards, while poorly fitting goggles, helmets and survival gear put women – and their male colleagues – at increased risk in the event of an emergency.

PPE that protects

Change is underway, with a number of employers insisting manufacturers and suppliers create female-sized PPE. Associated British Ports (ABP) pioneered the way among UK ports to provide employees with an exclusive range of women’s PPE. ABP teamed up with specialist manufacturer, British firm Anchor Safety, to create the new range of PPE, which includes products suitable for pregnant staff members. Norwegian seafood company, Lerøy Seafood Group, meanwhile, worked with its supplier Ahlsell to get proper workwear for its female employees as they work in cold and wet conditions looking after the hatcheries and pens in northern climes while ship manager Synergy Group, which employs over 20,000 seafarers, provides PPE tailored to the needs of female crew.

There is clearly plenty of scope to increase the number of women working in an industry, where the physical demands of the job need no longer be a barrier to employing women. 

“Automation and modern machinery and the evolution of safety management has reduced the physicality of the workload,” points out Captain Pletschke of Trinity Maritime. “Jobs that before may have been handled in a physical way, such as dragging an anchor handling shackle down the deck, are now more often done using machinery such as tugger winches due to increased awareness of manual handling risks.”

As the story of the highly successful Mary Ross of Rochester demonstrates, women have been proving themselves as effective and successful marine professionals for centuries. It’s time for the industry to pay it back. 

This article has been inspired by members’ feedback to a Marine Professional article on unconscious bias from December 2022. Keep an eye on the IMarEST’s Institute News for a Women’s Network announcement. New members always welcome! 


Amy McLellan is a journalist and author. She was previously editor of Energy Day.