Battling Inequality

Claims of abuse suffered by female officers in the Royal Navy have thrown fresh light on the need for a firmer approach to gender equality and inclusion within the maritime sector. 

Claims of abuse suffered by female officers in the Royal Navy have thrown fresh light on the need for a firmer approach to gender equality and inclusion within the maritime sector. 

Data recently published in the IMO-WISTA (Women’s International Shipping & Trading Association) Women in Maritime Survey 2021 has revealed that females still account for no more than 29 per cent of the shipping industry’s overall workforce, with a mere two per cent currently working as crew, predominantly in the cruise sector. 

The new report is one part of the 2020 IMO-WISTA Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on promoting greater diversity and inclusion in the maritime sector, which aims to promote gender diversity and inclusion as vital factors in providing a sustainable future for shipping. Other initiatives under the MoU include the development of a database of female experts in a range of maritime subjects who are available for speaking engagements, which, it’s hoped, will contribute towards more diverse panels at international maritime conferences. 

“The knowledge we have gathered about gender diversity in the maritime industry through this first Women in Maritime Survey is an important step in trying to create holistic gender diversity,” explains WISTA’s international president, Despina Panayiotou Theodosiou. 

“As a first snapshot, it provides telling evidence of how much work still needs to be done. “We can see how ship owning companies have a reasonably high level of women in senior management and board positions, but the workboat, bunkering, offshore and dredging companies barely touch double percentage figures across their whole workforce.” 

Unconscious Bias 

An increasing number of organisations, in all sectors, are now using unconscious bias training to help tackle gender, race and age inequalities. It is, though, a concept that’s a great deal more nuanced than many people think, according to Averil Macdonald, professor of inclusion and equality at the University of Birmingham, past master of the Worshipful Company of Fuellers, and recipient of an OBE for services to women in science, who has advised WISTA and River Thames companies on how to improve diversity in the workplace. 

“Most people aren’t deliberately biased,” she explains, “but there are systems that are biased. Part of the issue is that we have processes and policies — whether it’s in business, academia or the maritime world — that we just accept as being the way things are done. 

“We all, as individuals, believe that we are totally fair. However, we operate in systems that have evolved from a time, such as in the 1960s, when the world was a very different place. 

“So, the problem is not that people are biased or that people seek to be unfair, it’s that they accept processes formed over many years, which, when you unpick them or drill down into them, inherently favour one group over another and lead to the same outcome — which is a predominately white middle class male upper echelon, with women hitting a glass ceiling and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people failing to get into the professions. 

“We shouldn’t, therefore, simplistically be trying to appeal to the better nature of people, which is what a lot of unconscious bias training does, because the problem is not inherently the people, it’s their applying of processes. People need to be more critical of the processes they are operating, such as the recruitment processes, or how roles are allocated. Effective processes lead to effective outcomes. 

“An effective outcome would be a more balanced workforce and the result will be better productivity and greater creativity,” she adds. “It’s not in an organisation’s best interest to operate a process that only selects the thrusting alpha male type who gives his all, to the exclusion of the rest of his life, because all you get is one type of person who works in one type of way. And there’s no evidence that working long hours gives you greater productivity. If anything, people become so overworked and burned out that they become less productive. In fact, there’s quite a lot of work now that shows that companies which are more sensible about working hours end up with people who work more intensively for fewer hours and therefore more productively. 

"Any organisation that is serious about tackling this needs to go further than EDI training and instigate an in-depth review of all its policies and processes." 

Submarine scandal 

Since the IMO-WISTA survey publication in May 2022, the Royal Navy was forced to launch an investigation into claims of abusive behaviour, including serious sustained sexual harassment, endured by female officers while on duty in its Submarine Service — allegations that the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Ben Key, has described as “abhorrent”. 

The move followed an interview by a former lieutenant Royal Navy submariner, Sophie Brook, who described a catalogue of abuse, she says, she had to suffer for years from her male crewmates. This included being routinely hit, having misogynistic obscenities shouted at her, habitual sexual harassment, and exposure to the crew’s compilation of a 'crush depth rape list' which ranked women officers in the order they would be assaulted should a catastrophic event occur. 

“The best thing I ever did was leave the Royal Navy,” she said, “but I worry about the women I left behind. It was just a constant campaign of sexual bullying.” 

Severe sanctions 

1. Averil Macdonald

Prof Averil Macdonald, Worshipful Company of Fuellers, and recipient of an OBE for services to women in science 

Professor Macdonald believes that abusive behaviour towards women by men in any workplace needs to be met with immediate and severe sanctions if it is to be eradicated.  

“In schools, some boys may be given no real education in what is deemed to be acceptable behaviour towards other people and, in particular, women,” she says. “It’s assumed boys will behave well, but the evidence is that some just don’t. If anyone, male or female, is exploited or abused by a man, the fault lies with that man. 

"An organisation that really wants to tackle this, needs not only a strong sanction as a deterrent, but also both a clear statement within the training of all people at all levels as to what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable behaviour and an effective 'whistle-blower' system to support anyone who has to report such behaviour. 

“There is no reason why women should be prevented from doing something just because some men cannot be relied upon to behave in a responsible fashion. The answer is not in changing the way the rooms are laid out or how people have lunch, it’s in the behaviour of men who should know better. It should be very straightforward that if an individual assaults another individual they are kicked out and their career is over. Then they will stop doing it.” 

Read the IMO-WISTA (Women’s International Shipping & Trading Association) Women in Maritime Survey 2021

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Dennis O’Neill is a freelance journalist specialising in maritime.