What's it like being a female cadet?
We hear so much about shipping being a male-dominated industry, especially at sea - does this translate to being a hostile environment for women to work?
The Seafarers’ Happiness Index has found that, though women made up only a small percentage of those surveyed, female seafarers posted higher average happiness levels than their male counterparts. Does this sample represent the wider workforce?
To coincide with International Women's Day, we asked female seafarers old and new to tell us what it's really like to work at sea. The result will be highlighted in a series of articles, beginning with this one in which we spoke to cadets.
We also asked our seafarers what advice they would give to any women who were thinking of getting a job at sea. Their responses, at the end of this article, are telling.
Christy, aged 25, is a cadet in third phase, who has been on ship for five and a half months. Her father was a skipper for 25 years – Christy says he didn’t want her to do this job, but she’s in it for the long haul.
“A lot of sailors, especially women, tend to end up transferring to a shore-side job. Part of the reason I’d like to be a Master is because I do not know any female Masters and I think that it’s a shame,” she says.
“Realistically, companies are wary of taking a female when she is likely to be the only female on board. This is especially prevalent when the majority of the crew may be from a culture where women are not treated as competent in this kind of industry. With the recent news in Hollywood, there is the idea of a ‘witch hunt’ wherein some bosses may feel they can get into trouble,” Christy explains.
“I think it’s important for everyone to remember that you only get in trouble if you have done something wrong and it is grossly unfair to not want female employees because they may report sexual misconduct rather than instead not wanting any employee who would be guilty of sexual misconduct,” she says.
“I have been very fortunate in that everyone on my ship was supportive and treated me well, so it was not malicious. It just took a lot longer for the deck department to be comfortable with me doing hard jobs than it would with a male cadet. I wasn’t ever too concerned by that, as I knew they were just trying to look out for me,” says Christy.
“I know that in my career it’s likely I will come across people treating me differently in a way that is unacceptable, but the vast majority of people at sea now will, I hope, be like the crew I have already worked with.”
“I find this job is a very big learning experience about myself but also with meeting new peers,” says Lisa, 19, a Phase 1 SPD deck cadet, who is sponsored by the MEF and is studying at City of Glasgow Riverside Campus.
“People come from so many different walks of life and to understand how other people live and to get involved with their interests is very rewarding,” she says.
Lisa aims to qualify as a third officer after finishing her cadetship. Like Christy, she wants to get her Master’s certificate.
“If I have a positive attitude and the mentality to progress then I don’t see gender as a challenge,” Lisa says.
“Sometimes people may not believe you are capable to be in this profession and that as a woman you are too weak or don’t have the mentality to carry out this job,” she continues. “I find the best response in this case is to prove whoever doubts you wrong.
“Everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses and it doesn’t matter whether you’re a male or female as we are all here to work as a team.”
Lynsey, a 20-year-old deck cadet, is currently serving her last trip at sea with two weeks to go on an offshore support vessel, before she heads back to college on the Shetland Isles to finish her studies and sit her final exams.
She says a career at sea seemed inevitable because her family members had been telling her of their stories at sea since she was young.
“I have thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of my training so far and I cannot wait until I'm sailing as a qualified officer!” Lynsey says. She hopes to gain her OOW later this year and aims to work her way up to reach Master.
“Being a woman at sea, I have experienced some crew members making comments, but these are few and far between and you just learn to shrug it off,” she says.
Santa, 29, had already spent some time working on ships before she began training to be a deck officer in 2016. She first went to sea in 2008, working in catering, and has recently achieved her HNC in Fleetwood Nautical College.
“This career never stops and there always will be higher goals to be achieved and progress towards to, be it at sea or shore side eventually,” Santa says. She is currently completing her last sea phase and aims to become a competent deck officer and ultimately qualify as Chief Officer.
"It can be a little challenging from beginning as the industry is still dominated by men, and I guess the job is thought to be quite technical and physically challenging sometimes,” Santa says of what it’s like to be a woman working at sea. “However, once I have shown my ability to perform the job as expected, there have been no issues.”
N, who wished to remain anonymous, is a 34-year-old Phase 3 Deck Cadet and had a somewhat unusual start to her career at sea. “I have a background in geology,” she says. “I got offered a job as a technical specialist in the North Sea and first went to sea onboard survey ships.” Her ultimate aim is to become captain of a research vessel.
Being treated differently for being a woman at sea is not as much of a concern for N as being able to get on the ships themselves.
“The main worry is getting my first few trips, as there are all sorts of horror stories about newly qualified officers waiting months and months, but once I’ve got a few stamps in my discharge book then it should get easier,” she says of her career progression.
“As a cadet, there did seem to be a bit more of a focus on how I looked, than for the male cadets, which was disheartening,” she says, “and some of the uniform requirements for women onboard felt like they’d been decided upon by people who’d never been to sea, rather than people who understood what the job entailed.”
But these are mere details – N says she feels accepted when working on ships: “I like being at sea. I like not having to worry about everyday things or living for the weekend. The comradery is amazing, and I’ve generally been accepted for who I am and what I can do, rather than judged by my looks or appearance as many women find on land.”
Shannon is a 21-year-old phase 5 cadet, who is currently studying a Scottish professional diploma in marine engineering and is due to sit her COC in August. She has ambitions to become a Chief Engineer and progress further, if she can.
Engineering is her passion and that’s what she has liked most about the job in the two years she has spent going to sea.
“It’s the tense situations that are the most enjoyable because it’s testing your silks and knowledge of the job and putting you under pressure to get it done quickly. When you do it right, it makes a difference,” she says. “Also meeting new people from different cultures and backgrounds makes the job a lot more interesting and enjoyable.”
Shannon thinks there will always be situations where women will be seen differently, due to different cultures or people being set in their ways, but these barriers can be overcome if you can demonstrate you can do the job to a high standard.
“During my time at sea I have always been treated with respect by my peers; however, there have been some situations where my colleagues have asked me to stand at the side because they’ve not thought I’ve been strong enough to lift a piece of equipment,” she says. “I respectfully told them, no, I can do it and they have respected my decision and let me do it.”
Differences in age, Shannon says, can work in a young woman’s favour at sea. “A lot of my colleagues had daughters the same age as me. Therefore sometimes they would relate me to being like their daughter and they would try to protect me from the job. I just had to remind them that this is what I’m training to do this; I enjoy it and they have to trust that I can do the job.”
What would be your advice to prospective female cadets?
Christy: “Never be afraid to report anything that you think is wrong. Never think that it will negatively impact your career because you’ll get a reputation as ‘that girl’. When someone does something wrong, that is completely on them and there are so many people in this industry who are completely on your side. You get to see the world and learn to navigate by the stars with friends from everywhere in the world. It’s an absolutely fantastic career choice for any young woman who is hard working, loves an adventure and is willing to let herself be confident enough to face any problems head on.”
Lisa: “For any women thinking to join the industry, I would say do it and you will never look back! It’s such a different way of life and the memories you make will stay with you for life. Never doubt yourself as you are more than capable to do this!”
Lynsey: “To any woman thinking about a career at sea, I'd say ‘DO it!’ There's nothing more satisfying than going to your bed at night (or morning) after a watch and knowing that you contributed to a safe navigational watch. There are so many pros about the job, I can't see myself every working ashore, unless it was within the maritime industry!”
Santa: “Don't wait and start now! Set the goals and do your best to achieve them. It's unforgettable experience for life, and a great career which rewards all your commitment towards it.”
N: “Do it. Don’t be afraid. If you can do the job you’ll be fine.”
Shannon: “The advice I would give is to not be scared of the industry. It is a male-dominated industry but that doesn’t mean we can’t be part of it. You do have to be able to stand your ground but if you can do that and you can show you’re willing to learn and work, then you’ll be respected by your peers. It is definitely an industry that what you put in is what you get out of it.”