What’s it like being a female deck officer?
In the latest in our ongoing series of articles about female seafarers, we spoke to the women on the bridge
“Let’s make 2018 the year the scales tip in favour
of women in shipping,” then shipping minister John Hayes said during London
International Shipping Week last September.
Hayes said he was “determined that we can and must do more” to get women into careers at sea, which he said would help both the maritime industry and the wider economy to prosper.
Nusrat Ghani, Hayes’ successor, has taken up these ambitions with fresh energy. The new minister attended the first meeting of Maritime UK’s Women in Maritime Taskforce in February.
“In the autumn, the Government challenged maritime leaders, businesses and colleges to find ways of increasing the number of women in the sector, and it is great to see them respond in this way,” Ghani said at the time.
“There is a fantastic wealth and breadth of career opportunities in maritime, and I am determined to see more women accessing these,” she continued.
The UK Chamber is also represented on the Women in Maritime Taskforce. For its part, the Chamber has been speaking to female seafarers new and old to tell us what it's really like to work at sea, asking what it’s really like – and is there any disadvantage to being female?
The result is part of a series of articles, which began on International Women’s Day (8th March) with this one in which we spoke to cadets. This time we’re speaking to deck officers.
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.
“I towed and sailed as a teenager on the Medway Estuary and saw ships entering and leaving port, which inspired me to take a job in the maritime sector,” says Sarah, 28, who works for a ferry company in the Irish Sea. After working for the Port of London Authority for three years, she decided to take the leap and go to sea.
It has now been seven and a half years and Sarah is a third officer, qualified to OOW. She will be studying for her chief officer’s certificate this year and has ambitions to become a master mariner and serve as Captain, before eventually becoming a marine pilot.
But there are three main areas in which her career progression could be challenged, she says: finding the money to pay for her qualifications; balancing work and life (“it’s difficult to start a family as a woman at sea”); and sexism at sea.
“Thankfully I work on a ship where sexism in the workplace is minimal but it can be a real challenge for some women at sea,” she explains. “Even on better ships, there are some who think that women should not be at sea or who find it hard to take orders from a female.”
Sarah speaks from some experience. “An AB, who was my watchman on the bridge one night, told me that women have no place at sea and said that women are not capable to work as ABs,” she says. “I waited until a colleague came to the bridge and chewed him out about it, but it made me feel like I would never fit in in the workplace.”
She has also noticed that men will rarely swear in front of women – “it makes you feel that you are being treated differently because of your gender”.
Much like Sarah, Rachel foresees that working at sea could eventually interfere with her starting a family.
“For me, there is always an overhanging knowledge that my personal life will always conflict with my career, and that one day I will have to make a choice between my career and a family,” she says. “This is a choice I made when I decided to go to sea at 18, but it’s always in the back of my mind.”
Rachel is now a Third Officer onboard passenger vessels and first went to sea four years ago.
“I love the responsibility of being in charge of a vessel; to have the knowledge and experience to keep the passengers and crew safe, to feel the sea breeze and watch the sunsets,” she says. “Every day is different and every day something happens that makes me glad I chose this career.”
Companies are trying very hard to promote women within the industry and so sometimes it can be beneficial to be a woman at sea, Rachel says – but that’s not to say she hasn’t received any nonsense along the way.
“When I was a cadet I sailed with several ‘old-school’ officers who made things tricky for me and would give me admin-based jobs, or cleaning because I ‘should learn to do a women’s job before I’m allowed to do a man’s’,” she says.
“All this did was give me the drive to prove them all wrong and be the best, gender aside. For me, people work on ships, not men and women, and this is the way it should be moving forward.”
Rachel says the prospect of a challenge was what made her want to go to sea. “I wanted to do something different that was challenging and I felt this calling to the sea and navigation and thought ‘let’s give it a go!’” she says.
“My career ambition is to be the best of every position I become, and to make my way up the ranks as long as I am passionate and love my job. If that is as far as Captain then bring it on!”
What would be your advice to prospective female seafarers?
Sarah: “Do it! It’s a very rewarding and enjoyable career with plenty of career progression and opportunity. And if you can’t beat them, join them!”
Rachel: “You have to be a certain type of person to pursue a career at sea, whether you’re a man or a woman. You need to be able to cope with being away, being lonely, being tired, working hard, and having a lot of responsibility and stress. But if you can take these things on with the right passion and motivation, then the positives of the job far outweigh the negatives.”