Working for equality

Unfair treatment in the workplace based on gender is simply unacceptable.

Claiming ignorance or turning a blind eye is no longer an excuse. In the past 12 months, revelations about unfair treatment of women in the workplace have found their way into the headlines – from sexual harassment in the entertainment industry, which saw the #MeToo movement become a global phenomenon, to reports of female journalists at a global broadcaster being paid a fraction of what their male colleagues are earning.

The maritime industry counts even fewer women among its ranks than many others. The International Transport and Workers’ Federation (ITF) estimates that women make up only 2% of the world’s maritime workforce, and globally women represent a mere 36% of the shore-based maritime workforce, according to data from The Maritime HR Association. And sadly, despite the smaller numbers, our industry is reportedly not immune when it comes to treating women poorly.

“I have heard of horrible and absolutely unacceptable cases,” the CEO of MF Shipping Group and co-chair of the Royal Dutch Shipowners’ Association Karin Orsel told IHS Markit. “Women who’ve been raped at work or physically assaulted when trying to resist attack. Bullying and harassment cases that have continued for months and reports of harassment being dismissed with victims told they are over-reacting and that ‘it can’t be that bad’. There are cases where a female employee’s competence is challenged 24/7 and many women are subject to not moment going past without some remark being made about their bodies.”

According to Orsel, the ‘silence culture’ within shipping means that there is an absence of information about actual cases, so it is very difficult to gauge the extent and magnitude of the issue.

“In our industry there is a view that ‘some things should be left unspoken’, and we have a very hierarchical culture. This means that victims of bullying or even worse, sexual harassment, have never dared to talk about it until now because they are ashamed, feel they’ve failed, or because some fear they will be put on a blacklist, which means they could lose their job.”

The evidence that is available is pretty sobering. The International Seafarers Welfare and Assistance Network conducted a pilot survey in 2014-15 together with the ITF and several other unions. When asked “have you ever experienced sexual harassment on board”, among more junior respondents, 50% said yes. In 2015, a wider survey asked “are you currently experiencing sexual harassment on board”?, and 17% of respondents, mostly officers, said yes.

The #MeToo campaign has had a tremendous effect in other industries, Orsel said, and has led to more openness and awareness within shipping. But to create a change, it requires captains of industry to step up and condemn this behaviour publicly and agree on measures that will help to prevent it. It will not be easy but it is an absolute must, she insisted.

For meaningful change to happen, Karen Waltham, the managing director of HR Consulting, believes the industry must also target the root cause of the problem and eradicate unconscious bias across the entire organisation and take on the culture, attitudes, and mindsets.

Even though equality is enshrined into the law in many jurisdictions, Waltham worries that it may take several generations to eradicate what are now recognised as bad and negative behaviours, particularly with regard to remuneration, where unfair treatment is certainly seen and felt.

A survey of maritime employees in the United Kingdom, undertaken by The Maritime HR Association, managed by HR Consulting from Spinnaker Global, found that women earn just over half of what their male colleagues do at GBP16.50 (USD22) per hour compared with GBP30 per hour for men, a median pay gap of 45.7%. That compares with a UK national gender pay gap of 17.4%.

The scenario was even worse when it came to bonuses, with women on the lower end of a 61.3% median bonus gap.

Unfair treatment in the workplace based on gender is simply unacceptable in this day and age. We should all be confident that we are safe at work and will be rewarded equally and fairly for our efforts. Whether men or women, we collectively share responsibility for making this happen.