Few opportunities for Australian women at sea

Credit: Maritime Union of Australia (CFMMEU)

Opportunities for Australian women to enjoy a career at sea are, increasingly, rare. Vicki Helps, 58, chief steward, Ocean Protector, considers herself lucky. The former teacher decided to make a sea change about 12 years ago.

“I grew up in Fremantle, alongside seafaring families,” she told Safety at Sea. “I wanted to go to the sea, I was very drawn to it. I knew that work was available at the time. So I made a decision in my forties to change my career.”

This World Maritime Day highlighted empowering women and overcoming gender imbalance in the maritime industry.

“It’s critical woman are involved in the shipping industry,” Helps said. “There is absolutely no reason why women can’t be on ships at every level. It’s a workplace like every other. We need (gender) balance in sea-going life. We need a career trajectory. But there is no formal career path in Australia for women to progress except by funding their own study.

Helps said she did all her own training and would do so again if the opportunity came to work on deck, become an officer or engineer.

“Traineeships are rare,” she said. “The pressures we are under with foreign workers carrying Australian cargo on the coast, means the opportunity to get a traineeship, whether you are an Australian man or woman, barely exists. There’s no protection for jobs in Australian waters. There’s almost no Australian industry left.”

Female membership of the Maritime Union of Australia, including dockside was 868 or 6% of membership, according to union records. Roughly half are seafarers. Many are unemployed. Those with jobs work mainly on ferries, the Bass Strait bridging Tasmania, or in the offshore industry off Australia’s North West Coast.

Helps worked on support vessels in the oil and gas industry before her union won merchant seafarers the right to work on naval auxiliary vessels. She is a strong advocate for Australian shipping and Australia as “an incubator of world class maritime skills”.

If the jobs are available, Helps believes women are capable of doing the work alongside men.

“The nature of the work is you are away from home for such a long time,” she said. “It’s a male-dominated industry and not all women are happy working in that environment. It has its challenges. But in terms of women’s capability to do the work, women are fabulous out there!”