Chief officer Joanne Rawley has turned a spotlight on the issue of discrimination in shipping by sharing her experiences of intimidation during her nine years at sea in an article entitled We are all someone’s daughter. We chose to be seafarers.

Written in conjunction with Human Rights at Sea, where she is advisory board member, Rawley stated the time is right to stand up and speak out, as such "unacceptable behaviour" is impeding the success of initiatives seeking to change shipping's outdated culture.

Speaking to TradeWinds while on assignment to the North Sea, Rawley said: “I must stress I'm not an expert — just a seafarer who is trying to support and speak up for others and hopefully make a genuine difference within the maritime industry.”

But Rawley wants to get one thing clear — the intimidation she describes is not just the odd off-the-cuff remark in a bawdy male environment.

Systematic violation

“I'm not talking about a few rude jokes and lewd comments, which also comes under harassing behaviour, I'm talking about the systematic and intentional violation of a crew member's rights to be safe at work,” she said.

Rawley served in the UK’s Royal Air Force and is used to industrial language and crude humour. But what she finds difficult to accept are comments that question her ability to do a job based on her gender.

She had a tough initiation. In her first commission on a bridge, the ship’s captain bellowed: “I told the f’ing crewing department to not send any more f’ing female cadets to this f’ing boat as they’re nothing but f’ing trouble."

Women represent only about 2% of seafarers, and 95% of them work on passengerships. When joining a ship, Rawley has found the icebreaker when greeting new colleagues is often the fact that it is the first time they have worked with a female seafarer.

But being singled out at sea adds to stress, which can affect mental health, she explained.

“Seafarers are more at risk as there is no real escape — once you join the vessel you are living and working in that environment for a few weeks or a few months,” she said.

“This is compounded for some by the impact of not being used to being away from home; not being used to being so outnumbered by the opposite sex; the constant judgement and criticism, or in some cases bullying and harassment; and the lack of connectivity with the outside world.”

Other stories

Chief officer Joanne Rawley opens up about discrimination at sea. Photo: Joanne Rawley

Other female seafarers' experiences back up Rawley's account. Swedish cadet Elsa Hatz Grandin brought a groundbreaking and successful sexual harassment charge against senior officer Sven-Bertil Kristian Nordstrom in 2019 after her complaint was ignored by her employer.

She told union Nautilus International her overriding feeling during the complaint process was of being alone. She quit her job over the incident just days before completing her training.

Rawley said some ship managers have made progress in changing the culture, but the situation is fragile.

“All it takes is one crew member to reverse a company’s painfully slow progress towards equality. One crew member, who for whatever reason feels that it is acceptable to ridicule, bully or physically assault another seafarer,” she said.

So what advice would she give to women who encounter such attitudes at sea?

Zero tolerance

It depends on the circumstances, she said, but she advises both men and women to keep a record of events. If it is just the odd comment that makes a seafarer feel uncomfortable, then a request to stop may be enough. Or referring the incident to a senior officer can help. But shoreside crewing or ship agents or a designated person ashore maybe a safer option. There are also often whistleblower services or seafarer helplines available.

She cited Maritime UK’s diversity pledges of a clear zero-tolerance policy on harassment as the way forward. She said it should be embedded in shipping company culture and reinforced through an official reporting system that takes violations against seafarers seriously.

Something as simple as talking can also make a difference, she added. “Everyone at sea can make a significant contribution for diversity and inclusion by not turning away from difficult conversations and for speaking up when they witness or experience unacceptable behaviour — let's make integrity and accountability a common trait of all crew on board,” Rawley said.