Women in Maritime Jobs Face Persistent Challenges—and Growing Opportunity

Women in Maritime Jobs Face Persistent Challenges—and Growing Opportunity
Women in Maritime Jobs
Women dry fish—one method of processing—in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, a small fishing village where most families depend on fish for their income.
Yousuf Tushar/LightRocket via Getty Images

In honor of International Women’s Day Friday, The Pew Charitable Trusts is working to draw attention to the vital roles women play in the maritime sector, which includes commercial fishing, shipping, naval engineering, and much more.

Traditionally seen as a man’s space, the sector also employs legions of women who toil every day and are paving the way for other women to thrive in the maritime sphere. Thankfully, these women are beginning to garner the recognition they deserve: “Empowering Women in the Maritime Community” is the theme for this year’s World Maritime Day on Sept. 26.

Women make up a significant part of the world’s fisheries workers, helping to both support the livelihoods of more than 120 million people and provide food for more than 1 billion people worldwide. And yet women often perform these integral roles in harsh conditions and for pay that is far below what men receive for the same jobs.

One persistent threat to safety, security, and livelihoods of women in fisheries is illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, which exploits fish stocks, undermines law-abiding fishers, and is particularly detrimental to fish-dependent coastal communities in developing countries. Women often make up most of the fish processors in these locations, and the large-scale loss of fish through IUU activity affects the entire value chain, including the female workforce and their dependents. Taken together, these facts point to the urgent need for updated policies throughout the seafood supply chain; any effort to achieve that should include a gender analysis to ensure the fair treatment of women.

Here are five facts about women in maritime:

  1. 1 in 2 seafood workers are womenIn some countries, like Nigeria and India, the percentage of women in the fisheries workforce is over 70 percent. And in developing countries, where 47 percent of seafood workers are women, this work equates to approximately 56 million jobs, according to the World Bank. Women are essential to fostering progress and change in the seafood sector.
  2. Up to 90 percent of seafood processors are women, which means without them restaurants, markets, and stores would have very little fish to sell. Processing is, of course, a vital step in getting fish from sea to table and yet employees in processing plants are often forced to work in unsafe, unsanitary, and degrading conditions, according to a 2015 United Nations report titled “The Role of Women in the Seafood Industry” These low-skill jobs do not provide economic stability or much hope for advancement and, because they’re seasonal, employers are often exempt from labor regulations.
  3. Women are underrepresented among seafarers—a potential opportunity for growth. According to the International Transport Workers’ Federation, women make up 1 to 2 percent of the 1.25 million seafarers worldwide (Norway is among the highest percentage at 3.4 percent)—meaning women could be an answer to the labor shortage facing that subsector. In response to that decline, which is driven by an ageing workforce that lack diverse skills, the International Maritime Organization created the Women in Maritime programme, which established seven regional associations, and at least 40 major maritime companies have signed gender equality pledges.
  4. Women’s pay is nearly half of men’s in maritime. According to an article in Raconteur, women in the UK maritime industry earn 16.50 GBP for every 30 GBP men earn. This 45 per cent pay gap far exceeds the 17.4 per cent national average gap. This is largely because women occupy only 7 per cent of management positions within the maritime sector—a pattern that is not exclusive to the UK. A recent study conducted in Thailand by the International Labour Organization (ILO) found that only 48 per cent of women seafood workers—versus 73 per cent of their male counterparts—said they received at least minimum wage.
  5. Without effective regulation of the workspace, increased female representation has hidden risks. Because women face open discrimination, they often work 50 per cent harder than men to prove their worth, and therefore are sometimes forced to put themselves at higher risk of injury, according to an academic study of female participation in the maritime industry. To address these patterns, the IMO and ILO continue to advocate for policies that seek to promote equity and ensure safe and decent working conditions for all individuals working in this sector.

By shining a spotlight on gender inequality, Pew is hoping to drive holistic policy advancements that will improve the lives of the women around the world who help so many maritime industries thrive.

Dawn Borg Costanzi helps develop and implement policies for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ ending illegal fishing project.

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