Gender gap

Women at sea, a different perspective

by Port News Editorial Staff

Often subjected to extremely difficult working conditions, discrimination and even sexual harassment. Female seafarers are a rare category in the transport world, accounting for just 2% of the total workforce on board ships and still struggling to get the recognition they deserve.

This is what emerges from Philippa Bowden’s account, a British seafarer with many years of experience at sea, who started in 2008 as a cadet on a general cargo ship.

Speaking at an online event organized by the Women’s International Shipping and Trading Association (WISTA)to celebrate the International Day of the Seafarer, the seafarer spoke about life at sea.

On one of her many charters, Philippa found herself working as second mate on a ship with a crew of 25 men: “I felt like there was a lot of pressure on me to perform and do well because everybody in the company seemed to know my name.” she said. “It was a bit like having 25 uncles as you are a family, you do seven- or eight-month contracts and you’ve lived with these people 24-7”

So far, so good. But Ms. Bowden, who now works for an Italian cruise company as deputy in the fleet operations department, also dwelt on the negative aspects of this forced cohabitation. She said that on board you get to meet some nice people, who you can make friends with, and others who are less pleasant. “There were quite a few cases of bullying, harassment and discrimination”.

In particular, the seafarer spoke about a captain with whom she had a complex working relationship: “He really disliked me, he would call me all sorts of names on the radio, he had no shame, and anyone in the port who turned into that radio channel and everybody on the ship heard him say ‘Where’s that effing girl’?”

“Every day it was ‘you’re nothing’, ‘you’re below zero’, ‘you don’t do anything’, ‘why are you here?’, ‘you should be pushing a pram’,” he told me. She said she was 24-25 at the time, much feistier, and wanted to prove him wrong. His attitude pushed her “to work harder and prove to them I could do the job and that I was more than capable.”

Philippa started her career in 2008 after leaving school. She had always been attracted by the sea and wanted to get some job satisfaction without being forced to go to university, which is very demanding from an economic point of view. She remembers that her annual salary was the same as the amount of debt that her friends had accumulated to pay their university fees.

In Lloyds List’s coverage of her account, Bowden not only talks about complex and sometimes less than rewarding interpersonal experiences, but also dwells on the frustrations she suffered because of the lack of recognition of her work.

With a certain degree of emotion, Philippa recalls the experience on board a ship sailing in the dangerous waters of the Gulf of Aden. She said that pirates were a constant threat. They often had to face assaults by armed men, risking their lives. Fortunately, everything went well, but all they received as compensation at the end of the 8-month contract was a $50 bonus in their paychecks: “I remember thinking ‘Is my life only worth that much?’”.

Bowden has worked hard, climbing many steps on the career ladder to become chief mate on ferries. In 2016, at the age of 28, she got her master mariner’s license. Today her recollection of her long period of training at sea is still very intense but she hopes that more and more women will get the recognition they deserve.

Translation by Giles Foster