Women sailors plagued by men

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The Independent Online
FEMALE merchant mariners are routinely forced to lock themselves in their cabins to fend off the sexual advances of their male colleagues, according to a damning inquiry into the experiences of women at sea.

It was found that there were constant and demeaning tests of their professional ability, together with out-and- out discrimination, blatant sexual harassment and bullying.

All the women interviewed had been the victims of serious prejudice and nearly all reported unwanted amorous attentions from shipmates.

They felt that they were "constantly watched" and forced by their male colleagues to work to the limits of their endurance, according to the study by Minghua Zhao of the Seafarers' International Research Centre at the University of Wales, Cardiff.

There was "hidden discrimination", whereby superiors failed to give women normal shipboard tasks - most of the time with good intentions, to spare them dirty or dangerous jobs.

However there was also "open discrimination", whereby women were challenged to prove their capability by working harder than their male colleagues and performing more demanding tasks.

One interviewee said that she felt intimidated by the constant use of strong language, bad jokes and teasing, and said that all women seafarers were forced to lock their doors. Another said she always placed five locks on her door to protect herself. Women also complained that the men aboard ship watched pornographic videos.

However, none of the 15 British and German interviewees on the panel had ever filed a complaint about their treatment, for fear of companies simply saying that a ship was not the place for a woman. Trade unions were seen as male-dominated, with little time for dealing with such problems.

Most women coped by isolating themselves from the rest of the crew and spending their off-duty hours alone in their cabins.

The majority of the bullying and sexual harassment came from officers of the same nationality as the woman seafarer. The fewest problems came from ratings from Third World countries, who also felt powerless and at the bottom of the hierarchy.

Four of the interviewees had suffered from marriage breakdowns because of the nature of the seagoing life and felt that relationships generally came under constant strain. It was felt that it would be extremely difficult to combine children with the job.

The testimony emerges at a time when the merchant shipping industry is desperate to attract women in order to address a massive shortfall in recruitment. By the year 2000 the world's merchant fleet will be 370,000 seafarers short and the outlook is bleak, the study found. Around 400 officer cadets are recruited each year in Britain, when at least three times that number are needed, according to Numast, the union for ships' officers.

Numast national secretary Bill Harrison conceded that the union had no equal opportunities policy, but said that the employment of women was encouraged by the Numast Journal. No one union officer was responsible for equal opportunities, he said.

"There is no doubt that women should actively be encouraged to come into the industry. They make competent officers. Unfortunately they do encounter difficulties."

The Chamber of Shipping said that out of 21,084 seafarers employed by British companies, fewer than 6 per cent were women and most worked as stewardesses and caterers. Latest figures show that there were 246 female officers in navigating and engine-room roles, but there are no figures for how many of them are qualified ships' captains.