Case Study: A Personal Account of Gender Diversity at Sea

joanne rawley
Image courtesy Joanne Rawley / HRAS

Published Feb 12, 2021 4:26 PM by Human Rights at Sea

The following case study is a personal account by Joanne Rawley, a maritime professional based in the United Kingdom and a newly appointed Human Rights at Sea Advisory Board member. This is her perspective, in her own words, having been selected, trained and worked at sea. It is reproduced here in a lightly abbreviated form, and the original may be found here

Joanne started her maritime career in 2012 at the age of 30, considerably older than her classmates. She was also the only female on her cadet intake. Completing her cadetship through Clyde Marine and Vroon Offshore, she sailed on multi-role vessels in the North Sea. Since qualifying in 2014, she has sailed as both 2nd and Chief Officer with four other companies on yachts, tall ships and multi-role vessels. Joanne has recently completed a year ashore in QHSE as fleet DPA and CSO and will be returning to sea soon to complete her Master Mariner qualification.

In the media, the lives of women seafarers all look sparkly and wonderful, but is everyone really on board? This case study will give an insight, not from a female perspective but from a personal account of what Joanne, as a seafarer (and seafarers she has mentored and connected with) has witnessed, heard and endured first-hand over the years - and most importantly, how every seafarer can help make a positive change. 

Personal account: Joanne Rawley

Having served in the Royal Air Force (RAF) and with a significant portion of life experience, I’m well used to working in a male-dominated environment and the prolific bad language or dirty jokes that are often told within earshot, rarely warrant a reaction from me. What does get a reaction is the assumption and judgement made of me purely because my chromosomes are XX and not XY.

“You’ll need to work twice as hard to be considered half as good,” advised one Captain with another Captain declaring (with many expletives included), “I told the __ crewing department to not send any more __ female cadets to this __ boat as they’re nothing but __ trouble.” That introductory speech on my very first bridge at the commencement of my first six weeks at sea made a lasting impression and stayed with me till this day.

The awareness of gender bias in the industry started long before that day on the bridge when my Cadet Training Officer advised me that several of the sponsorship companies to apply through would not accept females, and a couple of the others on the list were deemed not suitable for female cadets after previous issues and incidents. Which raises the question, how seriously are complaints taken, if these companies are still ranked as ‘Training Providers’ with the Merchant Navy Training Board?

The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) quotes the figures of female seafarers being at two percent with 94 percent of them being on passenger vessels. Within the North Sea, a rough sampling of the major ERRV (Emergency Rescue & Recovery Vessels) and PSV (Platform Supply Vessels) employers in the UK sector show female seafarers make up less than one percent.

For most of the boats I’ve stepped foot on, I’m rarely off the gangway before being told by the crew that they’ve never sailed with a female officer. Shortly after comes the question, “Why are you not at home with your husband and children?” On hearing I have no children, their next question is “Why not/when will you?”. It isn’t offensive, but it becomes tiring and is certainly not among the first questions asked of a male officer on board.

A male officer giving instructions/raising their voice/objecting to the jokes and subject of discussion, is considered being a leader and his reactions are justified as part of the job. A female officer doing the same is considered bossy/emotional/ ‘has a chip on her shoulder’/unable to take a joke and is overreacting. In my experience, if you fail to react substantially when appropriate, you are deemed weak and not in control of the situation. Attacks also become more personal; instead of just the generic name-calling there is the accusation that you’re only there to improve diversity statistics or because of false/inappropriate favoritism.

Fitting in

Team dynamics and the ability to interact successfully with the crew is also under the microscope. Be professional and distant (but still maintain an open-door policy for grievances and discussion). If you don’t, you’re cold and not a team player. Being a good team player can result in a different interpretation with accusations of being unprofessional and flirting.

Achieving that successful balance with multiple different individuals is incredibly difficult, time consuming and needs a lot of personal and situational awareness – notice I use the term ‘individuals’, not the sweeping generalization of ‘all male seafarers’. Get the balance wrong and the rumors can falsely follow you around the fleet faster than the relief boat.

Such pressure of perfecting this balance, among the other ongoing battles, can have a detrimental impact on a seafarer’s mental health. 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. 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 (in some cases bullying and harassment) and the lack of connectivity with the outside world. Yes, seafarers choose this lifestyle, but it doesn’t mean it is an easy transition, every vessel or crew change can reset the cycle.


Recipients of long-term negative attention are more likely to withdraw and internalize the criticism – believe that they are at fault or deserving of the abuse and are more susceptible to developing depression and anxiety. From a Chief Officer and QHSE perspective, the concerns are that the team then becomes fractured – crew are more distracted than usual, safety and situational awareness are no longer a priority and critical jobs may not be completed fully. If an individual does not feel comfortable in their working environment, they are less likely to draw attention to a problem or to ask for help – this increases the risk of accidents and injuries. 

Mentoring and role models

Mentoring is a key way to support female seafarers. Allow them a safe space and be their point of contact to reach out for guidance and support if it is needed. Mentees I’m connected with have expressed that knowing there is someone there who has been through what they are going through is of comfort. Knowing they have a contact number and/or email address of someone that will respond if needed is of comfort. I wanted to be that point of contact for other women, so they didn’t have to go through what I did alone, but I’m enraged at the frequency and severity that it is still occurring.

Examples of women within the industry that are well publicised include Captain Kate McCue, first American female cruise ship captain; Reshma Nilefer Nata, India’s first female river pilot; UK Captain Belinda Bennett – WISTA UK who also has the added accolade of being the first black female cruise captain in history; and Captain Radhika Meron of IWSF, first Lady Master of India, to name just a few.

Gender imbalance

It is disappointing that, as a society, we feel the need to highlight each time a woman successfully attains and performs in a traditionally male role, disappointing that women have not already completed these firsts many times over and disappointing that these roles were male dominated and previously thought to be out of the reach of women at all. The myths and legends of old always portrayed women to be bad luck at sea. Several studies over the years have disputed these myths and these examples are also both hopeful and inspirational – to show that women are still making progress and can have hugely successful careers at sea.

Men, as a gender, are not the enemy to the female seafarer. It is not an us-against-them situation. The fact I’m using the terminology ‘female seafarer’ reiterates the premise that all seafarers are predominantly male, unlike that of nursing where the opposite is true. ‘Nurse’ leads to an assumption of female and then, for clarity, ‘male nurse’ becomes a title but rarely is ‘female nurse’ used. The emphasis needs to be on teamwork and crew unity.

This career is not for everyone. One could argue that, if you want the career badly enough, you’ll push through the barriers and prove yourself capable. I don’t dispute this mindset and approach but, for the sake of team cohesion, safety and undisputed entitlement of human rights for all, gender division really should be eradicated. Everyone has a part to play in reducing the impact of the gender divide and ensuring human rights at sea are upheld.

Anyone reading this can make a significant difference. Remember, every female at sea is someone’s daughter. If it was your son or daughter, brother or sister at sea, wouldn’t you want them to be part of the crew, to feel safe and supported?

So why not make a conscious effort to show more compassion, patience and kindness to your crew and colleagues? Your actions on social media can also play a huge part. Captain Kate McCue recently posted a video after being trolled, “How can you be a Captain. Your only a woman [sic]”. The resulting grammar clarification went viral and is still featured on the pages of Newsbreak, The Independent, Fox News5 and USA Today with millions of views and supporting comments.

Imagine the improvements we could make globally if we used that same power to uphold the basic human rights of our fellow seafarers – something they should already be entitled to.


I’m constantly amazed and inspired when I hear the stories of my fellow seafarers who have rallied against their cultural expectations and followed their dreams in the face of such adversity and bias. Sharing my personal story with you all makes me aware of the privileged experience at sea I’ve had so far. Originating and training in the UK, I had no fixed cultural barriers to overcome. I had no firsts to achieve – all the companies I (and my mentees and connections) sailed with have been MLC2006 compliant, pay a fair wage and provide adequate food, water and accommodation. They all also had female cadets before, as well as officers so, imagine our surprise when we are faced with so much opposition and continue to do so in 2021.

This editorial appears courtesy of Human Rights at Sea and is reproduced here in an abbreviated form. The original may be found here

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.