I began working at sea at a time when it was still very rare to find female seafarers, especially on cargo ships. As a cadet I was sponsered by a cargo company, and was not only the first female cadet that the company had ever sponsered, but I was also the only female seafarer in the entire company, full stop.
The all-Asian crew didn’t know what to make of me. They assumed I was going to work in the office after I qualified, with some even laughing in my face when I said I was going to work at sea. I was often told I should get married instead. Once a captain suggested that I cook for the crew because ‘they had never had a woman cook for them at sea’. I was frequently given cleaning tasks and told it was because that was ‘woman’s work’.
In some ports I was mistaken for a prostitute by the port security guards because they couldn’t believe that a woman could work at sea and be a member of the ship’s crew.
After I qualified I went to work on cruise ships, expecting women to be accepted a bit better there. Instead, I found it a little worse. I was the only girl in the deck and engine department. The only other female crewmembers were the girls who worked in the spa, reception desk, and in the entertainment department. There was only one female steward on-board who’s sole job it was to clean all the female public toilets. My all-male colleagues would frequently discuss their previous nights exploits on the bridge in front of me. They preyed on the girls in the hotel department – seeing the girls who worked in the spa or in the cast on stage as conquests and free game. On one ship they had competitions between themselves, they gave each girl on-board a scoring system and all tried to sleep with the same spa girl. I can remember frequently taking a walkie talkie and going out onto the bridge wing during thier morning coffee break on the bridge and doing my watch out there for half an hour so that I didn’t have to hear them talking about the women on-board like that (many of whom were friends of mine).
It’s worth saying that not all the men were like that, and some male colleagues became good lifelong friends. But as the only woman on the bridge I was subject to frequent sexist remarks, a few cases of unwanted touching, and once of harassment by a fellow officer who insisted I was just playing ‘hard to get’… he followed me around, came to the bridge on my watch even though he worked different hours, and wouldn’t leave me alone even when I told him to stop following me everywhere and to stop saying the things he did. My cabin was in a dead end corridor next to his so I had to walk past his cabin to get to mine. He would leave his door open so he could see when I passed and know when I was inside. I kept my door locked but he had a master key. He never came in but when his inappropriate remarks turned to inappropriate touching I made a formal complaint and was fortunate enough to have senior officers who took it seriously and were able to put a stop to it.
On other ships the senior management were not so supportive. I sailed under two captains who bullied all the crew, especially the deck officers, and picked on me the most simply because I was the only woman. If I had had any similar complaint under their management I am certain that nothing would have been done and life would only have gotten even worse.
The environment at sea can be very isolating anyway, with limited or no contact with family and friends for weeks and months on end, and literally being trapped in a floating metal box with a small number of people for long periods of time. If one of those people decides to harass the few (or only) female crewmembers on-board, and if those with authority do nothing to stop it (or are even the perpetrators themselves) then life can quickly become very miserable, and everyday becomes a struggle. Every shift starts with dread. And you have to continue to work alongside or under the orders of, the person you most want to get away from. And it shouldn’t have to be like that.