How to turn around a tanker loaded with gender-inequality?
The maritime industry is facing a major digital and environmental transformation these years. Thus, a large talent pool is needed, but less than 10% of the students in leading Danish maritime programs today are women. Recognising this challenge, the Danish Ministry of Higher Education and Science asked us to conduct a study about what holds women back and what to do about it.
We conducted extensive ethnographic research at maritime educational institutions around Denmark. We sat in on lectures, went into the ship simulator room with students, and peeked into the women’s bathrooms (or lack of). We talked to experts, heard the stories of students who had dropped out, conducted focus groups with prospective students, and learned from gender-balancing initiatives in other areas.
We identified an awareness and a culture gap as main challenges to overcome. Based on this, six actionable solution concepts were co-created with representatives from the ministry, and from a broad set of representatives from the Danish maritime industry. The area subsequently received state funding for carrying out these initiatives.
Getting the maritime education programs on young women’s radar
“The maritime education programs and industries are consistently deselected. Both because of gender structures and because the choice is not made on an informed basis. This needs to be rectified”
Denmark’s Minister of Higher Education and Science, Ane Halsboe-Jørgensen, based on the findings from the study
There is a Danish movie called “Martha”, which is considered almost as curriculum among students at Danish maritime education institutions. In one scene, the machine engineer of the ship angrily shouts “I don’t want any bitches in my engine room!”
Although this seems harsh, it is actually not that far from reality some 50 years later. Women in the maritime industry still face hard discrimination, especially while on the ships. Although this may not be the only explanation, the reality is that less than 10% of students in key maritime education programs are women. We set sails to explore the underlying reasons for this inequality and what to do about.
“They don’t have clothes in size small and shoes in size 39. When you get out there on the ships, you do feel that the old ship assistants look at you and think ‘that one, she will only last a month”
We conducted extensive ethnographic research at leading maritime education institutions to uncover the daily reality of maritime students.
We sat in on lectures, went into the ship simulator room with students, peeked into the women’s bathrooms (or lack of), and the school café areas. This was supplemented with desk research and interviews with drop-outs, experts, and staff as well as focus groups with high school students. Solution concepts were co-created with a broad selection of representatives from the maritime industry and the educational institutions and from the ministry.
“Our Indian officer did not mind our [the women’s] presence on the ship. But he did not understand why we were there”
Student who dropped out
We developed six actionable concepts to address the main challenges: The lack of (correct) knowledge about the opportunities offered and the legacy of a male-dominated culture in the industry. The area subsequently received state funding for carrying out these initiatives.
Awareness of the maritime career path is very low among prospect female students – it simply does not show up on their radar. And when presented with the option, there is a misalignment between what adolescents are seeking in a future education program and what they think the maritime programs can offer. To combat this, our recommendations included initiatives to create bridges from topics in elementary school and the maritime area, a better “translation” of the programs’ content to adolescents’ areas of interest, and a more strategic use of female role models.
Moreover, there is a cultural barrier. The male-dominated legacy of the industry not only manifests itself in bullying and a pressure on women to constantly having to prove their worth on the ships. But also practical issues such as having nowhere to put sanatory towels in the waste sorting system on the ship. Or not having work wear in women’s sizes. The sum of all those seemingly little things is a constant reminder to the women that they are in a man’s world, and that they do not fit in.