The sea is also for women: searching for equality in the port environment

Sailors, tugboats, policemen or stevedores. Over the last decades, many professions linked to the sea have been predominantly male. And, although women have always been here, their presence has been often silenced and undervalued. Today, however, we can say that more women are progressively taking up jobs previously limited to men. Behind these achievements is the effort of thousands of female workers in the maritime sector and the endeavour of organizations and entities to create equality policies and guarantee respectful and fair work teams.

Posted on 03.04.2021
In 2019 women represented only 2% of a total of 1.2 million workers. (GettyImages)

IMO's plans

It has been more than three decades since the World Maritime Organization (IMO) launched its gender program. Since then, both the training and the addition of women to roles in the maritime sector have been encouraged. Despite these efforts, in 2019 women represented only 2% of a total of 1.2 million workers. In addition, 94% of these women worked in one sector: cruise ships.

These figures are due to the fact that, in many cases, there is still a clear division between positions that are considered male and female. Something that is reflected, for example, in the Spanish port sector. “Within the port system, women are numerically inferior to men. The difference lies in the fact that part of the traditionally male positions are still held by men, such as port police, maintenance managers or construction officers,” explains Rebeca Álvarez Mohedano, Head of the Equality and Professional Development Unit at Puertos del Estado. Women, on the other hand, often have access to jobs related to secretarial, accounting or human resources roles.

To end this situation, IMO's plans for the future are to promote gender diversity in all sectors and positions. Scholarship programs and specific technical training for women and plans to support the creation of women's associations in the sector are some measures to achieve this. These have, sometimes, the power to change things at a local and even at a state level.

What role does the Port of Barcelona play?

At the Port of Barcelona, an institution with 550 workers, official figures show that women total 32% of the workforce. However, if we remove the Port Police (a body made up almost entirely of men) from the equation, the proportion of women rises to 40%.

For ten years now, the entity has been developing different equality plans that seek to further improve these numbers and guarantee real equity among its workers. “We have had four equality plans since the first one was created in 2010,” explains Marta Ruiz, Equality Agent of the APB. "With them, we have implemented concrete measures that have transformed, and will continue to transform, the selection and training processes, the promotion systems and the reconciliation measures between professional and family life," she explains.

Marta Ruiz, Equality Agent at the Barcelona Port Authority.

Language is one of the aspects that has remarkably changed in recent years, for example, in hiring processes. In addition, test corrections are carried out anonymously and the procedures are free of gender bias.

For the equality agent, one of the most significant measures was the approval of the 'Action Protocol in a situation of sexual harassment, moral harassment and harassment based on sex', prepared in 2011 and updated in 2018. Another relevant improvement is related to the presence of women in governing bodies, which is quantifiable: in 2010, there were 8% of women on the Board of Directors. Today, this figure reaches 23%. The percentage of women in APB's Management Committee is 35%.

In the coming months, the organization will undergo a study to detect possible improvements and then draw up a new Equality Plan. On the table there is also the possibility of implementing teleworking to improve work-life balance.

IMO’s plans will promote gender diversity in all sectors and roles through scholarship and technical training programs specifically for women

Room for improvement

At a state level, measures are also on their way to shape equality plans that make a difference and leave behind sexist and unfair practices. "Our objective is that equal opportunities between men and women become an integrated principle across our organization," explains Rebeca Álvarez Mohedano.

With these plans, the state entity hopes to promote gender parity in high roles and positions of responsibility and to achieve equality in the work placement. Progress has been made in recent years, especially related to work-life balance, but there is still room for improvement. “Change would come if, aside from women, men also adopted these conciliation measures. This would mean that we are moving towards co-responsibility and overcoming the roles traditionally assigned to women, such as caring for minor children or dependents,” says Mohedano.

Rebeca Álvarez Mohedano, Head of the Equality and Professional Development Unit at Puertos del Estado.

According to her, to achieve a significant change and end up breaking the glass ceiling it is necessary to emphasize education. In general, she is optimistic. "I believe that the equality plans that are being carried out and starting to work together with the Port Authorities, the role of women in the ports will change remarkably."

Cadiz: the role of other ports

Recently, the Cadiz Bay Port Authority has set up a negotiating committee for its own Equality Plan. This is the first step to promote its implementation, since the commission has powers to prepare a diagnosis of the situation and establish measures.

This commission is an example of parity: it is formed by four women and four men. In addition, its presidency will be occupied by María del Carmen Rodríguez Baturone, a port police - the group with the fewest female presence in the entire organization.

Cadiz is a good example of the goals that more and more ports are setting for themselves. Different entities around the world are taking small (or big) steps so that the difference in roles in the maritime sector will soon be a thing of the past. To achieve this, they have a large number of women willing to make a change. Or, in the words of the IMO itself, women with the capacity to change the course of the events.