Empowering Women in the Maritime Community Feature
February 21, 2019 - 2:47pm

Since being founded in 1983 under the auspices of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the World Maritime University (WMU) has been committed to the advancement of women. To further the efforts to achieve the United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, and in honour of the IMO World Maritime Day theme for 2019, "Empowering Women in the Maritime Community," WMU will feature meritorious persons throughout 2019 and present their perspectives on gender equality in the maritime sector. We begin close to home with our own President, Dr. Cleopatra Doumbia-Henry.

Dr Cleopatra Doumbia-Henry

WMU is committed to advancing the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). What is the connection between the SDGs and the advancement of women in the maritime and ocean industries?

The 2030 United Nations Development Goals (UNSDGs), in particular Goals 4, 5 and 8, are related to the advancement of women in the maritime and ocean professions, and thus to the 2019 World Maritime Day Theme, Empowering Women in the Maritime Community. These goals, among others, have been integrated into the strategic directions of the World Maritime University. UNSDG Goal 4 aims to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. Goal 5 seeks to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. Goal 8 focuses on decent work and economic growth.

The kind of education and training that supports the maritime and ocean industries can be broadly divided into two categories – vocational or technical training that seeks to enable individuals acquire specific practical and often directly relevant on-the-job training and skills; and general-level education – often associated with the award of degrees – which allows for a generalist approach to developing critical thinking skills, questioning the status quo and leadership for development. While these elements are of utmost importance to achieving the UNSDGs, WMU’s contribution lies mostly in the latter realm where we enable maritime leaders through our post-graduate education to create tangible impact in ocean and maritime affairs.

The Empowering Women in the Maritime Community theme is intended to drive change and enable the advancement of women. It provides an incredible opportunity to move from promise to action, from lofty goals to concrete outcomes and effective implementation of Goal 5. Governments, industry, academia and civil society all have a role to play in this respect.


You served as Director of the International Labour Standards Department of the International Labour Office (ILO) and were responsible for developing the ILO Maritime Labour Convention, 2006 and remained responsible for it until joining WMU in 2015. What does employment for women look like in the maritime industry today?

When IMO made an estimation of women seafarers in 1992, 1 or 2 percent of the total seafaring population were women, including those who work in service sections on board ships, such as hotel and catering personnel. In 2003, in my previous career at the ILO, under my responsibility, a study on Women Seafarers was commissioned and published. It estimated then that the percentage of women in maritime was between 1 and 2 per cent of the total seafaring population. Women seafarers on cargo vessels were even less, 0.12 per cent. 
 According to the 2015 BIMCO/ICS manpower report, the percentage of women seafarers was still only 1 per cent. This reflects that women’s participation in seafaring jobs continues to be  as low as it was 25 years ago.

According to WMU’s publication, “Maritime Women: Global Leadership”, published in 2015, WMU estimated that women now represent between 3 and 30 per cent in various maritime organizations. This includes the merchant marine, the cruise sector and the onshore maritime cluster. According to the publication, what has been hindering progress in achieving greater gender equality in the maritime sector is the long misplaced perception that women are not suitable for working on board ships due to the nature of seafaring.

At WMU, we are making rapid progress in pursuing gender equality in the maritime and ocean industries. We hope that this will be a motivating factor for women to look at maritime and oceans opportunities in their broadest perspectives. Of course, we cannot merely compare one organisation with the whole world of the maritime labour force. However, I must emphasize that it is WMU’s mission to help promote change in the maritime industry and we are sparing no effort in contributing to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 5: “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”. We are actually encouraged by the report of the McKinsey Global Institute, which estimates that in their “full-potential” scenario, if women participate in the economy at the same level as men, they would add up to $28 trillion, or 26 per cent, to annual global GDP by 2025 compared with a business-as-usual scenario.


What is the World Maritime University doing to increase gender equality in the maritime and ocean sectors?

Education promotes equality and empowers women. It seeks to ensure the full and effective participation and equal opportunities at all levels of decision-making whether in political, economic, academic, business or public life. In line with Goal 5 on gender equality, the IMO’s Medium Term Plan has an objective to improve women’s access to maritime training. WMU is keenly focused on increasing women’s participation in access to educational opportunities in the maritime sector, including at the postgraduate level, to enable their full participation in the maritime and ocean industries.  

WMU has proven that it is possible to make changes in a short period of time. Until the late 1990s, female students made up less than 5 per cent of the Malmö intake. A recruitment strategy with strong support from fellowship donors has resulted in the proportion of female students rising to roughly a third of the annual intake in Malmö, and last year our MSc in International Transport and Logistics (ITL) class in Shanghai achieved gender parity with 50 per cent female students. During my tenure at WMU, we had a record number of 48 women enrolled in our Malmö-based MSc programme, reaching 37 per cent for the 2016-2017 student intake. Since the establishment of WMU in 1983, out of the total of 4,919 graduates, 1,029 have been women, i.e., 20 per cent.

Women are enrolled across all of our MSc in Maritime Affairs specializations that include Maritime Education & Training; Maritime Energy Management; Maritime Law & Policy; Maritime Safety & Environmental Administration; Ocean Sustainability, Governance and Management; Port Management; and Shipping Management & Logistics. In addition to the strong enrollment of women in our MSc programme in Shanghai, several women are also enrolled in our Maritime Safety and Environmental Management programme in Dalian, China. Many women are also enrolled in our distance learning programmes on Marine Energy; Marine Insurance; International Maritime Law; Executive Maritime Management; and Maritime Safety and Security; as well as the LLM by distance learning in International Maritime Law. These distance learning programmes enable those who are not able to join the academic programme in Malmö to progress in their desire for a quality maritime education at an affordable cost and with the flexibility distance learning provides.

Priority therefore needs to be given in the use of resources to identify measures that can further promote career opportunities and improved working and living conditions for women seafarers, including health and wellbeing at work. Much still remains to be done to level the playing field for women in maritime, particularly in shipping. Maritime education and training has an important role to play in this regard, and there is much work to be done regarding the perceptions of what is appropriate work for women.

From 4 to 5 April 2019, WMU will host its Third International Women’s Conference on the theme “Empowering Women in the Maritime Community”. The event is already gaining significant attention and interest from the community of traditional stakeholders and beyond. With an incredible line-up of prominent speakers, the conference will bring together Governments, industry - including the maritime, port, ocean and fishing sectors - international organizations, academia, research institutes, NGOs, indigenous communities, media and WMU/IMLI alumni. It will be an important catalyst for assessing the current situation for women in the maritime and oceans industries and making concrete recommendations regarding actions needed for impact and positive change. The outcomes will be compiled and published in a Conference Report that will inform decision-making at the highest levels.  


You are the first female President of WMU, as well as the first from a developing country. What has your personal journey been as your career evolved with a maritime focus?

In 1984, I obtained a Ph.D. and my thesis was on Carriage of Dangerous Goods by Sea. I was seen to be doing research on a difficult and esoteric topic at the time. With hindsight, I was not. In my long career at the ILO, I used my maritime passion to improve the life of seafarers, fishers and port workers. I can say today that the result was, among many others, the adoption by the ILO of the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC, 2006), the Seafarers Identity Documents’ Convention (Revised, 2003), The Work in Fishing Convention (2008), and the Code of Practice on Occupational Safety and Health in Ports (2005).

These instruments significantly improve the status of seafarers and port workers, and the conditions of their working environment. The MLC, 2006 was not however the effort of a single person. It was no doubt a huge responsibility to coordinate and negotiate with all stakeholders, including governments, shipowners and seafarers’ organizations. While each group had their own interest to pursue, it was important that it was a win-win for all. One of the best-kept secrets is that the MLC, 2006 is the most gender sensitive International Convention of over 100 pages that you can find outside of instruments specifically dedicated to gender equality and non-discrimination. And of this, I am very proud. It was a bold initiative. We should never be afraid of pushing boundaries for a better world.

After over 29 years of advancing labour rights around the world, I left the ILO. I took my passion for the sea, for maritime and those who work in this very wide-ranging industry, and in 2015 I joined the World Maritime University.  I took up the challenge as the first woman President of the World Maritime University and now devote my energies to maritime education, research, training and capacity building.


What do you see as the key in promoting gender equality in the maritime and ocean sectors?

Education is the most powerful motor to deliver change and to change gender stereotypes. At WMU, we are well equipped to help promote gender equality in maritime and ocean industries and encourage young women to go to sea, to opt for a rewarding maritime career whether on board ship or ashore and to ensure that our national maritime schools attract new generations of women and enable them to take advantage of a maritime career. The maritime and ocean industries offer careers for seafarers and others engaged in the broader maritime sector, including in maritime education and training, working as marine insurers, ship brokers and integrated shipping services providers, maritime economics and finance professionals, including banking, providers of intelligence for global shipping and trade, classification societies, recruitment and placement agencies, medical doctors and other maritime health specialists, shipbuilding, ship recycling, ports and logistics, coastal and spatial planning to name a few. The oceans focus opens tremendous opportunities for women, with many women marine scientists and women fishers leading the way. There are today, boundless opportunities for women within the maritime and ocean industries, which need to be seized.

WMU’s mission is to be the world centre of excellence in postgraduate maritime and oceans education, training and research, while building global capacity and promoting sustainable development. We recognise that women are the key to helping empower the maritime industry, closing existing skills gaps, enhancing revenue and ensuring that the maritime and ocean industries remain sustainable for generations to come.

From my experience of coordinating and engaging different stakeholders, if we work together, we can achieve the impossible. We can today make a change for tomorrow. Everyone has a role to play to make change possible and sustainable. We must choose to be bold and make this change a reality, together! How many times did I dare to make “bold” decisions in my life? It is not easy to make a change, because some form of sacrifice often accompanies change. We all have various responsibilities at work and with family. But, I was not afraid of making a change. Because, without change, our younger generation will pay the price and the same challenges will remain.

As we focus on the future, let us remember all those who blazed the trails for us. We now have the task to do the same for the generations to come. Together we will contribute to the sustainable development of the maritime sector, one that is gender sensitive and that provides equal opportunities for both women and men. Gender equality for a better and more prosperous future for all.

Last updated date

February 21, 2019

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