Gender based harassment is about power, bullying and can lead to mental disability

Master’s thesis focuses on women at sea


Do female Danish seafarers suffer more frequent gender based harassment than shore-based workplaces?

The answer is definitely yes, conclude Lisbeth Skræ and Uli Heyden in a master’s thesis in TML (technical environmental management) at the Technical University of Denmark on the basis of a questionnaire survey of female Danish seafarers.


37% of the women at sea, who participated in this study, have suffered from sexual harassment whereas the figure for gender based harassment for individuals in shore-based jobs is 3%. In many cases, female seafarers do not know how to deal with harassment and so do nothing.


The authors also concluded that women at sea do not find all kinds of sexual harassment offensive which the authors feel is due to the special culture to be found in crews on ships and the kind of women who opt for this kind of job. Further, the culture on board is masculine with its traditional gender roles meaning that many women conceal their femininity to fit in with the culture, the authors say.


In contrast, female seafarers find it especially insulting when doubt is cast on the basis of their gender on their professionalism or entitlement to be at sea.


Sexual harassment

The authors based their definition of sexual harassment on the definitions of the issue by the Danish Working Environment Authority and the Working Environment Information Centre.


Ultimately, it is a matter of power play and is a form of bullying that can lead to heavy mental pressure and if it continues for long enough, to the disability of victims.


Women are silent

The survey was sent to 218 female Danish seafarers. A third responded. It is remarkable that none of the female seafarers reported that they had been harassed. None of them had contacted the safety representative, their spokesman, union or SEAHEALTH to get help or advice on dealing with unwanted situations.


The most usual way of dealing with unwanted sexual attentions is to ask the person concerned to stop what they are doing. However, several also say that it does not worry them or that they avoid the harasser. Some discuss things with others on board while others deal with the situation by laughing at the person concerned. Relatively few blame themselves for the situation arising or they try to forget it.


Proposed solutions

The authors suggest ways of tackling the problem and list 14 initiatives, some of which are noted below: The influence of culture, education, behavior and social norms. The authors feel that one of the most important reasons for sexual harassment is in the interface between the masculine culture on board vessels and women’s more feminine values.


So if we want to reduce harassment, it means changing the culture on board, with management on board influencing the culture in the way they want by raising the profile of the values in  focus,  and   communicating this clearly.


Since sexual harassment is still very much a taboo topic, they feel that the issue should not be directed tackled on board. There is the risk of men feeling they are being accused. In the survey, several women say that focusing too much on the issue would not be a good idea because it can stigmatise women with comments such as: “I can’t answer that without risking of being accused of sexual harassment.”



The survey shows that women feel most upset by attacks on their entitlement to be at sea and their professionalism. So the authors feel that this should be the first place to be tackled and for management to take a clear position.


”This is not an area that most people would regard as sexual harassment and crew would not normally see it as a general ‘anti-sexual harassment campaign’,” say the authors.


Demonstration of power

The authors feel that training is one of the areas that is worth concentrating on, and they write:

”Since we feel that sexual harassment at sea is very much a matter of cultural differences, with women entering a male- dominated area, men may thus feel they need to demonstrate their power over women. We think that action should be taken to make it clear to both women and men that they are being trained for a life in the Danish merchant fleet. This can be done at the maritime training schools while training students who are already being taught about the working environment and OHS management or the mandatory health and safety course that all seafarers have to take.”


Use the safety organisation So as to have somewhere that female seafarers can go to if they suffer sexual harassment, the authors also propose a hotline to SEAHEALTH and for information material and possibly guidance to be drawn up. And they suggest that the safety organisation on board should also be involved.


”We feel that the total absence of the safety organisation as a possible source of help for women on board is very worrying. It could be that using this organisation to also discuss these problems could lead  to  fewer  accusations against men and more of a discussion on how the working environment could be made better for everyone.


The respondents in the study point out that sexual harassment are conducted by men not in the crew, but coming on board from outside. In such situations, the safety organisation could possibly be used to assess whether to have a different emphasis on watches in certain ports or countries so that women are not alone with outsiders, for example on night or bridge watches,” the authors recommend.