Women rise in seafaring ranks

Women rise in seafaring ranks

On an equal footing

Women like Aysun Akbay, a 24-year-old Turk, are slowly making inroads into the upper levels of seafaring, a profession more resistant than most to female command. Women have long worked on passenger ships, but they are increasingly enduring the risks and hardships of life on merchant vessels. Most of the world’s shipping routes are relatively safe, but Somali piracy — among the security woes of a lawless land where al-Qaeda-linked militants are waging a violent insurgency — has surged more than 50 per cent this year despite an international effort to stem the scourge.

Akbay, a third officer, was on the MV Horizon-1 cargo vessel when it was hijacked on July 9 in the Gulf of Aden, near Somalia, and has said by satellite telephone from captivity that the two-dozen crew members had not been harmed.

“The pirates told Akbay that she could call her family when she wants because she is a woman, but Akbay calls us only when others get the chance to call their families too. She told us not to worry,” said her sister, Aysen.

Pirates usually release ships after a ransom payment, with negotiations often taking months. The crime will be a major topic at an annual forum from September 16-18 in London of a group led by female managers in the maritime industry.

Founded in 1974, the Women’s International Shipping & Trading Association, reported a membership increase of 40 per cent in the past two years, with 20 country branches and more than 1,000 individual members. The Geneva-based International Labour Office said in a 2003 book that one to two per cent of the world’s 1.25 million seafarers were women, many of them caterers on ferries and cruise liners. The labour group believes those figures have not changed significantly.

There are no global figures for women ship commanders or officers. People familiar with the industry say the number is increasing, mostly in the West, though they remain a tiny fraction of the total.

“In the old times, men thought that this job cannot be done by a woman. Before, they believed a woman on board brings bad luck,” said Bianca Froemming, a German ship commander. “It is harder for a woman. You have to show more on board, you always have to work harder than a man to become higher in rank,” she added.