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Mr. Kirby No More: Maritime Careers for Women

By Tracy Kirby

As a director and instructor for Living History Maritime programs onboard Tall Ships in California, we had one very important rule onboard when kids were immersed back in time to the merchant days of 1834 – No women allowed! Any female instructor, including myself, who played a role in the activities became a “Mr” and all students were referred to by their last names only to help conceive the illusion that all students were male while onboard the ship. Back in the day, women were considered bad luck because they were claimed to turn the ship jealous and the journey treacherous. While they pop up in maritime history at times as famous pirates, merchant captains’ wives, sailors disguised as men, and wartime shipyard workers, evidence of their involvement is much more muted than the stories of their male counterparts, revealing limited roles for women and the stereotypes that were formed. Yet, traditions die hard, and getting women to infiltrate the global maritime industry in many of its trades has been no short of an arduous task.  

In many countries, women find it extremely difficult not only to find employment in the industry, but difficult to find proper nautical classes and training as well. According to the International Maritime Organization, women represent only 2% of the world’s 1.2 million seafarers and 94% of those female seafarers are working in the cruise industry. It is often difficult, however, to pinpoint exact numbers, especially in areas where official training is not necessary. In late 2019, the IMO conducted a study with WISTA International to collect and analyze data on the number of women employed in the maritime sector to improve accuracy of statistics. Tides are shifting, however, and more education platforms such as the Nautical Science degree program at Northeast Maritime Institute’s College of Maritime Science are stepping up and helping women see their potential in this field. With more women finding employment in the maritime industry, the weight of this movement is growing. Northeast Maritime Institute is eager to recruit more women for successful careers in the maritime industry by attending the College of Maritime Science for a two-year degree in Nautical Science and 100-ton Master’s license.  

In 2019 the IMO launched the theme “Empowering Women in the Maritime Community” for its 2019 World Maritime Day. This has set the stage for women to see their worth in the industry and it is opening doors to give them the tools and education they need to succeed. Numbers are still low, but they are steadily growing throughout the industry. With changes in technology, globalization, and environmental awareness, more roles have opened for those seeking branches in areas such as administration, engineering, ports, and logistics.  Northeast Maritime Institute will continue to support and highlight these organizations that are working toward a brighter future for diversity and equality in the maritime industry.  

Visit the International Maritime Organization’s Women in Maritime page to learn more. 

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