- Women are discouraged from careers in merchant shipping, although the small number of female sailors in Hong Kong is growing
- We talk to some of the women who are breaking the industry’s glass ceiling
A seagoing ship remains one of the most challenging working environments for a woman to succeed in. Traditionally a male preserve, the on-board hours are antisocial, the work is physically demanding, the sea can be rough and you might spend weeks and months separated from home, family and the internet.
“Of course, at times it’s tough – I was vomiting all the way from St Petersburg to Brazil, but I never thought of giving up,” says Joanna Kwok Wing-yan, describing her experience on her first ship, the bulk carrier, Federal Nakagawa. When she joined it in Iceland, she was 21 years old and the only woman and Hongkonger in the crew of 22.Kwok is one of the few women in Hong Kong prepared to breach the gender gap and sign up for an ocean-going career. This year she became thefirst Hong Kong woman to qualify as a chief engineer
, the most important officer on board a merchant vessel after the ship’s captain. Her landmark achievement was marked by a special event hosted at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum.
The director of the museum, Richard Wesley, points out that both Hong Kong and China have a rich heritage of female mariners, from Tanka boat women to Ching Shih, the Qing dynasty pirate who commanded more than 300 armed junks. Yet these days, very few women consider going to sea a viable career option.
The first woman to captain an ocean-going vessel is thought to have been the Russian mariner Anna Ivanovna Shchetinina. In 1935, at the age of 27, she attracted international attention when she commanded the MV Chavycha on a voyage from Hamburg in Germany to the Pacific coast of Russia. Eighty-four years later, gender equality has not advanced very far in the shipping industry, and progress is particularly slow in Asia.
It was only in 2013 that Carmen Chan Ka-man became the first woman ship’s captain in Hong Kong. She now works for the Hong Kong government’s Marine Department, where she is one of only two female marine officers; the department has another 18 women qualified to work at sea – one ship surveyor, four ship’s inspectors and 13 female marine controllers.
“At the beginning, my parents strongly opposed my idea of pursuing a seafaring career because there was an old Cantonese saying that ‘travelling away on horses or boats is dangerous’,” says Chan.
Hong Kong is not the only place where women are reluctant to pursue a career at sea. In China, the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949 led to women entering male-dominated industries. In the 1970s, Qingfen Kong became the first woman to captain an ocean-going ship, and by 1974 China was operating the first cargo ship, the Fengtao, with officers who were all women according to research by Zhang Pengfei and Zhao Minghua of the China Centre (Maritime) at Solent University in the UK.
However, the 1980s and 1990s saw few women serving at sea, and by 2000, none of the 75 maritime colleges in China accepted female candidates. That year, Shanghai Maritime University launched a special maritime training programme for women, but of the 255 students who had graduated from the programme by 2014, only a small handful served at sea.
The Philippines is another Asian nation with a proud maritime tradition – the country provides about a quarter of the 1.6 million personnel working at sea. However, only two per cent of these seafarers are female and of these, most are employed as masseurs, waitresses and domestic staff in the cruise industry, according to a paper published by Lucia P. Tangi of the University of the Philippines.
Tangi says the number of women sea officers is still “microscopic” and that they are forced to suffer “loneliness, sexual harassment and bullying”.
She says it is very rare to find wome
“When I first applied to local shipping companies, some told me not to bother filling out the application forms,” says Petty Leung Fung-ying who served at sea as a radio operator from 1980 until 1992 for Swire Shipping and is now vice-convenor of the Maritime Professional Promotion Federation (MPPF). The federation organised the special event for Kwok at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum.
Leung explains that in the 1980s the obstacle to women going to sea was not so much active sexual discrimination, but practicality – ships didn’t have suitable accommodation for men and women serving together.
Since 2002, the MPPF has done more than any other organisation to promote careers at sea to young men and women in Hong Kong, and help address a skills gap, which was causing a shortage of candidates to work as river pilots, for the Marine Department, and as marine insurers, brokers and ship surveyors.
“We mentor the young people – not just the seafarers but often their spouses and their families too,” says Leung. She says some Hong Kong families can be stubbornly resistant to their daughters being thousands of miles from home, constrained in a steel box with a lot of men.