In the 21st century, we are seeing women ascendant, as they rise from strength to strength in every field, matching and even surpassing men at every turn. The last three decades have seen women gaining acceptance and commanding respect, even in traditionally male-dominated professions such as the Naval and Maritime Sectors. On the occasion of Women’s Day 2018, SHM Shipcare interacted with some of these brave ladies of the Merchant Navy, who are currently also working to promote the careers of seafaring women.
SHM Shipcare is part of the SHM Group, founded by Mr. Saifuddin H. Hajee, who comes from a family of ship-chandlers. Mr. Hajee established SHM Shipcare in the year 2001 with a vision to save lives through delivery of quality marine safety and survival systems. Today SHM is a leading manufacturer of FRP boats in the country.
Having seen the growing number of women officers in the Merchant Navy over the years as a sign of progress, the company took up the initiative to understand the experiences of the lady officers and the challenges they face. These included the founders of the International Women Seafarers Foundation, Merchant Navy veterans Capt. Radhika Menon, Suneeti Bala, and Sharvani Mishra. These pioneering and award-winning ladies have taken up the cause of facilitating the careers of women at sea.
The IWSF was founded with the vision of promoting and supporting the women seafarers in their careers. Since a woman has to face a lot more challenges in an already challenging, male-dominated field, IWSF aims to guide and mentor these adventurous young women, as well as help companies bridge the policy gaps and inspire more women to pursue a career in the maritime industry. On this occasion, the founders shared some of their experiences with us.
Captain Radhika Menon joined the merchant navy as a radio officer around 26 years ago; as she tells it, it wasn’t smooth sailing at all. “Since I was one of the first women to enter this field and on-board a ship, I was looked upon with apprehension.” At first, she did not feel welcome, and had to work extra hard to earn her place. “In the beginning you have to work harder and longer to avoid criticism and be accepted. But once you prove yourself, then you’re respected by others.”
Becoming a navigator later, she says, meant much more responsibility than when she was a radio officer. “Men think that it is a man’s job,” she reflects. Most women, she says are unaware of the opportunities that exist in these sectors. And even if they know, they may lack the support of their families in pursuing a different career path. Encouragement from family is very important, she notes.
Captain Radhika Menon, along with being the first Indian woman Captain in the Merchant Navy, also became the first woman ever to be conferred the IMO Award for Exceptional Bravery at Sea, when she saved the lives of seven fishermen in very severe weather conditions. When asked if she has ever had to deal with pirates or passed through pirate-infested waters, she smiles and says quietly, “I’d prefer not to discuss that.”
Suneeti Bala, on the other hand, had a very different career in mind when she started preparing for IIT entrances as a young girl. But eventually, her path led her to become the first lady Chief Engineer in India.
Her father, an ex-Air Force man, encouraged her to follow the unconventional path, she remembers. “When I entered the college (which was a Paramilitary School), I was the only lady there. I felt like I was in a zoo; students and teachers from every department would come to look at me!” She laughingly recalls. Later on, another girl joined, but they both always used to feel like all eyes were on them. As the first two girls in that college, everything from PT to studies was closely monitored for them. People would be curious to see how many push-ups they could manage!
It was pretty much the same when they went on to get a job at sea. Being the first two ladies from the engine side, every action they took, every task they performed was scrutinized. But once the people understood that these ladies could work just as hard as the men that came before, they were happy. “Life on-board the ship was beautiful, especially since we had Indian food on board!” She reminisces. “Every time you meet a new set of people, you have to prove yourself all over again,” she notes. Women have to prove themselves mentally and physically strong, technically sound and socially adept, in order to survive and progress up the ranks and become a leader.
For Sharvani Mishra, the third of this inspirational trio, one of the earliest hurdles came when she applied for campus placements. “I was one of the first two girls to ever opt for such a course in the Tolani Institute,” she explains. She also had to face problems similar to Suneeti, but it got even worse when it came to getting a job at a shipping company.
Despite being one of the top 5 students in her class, when Sharvani and the other girl applied, they weren’t getting any calls from the recruiters. When they asked the college authorities they were told that despite repeated requests, the companies weren’t ready to consider female candidates for interviews! They believed quite erroneously that women simply wouldn’t be good enough! Eventually, with the faith of her teachers, her peers and her own confidence in her abilities, she did get a job with the Great Eastern Shipping Company Limited, and became the first Indian lady engineer to sail on an Indian flag vessel. Her stellar performance opened the doors for companies to hire women engineers.
About the International Women Seafarers Foundation (IWSF)
Considering such experiences, it was quite clear that women face, and will continue to face, a large number of challenges in the maritime industry. Feeling the need for an organization that would address their concerns, Radhika, Suneeti and Sharvani came together and established the International Women Seafarers Foundation in Nov 2017. Interestingly, the foundation actually was conceived as a WhatsApp group where they interacted with lady officers and addressed their issues, which eventually grew into a movement.
“When you’re out there, voyaging on the seas, you don’t really have peers, or permanent friends, or any family or other support systems,” says Sharvani. “Hence, it is very important to have a supportive platform where you can express your issues freely and seek the counsel of those with experience.”
IWSF aims to be a platform that provides guidance to all the women seafarers, and to help them deal with their problems. It provides one-on-one mentoring to the young ladies, as well as undertakes various outreach programs such as visiting schools and spreading awareness about the various professions available in their industry.
There is also quite a lot of gap when it comes to understanding between the companies and the ladies. Company policies are usually created with only men in mind; and if there is any incident, no matter whose fault it is, the ladies more often than not, end up taking the blame. Hence, it is necessary to have the support of the community in such situations. IWSF aims to bridge the gaps in company policy and facilitate the safety and stability of the ladies at sea.
“Our goal is to create fair employment for women,” explains Suneeti. “We don’t want reservations for women; we just want that whoever has the merit to perform the job, should be able to perform it in the best of conditions.” IWSF aims at creating more employment opportunities for women in maritime professions, as well as encourage more and more women to pursue such professions.
On Safety Equipment and Technology
“There has been a lot of evolution in the safety equipment since 1991 onwards,” Capt. Radhika says when asked about how safe is it to be on-board. “Communication devices have also become very user-friendly due to extensive computerization.” Safety equipment supplied by various manufacturing companies such as SHM Shipcare needs to be constantly upgraded.
Certainly, technological development has played a part in making ships a safe environment. Ultimately, however, Radhika states, it is proper training of personnel and implementation of safety procedures that ensures safety on-board marine vessels.
On Changes in Policy
The problems with policy, as Sharvani says, are mostly because usually the systems are designed for men. “For example, crew-level recruitment for women is almost non-existent, as the way accommodations are designed are not convenient for women.” Systems and processes need to be designed with women employees in mind, and ship management companies need to change their perception.
“A lot of the companies do not have maternity leave as a part of their policy,” adds Suneeti. “Nor are there any systems in place for a lady who wants to return to the seafaring life after childbirth. If a man takes a sabbatical, he may return to the same position he held previously even if he may not be promoted. For a woman, however, it is very difficult to return to the same role even if she was highly competent at it before pregnancy.”
The trio suggests that there need to be guidelines in place for companies about how to deal with the issues that women face, how to communicate and take action on these issues.
Has there been progress since the days in which these brave ladies ventured into the then-uncharted waters of maritime professions? Certainly. Today, more and more women are aware about the career opportunities available at sea, and are fearlessly forging their own paths. However, there is a lot of work that still needs to be done before we can truly say that women are getting the right amount of consideration and have taken their rightful place in the profession. IWSF aims to work with other such initiatives all over the world, such as WISTA or the one by UK Maritime. Their aim is to have an international platform, join forces and become a worldwide voice for change in maritime policy.
SHM Shipcare, having been active in the sector for a long time, also aims to promote the cause of women seafarers through initiatives and interactions such as this. On this occasion we also spoke with their Founder-Chairman, Mr. Saifuddin Hajee, who has been a part of the shipping industry since graduating with a B.Tech Engineering degree from IIT Mumbai,1984. “When I entered into the shipping industry there weren’t any lady officers who I interacted with,” Mr. Hajee says, upon being asked how the perception of women officers has changed over the years. “Since the last 5-10 years, we have seen more women choosing a career at sea and this trend is definitely growing. I believe that today, women being at sea are no longer considered as much of an anomaly as they were in the past.”
The previous year, too, SHM Shipcare had interacted with the crew members of the all-female INSV Tarini, where Mr. Hajee had felicitated them at their shipyard in Thane.
“Conditions at sea remain the same for everyone, whether male or female, and those cannot be changed,” he adds. “However, there definitely needs to be an improvement in educating and informing our female youth about choosing the merchant navy as a career. Many women, even today don’t consider it as a viable option due to lack of more information about life at sea. We at SHM Shipcare would be proud to work with IWSF to increase awareness about seafaring careers for women in India.”