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OPINION: To turn SA into a maritime powerhouse will require more women to participate

A paradigm shift is required in the maritime industry that will make education and experience equal barometers for promotion in order to escalate the number of women participants in this sector. Photo: Supplied

A paradigm shift is required in the maritime industry that will make education and experience equal barometers for promotion in order to escalate the number of women participants in this sector. Photo: Supplied

Published Aug 7, 2020


By Lwandile Mabuza

DURBAN - A paradigm shift is required in the maritime industry that will make education and experience equal barometers for promotion in order to escalate the number of women participants in this sector.

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Despite the strides that other industries have made to accelerate the advancement of women, the maritime industry has so far managed to insulate itself from these winds of change. The industry is still a male dominated sector, with women currently making up a negligible 2 percent of the global maritime workforce, according to figures from the International Transport Workers’ Federation.

As the country celebrates Women’s Month in August, it is imperative that we carry out a frank assessment to identify the barriers that impede women from participating in this sector. Thereafter we need to formulate and implement practical solutions to ensure that we improve the employer value proposition of the industry among women.

South Africa is blessed with an expansive coastline that spans three oceans, is more than 3 000 kilometres long and serves as a major strategic shipping route boasting eight established commercial ports. This positions South Africa favourably to become a maritime powerhouse.

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According to Operation Phakisa, the government’s ocean economy strategy, the ocean economy has the potential to contribute up to R177 billion to the country’s gross domestic product and create just more than one million jobs by 2033.

However, the twin objective of transforming South Africa into a maritime powerhouse and leveraging the ocean’s economy to foster economic growth would be a tall order if we do not recognize the value that women can contribute to the marine industry. Indeed, pockets of excellence exist in South Africa, West Africa, Scandinavia and the US, where women are recognised captains of industry, but more work still needs to be done. Servest Marine leadership team constitutes 57 percent women and will be partnering with other women in the industry to grow these numbers at various levels at Servest and other maritime organisations.

Admittedly, the marine industry is highly specialised and technical, with its own terminology, and experience and marine knowledge are non-negotiable attributes required to navigate the processes involved.

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Traditionally the industry has valued experience over educational qualifications, preferring those that have come through the ranks rather than new entrants. Industry promotion is still very poor, and marine careers are not promoted at school or tertiary levels. In cases where these occupations are taught in the classroom, there is very limited practical exposure and few experiential training opportunities, particularly for women.

There is still very little awareness about the maritime industry, which is further exacerbated by the stereotype that marine jobs can only be done by men. This could largely be attributed to the fact that ship operations and logistics were dominated by men due to the physical nature of activities on sailing and steam ships. Thankfully, the architecture of vessels has evolved and so has the onboard technology, negating the need for physically demanding work required onboard. While we understand that the marine industry on its own has limited opportunities for employment; however, it creates opportunities for indirect employment.

The fact is that there are no jobs in the maritime world that cannot be done by women.

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This is amplified by the emergence of tech-related occupations such as data scientists and analytics, which have come about because of the increasing adoption of ICT solutions. The industry is innovating towards IoT, telematics, robotics and automation, which will shift the paradigm of work as we know it today and require new skills.

Whether at sea or ashore, various opportunities exist for young women today. Any young woman who has an interest in the maritime industry must discover her passion, build her profession, carve her niche in the value chain and pursue growth in the industry. The industry lacks critical skills at sea and ashore in areas ranging from engineering, hydrography, naval architecture, maritime transport and logistics, education, law, business management to science and technology.

We need to continue to advocate and lobby for maritime education in schools and create opportunities in the workplace for qualified young women. We need to reposition our industry promotion and re-engineer the environment to be inclusive of women.

One of my favourite visits on board ocean-going ships have been to those that have embraced women’s contributions in the ship designs, because they have made them an inclusive, practical and comfortable working places for all seafarers.

Over and above this, women who have an interest in making a career in the industry also need to be proactive and seek out these opportunities and for women already in the industry to reach out and pay it forward. It will take women to change the status quo, because men feel that they do not owe women their economic emancipation.

The marine value chain is wide and there are opportunities at various nodes of the chain for women to become entrepreneurs. While a coordinated intervention by the industry and government is required to dismantle the systematic barriers that hamper women from meaningful participation in the maritime industry, women cannot afford to wait for these policy interventions. They need to take matters into their own hands, research, understand the value that they want to unlock in the industry, identify their niche, connect with others and develop their passion.

Lwandile Mabuza is the managing director of maritime, Servest


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