The efficient functioning of the maritime industry is critical to human livelihoods in a country like Fiji. Some within the sector like to use the phrase ‘no shipping, no shopping’, with almost 95 percent of goods entering the country coming via its seaports.

The country’s reliance on the industry was never more evident than during the COVID-19 period, when the movement of both people and goods was highly controlled.

Despite its historically male-dominated nature, the maritime industry is making progress towards a more equitable workforce. As gender barriers in the industry begin to crumble, Fiji’s maritime sector is poised to become more equitable than ever before.

Traditionally, women were primarily relegated to administrative roles while men handled the heavy, physical labour on the docks. However, the industry has evolved to become more inclusive, with greater opportunities for women to pursue careers in all aspects of the field.

While progress is gradual, there is noticeable movement towards a more diverse and equitable maritime industry, both here in the Pacific and across the world.

According to the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), women make up only a small percentage of the total workforce in the industry, with estimates suggesting that they account for only two percent of the world’s seafarers, and 20 percent of shore-based roles.

The figures are even lower across the Pacific, with just 16,000 – or approximately 10 percent of the total workforce – being women.

Embracing the difficult moments

Laisani Tagilala is a maritime worker who has observed the changes that have encouraged more women to pursue a career in the industry. Joining Fiji Ports Corporation Limited (Fiji Ports) in 2016 as a wharf attendant, the changes she has seen over the past seven years are immeasurable.

“When I first started at Fiji Ports, I entered a meeting room full of men who thought that I must have been in the wrong room. Stevedores always gave me a second glance wondering what I was doing on the dock, it was a different time even though it wasn’t that long ago,” she said.

Resilience is a common characteristic for women working within the maritime industry.

“You just have to embrace the difficult moments,” Tagilala said.

Fiji Ports is one of many within the industry doing its bit to further gender equity. Women are no longer confined to office-based roles, with women like Laisani on the front line of industry operations.

Women in Leadership

The COVID-19 pandemic underscored society’s reliance on women on the front line, while also highlighting the disproportionate impact that the virus had on women across the globe in terms of job losses and an increase in caregiving and household responsibilities.

According to research from The Women’s International Shipping and Trading Association, 62 percent of participants felt that women demonstrated leadership during the pandemic crisis at work or in their communities.

Jane Koi, President of Women in Maritime Fiji, said that women within the industry were natural leaders, despite the fact that for many fellow women role models are difficult to find.

“The lack of role models and mentors is certainly an issue, but we know that when women connect with other women within the maritime industry, it can help them to feel more supported within their roles.

“We’re trying to change the narrative of the industry being male-dominated, and the company that I am working for is a great example of this as we walk the walk in having over 50 percent of our leadership roles held by women,” she said.

Despite the increasing presence of women in the maritime industry, they still face significant challenges due to gender biases and traditional stereotypes. Women in Maritime Fiji aims to address these issues by uniting women from all sectors of the industry to identify barriers, gather much-needed data, provide feedback and develop actionable solutions to boost gender diversity.

“The groups mission is to chart a course for a more equitable and inclusive maritime industry that benefits from the full potential of all its talent. We listen to what our members have to say and see how best we can help facilitate their growth within the industry,” Koi said.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Pacific Office in Fiji is working with the maritime industry to raise further awareness of the vital role that women play within the industry.

Through the Government of Japan’s Integrated Border Management Project, UNDP is working to support relevant border agencies in Fiji, Palau and Vanuatu in reinforcing their capacities, capabilities and systems for effective and efficient movement of travellers and cargo, and to strengthen links for data and knowledge sharing, inter-agency and cross-regional cooperation.

UNDP is primarily working to further the work of border agencies – including those within the maritime industry – to ensure that public health programs and policies are sensitive to gender.

Revai Makanje Aalbeck, Team Leader – Effective Governance with the UNDP Pacific Office in Fiji, said that gender-sensitive policies within the industry will create more diverse workplaces that better reflect the communities they serve.

“Many countries and international organizations have adopted policies and guidelines on gender equality and women’s rights. By implementing gender-sensitive policies, the maritime industry can demonstrate its commitment to these standards and enhance its reputation as a responsible and socially conscious industry,” she said.

Almost 95 percent of goods enter Fiji via the country’s seaports.

The Future

The maritime industry in Fiji has seen a significant shift towards gender diversity. Women are increasingly taking on leadership roles and positions traditionally held by men, such as ship captains and engineers. This shift reflects broader social changes in Fiji, as well as efforts by the industry to promote greater inclusion and diversity.

Despite progress towards gender equality in the maritime industry, women remain significantly underrepresented, and their experiences are often overlooked due to a lack of routine data collection on their participation in the sector.

By bringing more women to the forefront, the maritime industry is poised to benefit from a wider range of perspectives and ideas, ultimately driving innovation and growth.