Everything from banter to innuendo and direct abuse takes place on board ships. The film produced by women seafarers under the appeal #lättaankar (“hoist the anchors”) clearly shows that there are widespread, offensive attitudes in the shipping industry which must be changed.
A woman explains that, as a 17-year-old trainee, she had an unwelcome visit from her drunken supervisor, a father of two who “just wanted to feel her a little”. Another woman was going to report an incident, but the HR manager just laughed and said he didn’t believe her. A third woman told us how her colleagues used to put on a pornographic film as soon as she came into the cabin where the crew spent their free time.
The film produced by the initiators of #lättaankar has a selection of all the incidents shared on a closed Facebook group. It shows clearly how difficult it can be working on a ship, especially for women. Frida Wigur has worked as a mess maid and ship’s cook for several years, and started up the campaign for testimonies.
“When I read the comments I felt rather sad that people had carried all that emotional baggage for so long without saying anything,” she says. “But that’s the way it works. Nobody wants to be the boring woman who protests and can’t take a joke.”
Frida Wigur is now studying and works at a restaurant ashore, as well as working on board sometimes. When the #MeToo campaign started in the autumn, she thought it was only a matter of time before seafaring women would tell their stories, but in fact there was a resounding silence. In contrast, though, posts from male seamen started to appear in social media scoffing at #MeToo and writing about their trips to brothels and so on.
“I was so bloody angry, but when I put out my viewpoint I got lots of comments about not being able to take a joke. So I decided to start my own Facebook group.
I contacted some other women who work at sea and we invited about 30-40 of them to the group. In a few days we reached 300 members and now we have more than 1000.”
Frida knows from her own experience just how vulnerable a woman can feel working on a ship. One of the worst times she can remember was when she signed up as an 18-year-old mess maid on a container ship. Unlike the previous boat she was had worked on, she was the only woman on board.
“The engine room gang had a very macho culture and an alpha-male who ruled over the others. Nobody spoke out when some-thing happened, even though they could see that I felt uncomfortable. But they sometimes came to me afterwards and asked how things were and whe-ther they could do anything,” says Frida, and continues.
“Everyone on board knows when someone is a scum-bag and a swine, but they let it go by saying that’s just the way they are. Guys find it difficult to speak up, too, because they don’t want to run the risk of being excluded from the group.”
Frida says that when she first started working at sea she tried to show that she was made of the right stuff.
The last thing she wanted was to be stamped as a feminist, but she soon changed her mind and began to protest.
“You can’t get into all the discussions, though – you just don’t have the energy. Instead you have to put up with a lot and choose your battles. The guys on board often defended themselves by saying that women seafarers are at least as vulgar as they are, and it’s true. Of course it’s not good, but for many women it’s the only way to be accepted and get along.”
Despite these downsides, Frida says she really enjoys being at sea. Her father was a master and her mother was a ship’s cook, so she was more or less born on deck.
“I love shipping and on the whole, I’ve really enjoyed it,” she says. “But it’s not perfect and there’s a lot that needs to be changed.”
The film about the women’s maritime campaign was first shown at a meeting in Kalmar, with representatives from the whole industry including trade unions, ship-owners and academies. During the meeting, representatives from Wista Sweden (Women’s International Shipping & Trading Association) took the initiative to continue the work for change. The next meeting is scheduled on 19 March. It will be held at the Maritime Museum in Stockholm, and is open to anyone who is interested.
Linda Sundgren, text and photo