Thursday, 14 January 2016

Chinese women's seafaring: a history

Wafu Yang, China's first women marine engineer

This is a very brief edited extract from Pengfei Zhang’s and Minghua Zhao’s chapter, 'Chinese Women Seafarers: Past, Present and Prospect'. The full version is in Global Maritime Women: Global Leadership, Editors: Momoko Kitada, Erin Williams, and Lisa Loloma Froholdt, Springer, 2015, extracted and edited the words below with their kind permission.

Chinese women seafarers in the last six decades, including women cadets in Shanghai Maritime University (SMU) are the focus of their study.

1950s and 70s.
After the founding of the communist China in 1949, the policy expressed in Chairman Mao’s strongly egalitarian slogan, ‘Women hold half the sky’ led to women being employed in traditionally male-dominated industries.
In the 1950s, women were actively recruited to maritime schools. They were trained as seafarers, primarily to sail ships on inland waters, then on ocean-going vessels. In the 1960s and 1970s, women seafarers were sailing on Yangzi River.
The world was excited to see the Fengtao, the world’s first women-officers-only Chinese cargo ship trading in international waters in 1974.

Some were considered as ‘heroines’. They included:
• Qingfen Kong, the first-ever captain in China’s ocean shipping (pictured below)
• Yafu Wang, the first, and the only, female chief marine engineer in China, who later gained a high-ranking post in the shipping industry (pictured above)

1980s and 90s
However, these women seafarers were few and their careers brief. With the promotion of market forces in the 1980s and 1990s, gender equality received less attention than before.
At the same time, demand for seafarers declined when shipping companies developed new technology and shed ‘surplus’ seafarers.
It became pointless to encourage women to take part in seafaring. Also the ‘strategy’ of placing women on board ships had not been successful. Less than half stayed long at sea.
The majority of them had to give up the career, primarily because of marriage and family.
China had 75-plus maritime education and training institutions with an annual capacity of over 30,000 cadets. But none were willing to enrol female students.
By contrast, the dramatic development of port facilities and the increasing number of vessels calling at Chinese ports led to pressure on the Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) in many ports. There were shortages of telephone operators to coordinate the arrival and departure of international ship.
'Many people considered that women would be most suitable to perform … [such] duties … Compared with the stiff and harsh orders from a man, a female voice may inspire different feelings for seafarers… seafarers are more likely to follow the instructions from the VTS call centre,’ thought a senior lecturer at SMU in an interview with Pengfei Zhang.
But VTS operators need to have the background of nautical studies. They had to train.


So times changed. In September 2000 Shanghai Maritime University (SMU)announced that it would start to recruit females, on a tailored programme. The Women Seafarers Project had made a historic breakthrough.
Thirty female students were enrolled. They studied in ten mixed classes, to acclaim by national media.
In the subsequent fourteen years 356 female students have been trained there. But the SMU continues to be the only training institution for women seafarers.
Women only do nautical studies. Marine engineering is seen as too hard. Men outnumber women by over ten to one.
Jieying Xie, first woman deck officer of scientific research ship Xue Long.

In 2001 Minghua Zhao interviewed the then-senior manager of SMU, who made clear that desire for international prestige coloured women’s acceptance:
‘I must mention another reason for us to decide to recruit women cadets. Some two or three years ago, we attended maritime events organised by the IMO [International Maritime Organisation] in Japan and in the Philippines. In both, they showcased their women cadets.
‘They looked really smart and beautiful, really outstanding… We must catch up so that we can also showcase our women seafarersat the future IMO events.’
As of January 2014, 255 women had graduated, a completion rate of 72 per cent. Despite the high hopes only six have actually been engaged in the seafaring profession.
Others found land-based jobs as pilots, Port State Control inspectors, ship agents, ship brokers, freight forwarders government agencies, port facilities etc.

Zhengrong Li, the first woman pilot

Even those who applied for posts as VTS operators have seldom succeeded. The problem is that only people who pass the national civil service examination can apply. It’s extremely competitive. Just two females have become VTS operators in Zhenjiang port.
And the six women seafarers are all employees in the SMU, not in shipping companies. As lecturers they have work on board regularly, but that is just to maintain and renew their certificates. They often only work on training ships.
Similar to the ‘heroines’ in the 1960s/1970s, some of them have been ‘drafted’ to perform duties primarily for national prestige. For instance, two were on the well-known scientific research ship Xue Long (Snow Dragon) (pictured below, Sino Ship They navigated through the Antarctic and Arctic. These expeditions make them very famous in China.
An instructor of SMU explained to Pengfei Zhang in 2013, ‘the majority of them [women graduates] have to participate in professions which are not relevant to maritime. Accordingly, the nautical knowledge they have studied would become totally useless in their daily work ….[it has] been suggested [that we] cancel the WSP programme.’

In the same year another lecturer in SMU said
‘Every year we would visit many shipping companies …Unfortunately, the result is always disappointing. The shipping companies seldom reject our request directly, because [they] want to take in more male graduates from us. However, they always let us wait until the girls give up their hope and find other land-based alternatives.’

Why are shipping companies unwilling to recruit women seafarers?
1. There are sufficient male seafarers.
2. Women are seen as increasing costs. Shipping companies are legally required to supply separate sleeping rooms and bathrooms, and women-specific materials and supplies such as sanitary towels and family planning pills.
3. The number of qualified women seafarers is too small for shipping companies to recruit competent women seafarers regularly as a normal practice.

Besides, in the eye of many ship owners and shipping managers, said a senior crewing manager in an interview by Pengfei Zhang,‘Women seafarers would bring about extra troubles for crew management on board… The management of [an] all-male-crew is much easier than to handle a mixed-gender crew ...
‘We do not know what may happen if a women is working on board among a group of male seafarers. We have heard some incidents in some other shipping companies which were associated with women seafarers on board. We do not want to make same mistakes.’
Chinese cadet officer Wang Chung-Hai, proceeding in 2008 despite the problems, on the YM Orchid. Picture by M Crozet, copyright ILO.

Indeed, shipping companies expressed concerns as they believe that ‘women seafarers at sea sometimes may also cause troubles and inconveniences to other male seafarers.’
They reported, ‘(W)hen the crew members are male only, the relationship between crew members are relatively pure and simple. The relations may change significantly when a woman join the group.’
A thirty-six-year-old third engineer, who worked with a Singapore female second officer, complained,
‘Before the lady joined us, everything on board was fine and peaceful.However, after her coming, many things changed, and troubles occurred.

'For example, all crew shared the same laundry room. We normally put the washed clothes on the clothes lines in the laundry room with a heating facility.
‘However, the lady always put her underwear together with ours. Many colleagues reported that they felt nervous and uncomfortable about that.
Furthermore, we could no longer strip to the waist in the common rooms.
‘In addition, afterwards two senior officers were jealous of each other because of the lady. Therefore, the matter was reported to the crewing manager as an incident, and she was called back to the company immediately.’

Women seafarers’ difficulties in gaining acceptance exist despite the 1992 Law on Protection of Women’s Rights; Chinese Labour Law, 1995; and Chinese Employment Promotion Law, 2008.
No legislation explicitly rules against women’s participation in seafaring. However, a number of regulations intended to protect women’s rights and interests exist. In practice, they tend to deter many employers from recruiting females.
There is, therefore, much to improve in the Chinese legal system to enable and empower women’s participation in shipping and seafaring in China.


Authors Minghau Zhao (above left, at the opening of the China Centre (Maritime) at Solent University, of which she is director.) Pengfei Zhang (right) is a lecturer at the university, working on the same Gem project on women seafarers.

No comments: