Dockwalk - Sexual Harassment on Board Untitled Page

Sexual Harassment on Board

Feb 19th 16
By Hillary Hoffower


“I have been in three separate sexual harassment situations on three superstar boats (120 to 150 feet),” writes a chief stewardess, who was sexually harassed by owners and a captain, in Dockwalk’s sexual harassment poll, in which a whopping 72 percent of respondents have experienced sexual harassment on board and 64 percent of respondents have witnessed sexual harassment on board. 


Depending on your experience, these numbers may or may not seem staggering to you. Sexual harassment exists across the wide expanse of the workplace, but is it more prevalent in the yachting industry? 


“It’s a problem in any service industry, but it’s more pronounced [when] you have affluent or powerful clientele who are used to ‘buying’ what they want,” writes a male owner of a sailing yacht. “‘No’ typically means ‘push harder.’” 


“When compared to the real world, I would imagine we are quite firmly in the dark ages,” adds a male engineer who was sexually harassed by a female crewmember. “Some boats take it more seriously than others and if pushed by the victims’ actions, may be taken [seriously], but the victim may be considered part of the problem and suffer, too.” 


In fact, one female chef/stewardess reveals that she was “‘let go’” once because she wouldn’t sleep with the captain and another stewardess sexually harassed by a captain was unable to obtain a reference after leaving the yacht. 


“It is a recurring problem. The biggest frustration of all is that there are no repercussions and the perpetrator just eventually continues the behavior,” writes another stewardess, echoing the sentiments of many others.  


Perhaps this explains why only 20 percent of respondents officially reported the sexual harassment incident (30 percent told someone, but didn’t officially report it, 26 percent told no one and 24 percent didn’t experience sexual harassment). When asked why they didn’t report the incident, many said it wasn’t worth the trouble, were afraid of losing their jobs or were previously told sexual harassment is just part of the industry. 


“There was no management company, the captain was in charge and I could not afford to lose my job. It was commonly accepted and justified vessel-wide that the male crew were lewd and sexually inappropriate ‘because they are guys,’” writes a chief stewardess who was sexually harassed by a captain and crewmembers. 


“The captain made direct comments about my sexuality and very rude sexual comments about another crewmember and when I stood up for myself, he later punished me by cornering me and criticizing my work after work hours,” adds a stewardess who didn’t officially report the incident. 


Others pointed out that there is no one to really report it to, especially if the captain or owner is the perpetrator. One female bosun specifically cited lack of appropriate authority as the reason for not reporting the incident, and as one chief stewardess points out, “Unfortunately in the yachting industry, there is no HR department or crewmember to go to. A junior crewmember can go to [a] senior member or their department head. However, what if it is a senior crewmember or captain that is the harasser? The owners certainly do not want to know. Complaints of that nature will ninety percent of the time gain you walking papers from a boat… Who do you file a complaint with?” 


And for those who did report it? 


“I told the captain about the crewmember harassing [me], but with the charter guest I didn’t tell anyone. After reporting the crewmember, the captain of course blamed me because I was speaking to the guy, so he thought that I was ‘inviting trouble…,’” says a stewardess on a 30-meter yacht. “When the charter guest made comments to me, I didn't tell anyone because it isn’t worth my time because the captains just don’t care or see it as a problem.” 


One chief stewardess on a 168-foot yacht contacted the management company, but has yet to hear back.  


Yet, others have witnessed stronger repercussions after reporting the incident. A male captain reported guest harassment to the owner, who then made said guest leave discreetly. The chef/stewardess reported sexual harassment by a crewmember to the captain, who then fired the crewmember. 


According to the poll, the perpetrator of the incident was most commonly the captain (26.5 percent), followed by another crewmember (16.3 percent), charter guest (10.2 percent) and owner (4.1 percent). Almost 25 percent selected other, citing a few of the above or all of the above as perpetrators on various occasions (18.4 percent did not experience sexual harassment).  


The numbers were similar for those who witnessed sexual harassment on board by a captain (30.6 percent), crewmember (16.3 percent), owner (8.2 percent), charter guest (6.1 percent) and other, meaning more than one or all of the above (10.2 percent). A little over 28 percent of respondents selected not applicable. More than half (53.1 percent) of victims in these situations were female crewmembers, 6.1 percent were male crewmembers, two percent were captains, two percent were owners and two percent were female charter guests (other was 6.1 percent). 


Only 20 percent officially reported the incident, and 26 percent told someone but didn’t officially report it. More than half (54 percent) did nothing. 


One person, who reported an incident to the captain, was told further action would result in a lawsuit and other legal action. While one chief stewardess told the owner about guest harassment she witnessed and the owner consequently didn’t get a charter again, the chef/stewardess says, “Owners don’t want to hear problems from crew. Sexual harassment can be considered ‘embarrassing’ or ‘dirty’ to deal with. Not something owners like to have associated with their ‘pleasure’ boats.” 


Some witnesses reported it to the flag state or management (with one chief stewardess saying it resulted in the “usual cover up”), but others said that it was up to the victim to report it. One male captain said, “…I thought it was just me interpreting it as harassment. It was intended as a joke by the offenders, but it was actually a common practice.” 


Different interpretations as to what actually defines sexual harassment may be partially at the root of its seeming prevalence on board. What one considers a harmless comment on someone’s looks, another may view as a lewd remark.  


The majority of respondents defined sexual harassment as unwanted advances, actions or comments that made the receiver uncomfortable, although some responses were more detailed, specifying that such actions were of a sexual nature, related to gender or persistent.  Others specified that sexual harassment goes beyond “a common joke” or “flirty niceties.” 


“An unwanted persistence of a sexual nature from one party to another after it has been made clear and understood by both parties the sexual advancements are unwelcome by the other,” writes a male first mate on a 150-foot yacht. 


“Anything that is inappropriate behavior in work environment,” says a chief stewardess on a 123-foot yacht. “Being touched, called names or even obscene talking.” 


Yet some offered different examples of what they consider to be sexual harassment. Whereas some respondents only wrote, “grabbing and kissing on you” or “inappropriate touching or special requests,” others included non-physical examples, such as “cat calling… sending inappropriate text messages,” “wolf whistling, constantly complimenting somebody…” and “verbal or visual bullying using sexual terms or symbology.” 


“It’s especially inappropriate when the advance is made from a superior to a subordinate coworker,” adds a stewardess. 


According to the majority of respondents, most boats have no policy or lack clear guidelines — or if they did, it was ignored by departmental leadership. However, this is not the case for all boats.  


“On my new boat, no tolerance, by anyone. I have a 24/7 open door policy with my crew now. Next time it happens, I’ll park the boat at the nearest dock and call the authorities,” states one male captain on a 160-foot yacht. 


If you see something, say something.’ (You have to keep it simple or it will not be remembered),” adds a male owner/captain of a sailing yacht. “It’s not up to the crewmember to decide what is and what isn't sexual harassment. I have a policy. The whole crew is a team. If one fails, we all fail. If I have to fire one person, I'll fire everyone. They all know this. You would be surprised how things get solved very quickly amongst themselves.” 


The male engineer admits that while the zero tolerance policy is not advertised as it should be, “We do have an emergency guest cabin defined for crewmembers that feel they are being harassed by cabin mates to retreat to until they can report it in the morning.” 


So in light of this information, is sexual harassment overall a problem in the industry? 


“Definitely,” writes a chief stewardess on a 123-foot yacht. “This industry is a sexual industry in general, appearance means a lot and people go too far because they can.” 


“Yes, sexual harassment is a massive problem in this industry. Partly to blame is captains' overall lack of experience with managing people; they still believe their only job is to drive the damn yacht,” writes the stewardess on a 30-meter yacht. “Another problem is, of course, either owners or captains (or both) just trolling crew CVs just to see how attractive a person is instead of paying close attention to the crewmember skill set as well. Once a person in position of power makes decisions based solely on their personal preferences, then they usually get a false sense of entitlement that causes their moral judgment to fail miserably.” 


While the resounding answer is yes, others have seen improvements. 


Writes the chef/stewardess, “…it's a problem, but I think there is less tolerance of [sexual harassment] in the industry nowadays.” 


“People are more aware of sexual harassment than in the past,” adds the male owner/captain. “Crews seem to be a little thicker-skinned than in the shore-based industries…. The glass ceiling has been shattered in the maritime industry up here in the Pacific Northwest. In the late 90s, there was much talk of [sexual harassment]. Today, it rarely if ever is brought up.” 


According to the Maritime Labour Convention, 2006, every seafarer has the right to not only a safe and secure workplace that complies with safety standards, but the right to decent working and living conditions on board (we realize that not all vessels are MLC compliant). But, as this poll clearly demonstrated, there does not seem to be a clear answer to resolving the issue in the industry — so what would you suggest as the solution to sexual harassment on board? 

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