Sexual Harassment on Board

19 February 2016 By Hillary Hoffower

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

Depending on your experience, these numbers may or may notseem staggering to you. Sexual harassment exists across the wide expanse of theworkplace, but is it more prevalent in the yachting industry?

“It’s a problem in any service industry, but it’s morepronounced [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 arequite firmly in the dark ages,” adds a male engineer who was sexually harassedby a female crewmember. “Some boats take it more seriously than others and ifpushed by the victims’ actions, may be taken [seriously], but the victim may beconsidered 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 anotherstewardess sexually harassed by a captain was unable to obtain a referenceafter leaving the yacht.

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

Perhaps this explains why only 20 percent of respondentsofficially reported the sexual harassment incident (30 percent told someone, butdidn’t officially report it, 26 percent told no one and 24 percent didn’texperience 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 werepreviously told sexual harassment is just part of the industry.

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

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

Others pointed out that there is no one to really report itto, especially if the captain or owner is the perpetrator. One female bosun specificallycited lack of appropriate authority as the reason for not reporting theincident, and as one chief stewardess points out, “Unfortunately in theyachting industry, there is no HR department or crewmember to go to. A juniorcrewmember can go to [a] senior member or their department head. However, whatif it is a senior crewmember or captain that is the harasser? The owners certainlydo not want to know. Complaints of that nature will ninety percent of the timegain 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 crewmemberharassing [me], but with the charter guest I didn’t tell anyone. Afterreporting the crewmember, the captain of course blamed me because I wasspeaking to the guy, so he thought that I was ‘inviting trouble…,’” says astewardess on a 30-meter yacht. “When the charter guest made comments to me, Ididn't tell anyone because it isn’t worth my time because the captains just don’tcare or see it as a problem.”

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

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

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

The numbers were similar for those whowitnessed 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 28percent of respondents selected not applicable. More than half (53.1 percent)of victims in these situations were female crewmembers, 6.1 percent were malecrewmembers, two percent were captains, two percent were owners and two percentwere female charter guests (other was 6.1 percent).

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

One person, who reported an incident to the captain, wastold further action would result in a lawsuit and other legal action. While onechief stewardess told the owner about guest harassment she witnessed and theowner consequently didn’t get a charter again, the chef/stewardess says,“Owners don’t want to hear problems from crew. Sexual harassment can beconsidered ‘embarrassing’ or ‘dirty’ to deal with. Not something owners like tohave 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”), butothers 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 ajoke by the offenders, but it was actually a common practice.”

Different interpretations as to what actually defines sexualharassment 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 alewd remark.

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

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

“Anything that is inappropriatebehavior 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 tobe sexual harassment. Whereas some respondents only wrote, “grabbing andkissing on you” or “inappropriate touching or special requests,” othersincluded non-physical examples, such as “cat calling… sending inappropriatetext 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 froma superior to a subordinate coworker,” adds a stewardess.

According to the majority of respondents, most boats have nopolicy or lack clear guidelines — or if they did, it was ignored bydepartmental leadership. However, this is not the case for all boats.

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

“‘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 todecide what is and what isn't sexual harassment. I have a policy. The wholecrew is a team. If one fails, we all fail. If I have to fire one person, I'llfire everyone. They all know this. You would be surprised how things get solvedvery quickly amongst themselves.”

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

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

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

“Yes, sexual harassment is a massiveproblem in this industry. Partly to blame is captains' overall lack ofexperience with managing people; they stillbelieve their only job is to drive the damn yacht,” writes the stewardess on a30-meter yacht. “Another problem is, of course, either owners or captains (orboth) just trolling crew CVs just to see how attractive a person is instead ofpaying close attention to the crewmember skill set as well. Once a person inposition of power makes decisions based solely on their personal preferences,then they usually get a false sense of entitlement that causes their moral judgmentto fail miserably.”

While the resounding answer is yes, others have seenimprovements.

Writesthe 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 thepast,” adds the male owner/captain. “Crews seem to be a little thicker-skinnedthan in the shore-based industries…. The glass ceiling has been shattered inthe maritime industry up here in the Pacific Northwest. In the late 90s, therewas much talk of [sexual harassment]. Today, it rarely if ever is brought up.”

According to the Maritime LabourConvention, 2006, every seafarer has the right to not only a safe and secureworkplace that complies with safety standards, but the right to decent workingand living conditions on board (we realize that not all vessels are MLCcompliant). But, as this poll clearly demonstrated, there does not seem to be aclear answer to resolving the issue in the industry — so what would you suggestas the solution to sexual harassment on board?