Gender equality will ultimately characterise the future of global maritime trade

By Deniece M. Aiken*

Sustainability of the maritime industry has, in recent times, been identified as crucial and urgent. According to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the recent global crisis created by the Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated the importance of ocean shipping as the most reliable and cost-effective method of transporting goods internationally. Shipping is central to current economic recovery initiatives and future sustainable growth, at sea and ashore.

Achieving sustainability will require actions at the national level to transcend the global environment to be implemented. States will need to have adequate capacity to develop and implement the necessary supporting policies.

With continuous technological advances and expansion of global trade, capacity building has always been at the forefront of the shipping industry. A major capacity building initiative at the global level is the IMO’s Integrated Technical Cooperation Programme. The core objective of this initiative is to assist states to perform shipping operations safely and efficiently.

The IMO Integrated Technical Cooperation Programme involves several initiatives which manifest capacity building in many forms and across many geographical locations.  Capacity building, as viewed though the lens of sustainability, also includes supporting the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the national level. Focus has been placed on SDG 5 in support of the belief that empowering women fuels thriving economies; spurs productivity and growth; and, benefits every stakeholder in the global maritime community.


Research[1] has shown that women possess innate skills in leadership, creativity, problem-solving skills, and valuable insights that can lead to new ideas and perspectives. Such skills help to propel companies and organizations forward, especially during this knowledge and technology driven Fourth Industrial Revolution.

As the global community continues to experience change and manage emergent challenges, the need for balance in national capacity becomes increasingly evident. In this regard, gender equality is crucial for building a sustainable future. While there is not a significant amount of data to support the hypothesis that men and women have different cognitive abilities, some research suggest that there are differences in the ways that men and women approach leadership roles. Leadership scholar James MacGregor Burns theorise that there are two main types of leaders with mutually exclusive leadership styles [2]. He distinguishes these styles of leadership as transactional and transformational.  He classified men as transactional, with leadership styles based on the organizational culture; and women as transformational, adopting or changing the organisational culture as necessary. Burns’ theory suggests the need for a balance of leadership that will permeate through all levels of the organizations.

In support of SDG 5, the IMO has prioritized the development of female capacity through higher maritime education, training and knowledge sharing; and, development. With support from the World Maritime University (WMU) and the International Maritime Law Institute (IMLI), the aim is to develop future maritime leaders, with the objective of attaining gender balance. At the end of 2021, the WMU had qualified 707 female graduates from 95 countries from the Master of Science in Maritime Affairs programme in Malmö, Sweden. This number is included in the overall count of 5,364 graduates from 171 countries, 1,254 or 22.3% of whom are female.

Gender perspective

The WMU’s MSc programme is diverse. It provides education and training in maritime safety, ocean governance, maritime law and policy, maritime education and training, shipping management, logistics, port management and marine environmental management.

For the academic year 2021-2022, IMLI attracted 39 fellowships. Of that number, 22 (i.e., 56.4%) were awarded to female candidates for the Master of Laws (LL.M.) in International Maritime Law programme in Malta.

The WMU also supports the World Maritime University’s Women’s Association (WMUWA). This is a global network of maritime professionals. WMU support is in the form of learning and development, capacity building and collaborative partnerships for gender equality. The WMUWA was established in 2014. It continuously supports the global strategy to strengthen the role of women in the maritime sector.

Female students from both WMU and IMLI also participate in the more recently launched IMO Gender Equality Network (IMOGEN), an initiative spearheaded by a group of delegates from IMO member states. Their commitment is to advance gender equality in the maritime sector and to achieve the objectives of IMO Assembly Resolution A.1147(31), one of which is to achieve a barrier-free working environment for women in the maritime sector. Through this initiative, female students have access to professional role models with whom to share experiences and information. These and other initiatives come together to form a more wholesome approach to capacity building within the maritime sector.

Much has already been done to address the crippling gender inequality that has historically deprived the maritime sector of vast reservoirs of skill and talent. But the voyage is long and may even be perilous at times. We may encounter stormy discussions and choppy implementation of new initiatives. We may encounter doldrums of inaction, waves of progress and tempestuous resolutions. But we will remain buoyed by the certain knowledge that gender equality will ultimately characterise the future of global maritime trade. []

[1] Pierli G, Murmura F and Palazzi F (2022) Women and Leadership: How Do Women Leaders Contribute to Companies’ Sustainable Choices? Front. Sustain. 3:930116. doi: 10.3389/frsus.2022.930116

[2] Burns, I. M. (1978) Leadership. Harper & Row.

  • First published, 2023, May 1

Deniece M. Aiken

* Deniece M. Aiken, BSc, LLB, MSC, (Maritime Law & Policy), a member of the International Association of Marine Consultants and Surveyors, is an Attorney-at-Law with experience in maritime, corporate, labour and real estate laws and WMUKoji Sekimizu Fellow for Maritime Governance.