Marine Pilot, Reshma Nilofer Visalakshi MNI broke the bias and started her career as a trainee pilot in 2011 and she has never looked back.
She is not only India's first woman marine pilot, she is India's only woman marine pilot, and one among an elite few women River Pilots in the world.
Reshma qualified as a fully-fledged Pilot in 2018 and has gone on to sailing onboard some of the world’s largest vessels, to being awarded the Highest Civilian Award by the Government of India, which was presented to her by President Ram Nath Kovind in 2019.
She is a motivational speaker advocating for women in shipping and women’s rights, encourages more women seafarers to join the shipping industry and strives to make a difference in the world.
During this interview, Reshma was working at sea in Syama Prasad Mookerjee Port, India (formally known as Port of Kolkata) – the first major port in India and one of the toughest pilotage waters in the world, but she took the time to speak to Human Rights at Sea about life as a woman in the maritime industry; the good, the bad and the ugly.
What do you think are some of the other biggest challenges faced by women in maritime?
"Women in maritime are often forced to choose between a career or a child. It is unfair because gender was not given to anyone by choice, nor was the blessing of being able to produce the next generation workforce. Women need to go on “sick leave”, or they are tagged as “medically unfit”. When women go on maternity breaks, we see a huge dropout post-maternity break because they aren’t allowed to return where they left off. There isn’t enough regulatory support to enable a smooth return to sea or a transition ashore. Hence Maternity discrimination stands first.
The second important issue is how sexual harassment cases are handled. Due to its sensitive nature, we usually don’t get to hear the end of these complaints or enquiries or corrective actions taken, if at all. Most of these reports are frowned upon; victims are victimised further and or sacked from work because they reported against a “senior management person” who served the company for way more years than the victim. Closed-door resolutions are usually given, and the board of investigators are also - all men who usually don’t understand the woman’s perspective."
Do you believe you have always been treated fairly & had access to advance in your career?
"Big NO. At every step, I faced discouraging people, those who stereotyped me at every opportunity. When I was given a lot of visibility for being a woman leader/pioneer in the maritime, I was met with jealous eyes more than encouragement and applause.
I was initially questioned if I could become a pilot, then if I could get a partner, would my family ‘allow’ me to work this odd job with erratic schedules. Now, if I ever became a mother, would I be able to manage motherhood and work-life balance? I must keep defending and proving my ability and competence to people who still cannot accept women coming to a bridge and calling out commands.
Advancing in my career, well, the options are few and far between. Also, no special affirmative actions are taking place to enable me to get into other leadership roles."
What barriers have you personally faced in your career due to being a woman in the maritime industry, and how have you overcome them?
"At every stage, I’ve had to prove my worth, and I feel like I’ve been on everyone’s radars because of being a minority person in the industry. Any slip or mistake from my end would reflect how people around me perceived women in maritime as a whole. That puts a lot of pressure on the individual, and often, I am pressed to seek validation for each innovative idea I suggest - even if it is only for the betterment. Personally, I’ve stopped worrying about or seeking validation. When I know I am doing something right, I uphold my courage of conviction."
Is there anything that still shocks you in terms of how women are treated in the maritime sector?
"Yes, we have heard of rape and inappropriate behaviour onboard. This is still shocking, in addition to hearing from a section of our maritime community commenting on “provocative clothes and behaviour” as contributing factors to these heinous crimes. It is a shame, such a shame!"
How do you think the industry can encourage women to thrive in the sector?
"The industry has to step forward and make targeted capacity-building programmes for women in maritime to advance in their careers, enter boardrooms and take up leadership, managerial and decision-making roles. Affirmative action with respect to targeted recruitment of women seafarers and all other maritime careers. Gender sensitisation courses are to be made mandatory for all just like Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping (STCW training) is. Training for women to overcome imposter syndrome. Regulatory support with robust policies to manage maternity breaks, eliminate maternity discrimination, sexual harassment and misbehaviour, etc. And proper investigation boards to be set up with female representation."
Do you think men play a role in advancing women’s rights, and if so, is there anything they should or shouldn’t do?
From day one in this industry, I have progressed this far thanks to a few male mentors who have accepted me with open arms and an open mind, guided me and mentored me at times I’ve needed advice and knowledge sharing. I am also grateful for the support I receive from my colleagues and immediate seniors.
It is only because of some men seeking to liberate and empower that I am here today. They were bold to try and put me in this position and allow me to excel as a pilot.
We need more men to be our advocates - advocate for women’s rights (which is human rights), be feminists on our behalf and join us in our endeavours to make women comfortable in the workplace. Male family members support us through child care and home upkeep. The scenario of women being the families’ primary caregivers must change.
And enough with harassment and making women feel uncomfortable. Instead, help women overcome imposter syndrome and treat them as equals."
What future do you hope to see for women in maritime?
"I’d like to see 50% women in maritime boardrooms and leadership roles. The IMO and other maritime bodies of their stature have yet to have this currently. 50% women, 50% men workforce at sea."
What advice would you give another woman about to embark on a career in the maritime industry?
"Never underestimate the power of your will. The whole world can put you in a box of restricted and backdated expectations of you. You are the only one who knows your ability and how far you can push yourself. More often than not, we hear them so much that we start believing in them and questioning ourselves. So give it your all and achieve every career dream and milestone you have always wanted. Even the sky is not the limit."
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Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the interviewee; they do not necessarily reflect the views of Human Rights at Sea.
Photo credit: Reshma Nilofer Visalakshi