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Rubbing out gender: women and merchant ships

Iris Lavalle Acejo (School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University, Cardiff, UK)
Sanley S. Abila (School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University, Cardiff, UK)

Journal of Organizational Ethnography

ISSN: 2046-6749

Article publication date: 11 July 2016



The purpose of this paper is to show how gender differences are rubbed out and simultaneously reinforced in intentional and unintentional ways. It will do this by exploring the experiences of female cadets/seafarers.


This paper is drawn from two independent PhD theses, where one of the theses conducted ethnographic fieldwork aboard a container ship in 2009. The other thesis used a case study research design of cadetship programmes in the Philippines using structured interviews, observations with the aid of fieldnotes and documentary analysis of records from seven maritime schools and cadetship programmes of ship-owners.


This paper reveals that the merchant vessel remains to be a “man’s world” where female seafarers are marginalised. It also shows that the maritime colleges in the Philippines deploy training practices that reproduce the gender biases against women participation to seafaring because the socialisation of cadets are fraught with the values and symbols of a hegemonic masculinity intent to silence other genders. On board ships, similar contradictory rubbing out and reproducing of gender differentials are observed. This shows how controlling gender is difficult.

Research limitations/implications

Observations conducted are limited to one shipboard voyage and whether the same manifestation in different types of ships, ship routes and crew mix would emerge require triangulation with other forms of data collection like in-depth interviews with seafarers on board.

Practical implications

Ethnographic insights offer valuable insights for novice researchers and those conducting shipboard research.


Not much study has been done with respect to the presence of women on board and how they disrupt and play with masculine space. This paper provides empirical evidence and insights on the ambivalence of integrating women in the seafaring profession owing to official and unofficial policies and training that intentionally and unintentionally construct women as unfit to work as sea-based professionals.



The authors wish to thank the Nippon Foundation for funding the respective PhDs at the Cardiff University and the seafarers and cadets who participated in this study. The authors are also grateful to the editors and anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments and suggestions.


Acejo, I.L. and Abila, S.S. (2016), "Rubbing out gender: women and merchant ships", Journal of Organizational Ethnography, Vol. 5 No. 2, pp. 123-138.



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