Mumbai: Nobody really believes any more that old superstition about bad luck and having women on ships, but women continue to be largely missing from shipping and the related sectors of ports and logistics.

“Traditionally, these sectors were considered highly laborious and manual-work sectors and, therefore, women stayed away," says Bhairavi Jani, 35, director at SCA Group. Jani is a fourth generation entrepreneur and the SCA Group of firms undertakes activities in port, shipping, warehousing, freight forwarding and logistics.

There is no reliable data available on the number of women employed in Indian shipping, ports and logistics, says Sanjam Sahi Gupta, president of the Women’s International Shipping and Trading Association in India (WISTA). Gupta, who is also director of Sitara Shipping Ltd, points out that despite a year of research, she could find no data on the number of women in shipping and logistics.

Women make up only 20% of the workforce at state-run Shipping Corp. of India Ltd (SCI). The national flag carrier employs two woman captains on its ships. SCI’s senior vice-president (fleet personnel) C.M. Srivastava says they recruit five-six women out of a total of 120 cadets hired every year.

At Great Eastern Shipping Co. Ltd, there are only eight women employed on board ships out of a total of about 1,000 employees, says Anjali Kumar, deputy general manager (corporate finance and investor relations). She points out that the company’s chief engineer, Rupali Raj Joshi, is a woman.

Growth, but not for women

India’s logistics market is estimated at $92 billion (around 6 trillion today) and overall, the sector is expected to grow at 1-1.3 times that of gross domestic product, according to a September 2013 report by consulting firm KPMG. Yet, despite its size, new jobs do not favour women.

Another report, by consulting firm Frost and Sullivan, found that the transportation and logistics market in India grew at a compounded annual growth rate of 7.2% between 2009 and 2013, even though growth in the last two years was only in the range of 4-5%, mainly due to a decline in exports and imports, and a slowdown in the domestic market’s urban consumer markets.

However, freight traffic will grow 2.5 times by 2020 from the 2010 levels, according to a McKinsey and Co. study.

The low participation of women in the sector comes at a time when Prime Minister Narendra Modi has kicked off the Sagar Mala project for coastal states. In August, Modi said this would envisage not merely port development, but port-led development as well. Noting that two-thirds of all global trade, and half of container trade happens across the Indian Ocean, Modi said ports can become gateways to India’s prosperity.

The government is also trying to promote women to become sailors through benefits such as a 50% discount on fees for cadet training and a two-year relaxation on age limit.

Hard labour

The perception of operational hard labour and male domination at the workplace hinder many women from joining the logistics sector, including ports and shipping.

“While companies provide transportation and mobility for women, the job does involve long and late hours," says SCA Group’s Jani. While IT and customer service-centric jobs have a fair presence of women, shipping and logistics is “one of the last preferences" because “many locations where the work is undertaken are considered unsafe by women", she adds.

There are other roadblocks as well. Anil Devli, former head of the Indian National Shipowners’ Association, a lobby group of local shipowners, points out that while women employees are visible in customer-handling and back-office functions, they are discouraged from being at the forefront due to the nature of operations. Women simply cannot cope with the lack of sanitation and basic hygiene at many warehouses and ports, says Devli, now chief executive officer at Global Offshore Services Ltd.

Jani agrees. “The lack of sanitation facilities at my first warehouse was an acute point of pain. Imagine working under asbestos roofs in the heat, drinking water all the time to quench thirst and not being able to find a toilet for 40km. When we built our own warehousing company a few years later, the first thing I insisted on was toilets for both men and women," she recollects.

At the warehouses, labour contractors would initially find it odd to negotiate with a woman, an unease shared by local labour and truck union leaders, Jani says. “But they got over this very fast and went on to become some of my best supporters," she says.

Many women employed in logistics and shipping that Mint spoke with say they are keen to shift out of warehouses, container yards and ports to the city. Many cited distance and tough work conditions as reasons to move or even switch jobs.

“Container freight stations and inland container depots are often located at deserted places where the workforce is dominated by men. I do feel a bit uneasy commuting late at night," says Gayatri Sinnur, who works for a logistics firm at Khopta near Uran in Navi Mumbai, 25km away from her home. “I would ideally want a job where there is robust connectivity."

Way forward

SCA Group’s Jani is not your typical success story. “I was literally born into this sector. My great-grandfather started our business in 1896, and I spent my holidays at ports, airports, warehouses and cargo complexes. I didn’t realize till I started my own firm in 2001 that there were hardly any women in our sector," she recollects.

Jani’s childhood was spent in operations and with men who taught her to drive a truck, a forklift, work on the airport runaway—in sun and rain. Her father co-founded Blue Dart and their first employee was a woman who rose to become the head of customer service.

“My father’s partner’s wife, Farida Cooper, ran operations planning for Blue Dart, and she trained me to not think of my gender as a handicap. So, I never felt the discomfort most women face in this sector," Jani says.

But all are not so lucky.

Requesting anonymity, an accounting executive with a logistics firm who works near Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust near Mumbai says, “It was initially tough to handle clients. I once had a client tell me that although he was really happy with my work, he found it difficult as he could not give me gaalis (abuses) since I was a woman," she says.

It’s a prejudice that even Jani has faced. “A multinational prospective client refused flat-out to give his business, saying he didn’t believe women could plan and execute logistics," she says.

A December 2003 report by the International Labour Organization (ILO) cites an incident where some women on board a vessel reported taking drastic measures, including de-feminizing their appearance—to avoid being harassed. One woman engineer actually shaved her head, while another had to punch a chief officer to throw him out of her room.

Sexual harassment is a reality for many women at sea, says the report. This can range from persistent verbal harassment and inappropriate comments to physical assault.

However, cruise sector firms, which have well-established sexual harassment policies, encourage women to seek company support in such situations, it adds.

“There seems to be less attention to these matters in the cargo sector. As concerns other issues, such as maternity benefits and availability of certain products required by women, it seems we have a way to go," the ILO report says.

WISTA’s Gupta says she is actively mentoring and training women in Indian shipping and allied industries to help them rise to top management levels. WISTA has also tied up with global container port operator DP World and roped in Anil Singh, senior vice-president and managing director of DP World (Indian subcontinent), as its global brand ambassador, she says.

“The idea of having a male brand ambassador for a women’s association is to spread the message of getting the support of men and thereby increasing women’s participation in Indian shipping. DP World’s India unit has a target of having 20% workforce as females," Gupta adds.

This is the second part in a series on women in the workplace.

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