A few years ago when I was boarding ships for a living in the Bay Area, I came up the gangway of a tanker one day and when I reached the main deck, the sailor on security watch said to me, “You’re too pretty to be an agent!” I wanted to say “and you’re not pretty enough to be a Victoria’s Secret model, so I guess we both lose!” … but I didn’t – I just thanked him nicely and continued with my work. What he said really bothered me, as it does whenever someone deems a woman unfit for a job for any reason other than her ability. I know he meant it as a compliment, and I knew to take it as such, but it struck me as an archaic notion – I don’t belong on ships because I’m “too pretty”? As if I were wasting all my womanly virtue in a role that should be occupied by a man. What should I be instead, a cocktail waitress? A housewife? (not that there’s anything wrong with being a cocktail waitress or a housewife – those are tough jobs. Necessary and perfectly worthwhile pursuits, at that). But seriously, give me – and the rest of the ladies out here – some damn credit. This is what I want to do, so I’m doing it; in this situation, looks are beyond irrelevant.
Sometimes sexism in the maritime world isn’t so sweet. One of the first captains I ever worked for wanted to know why did I want to work on tugboats? Why wasn’t I on a cruise ship or something, where there were other women? My first thought was “because this is what I’ve chosen to do?” Because I can? And who are you to dictate where I should be working for any reason? He had the nerve at one point to suggest I “think about whether I really belonged here”. I never had to work with him again after that, but he wreaked havoc on my mental state while he could, while I was brand-new to the job.
A few months after this, I was told by another deck hand that I swung a hammer like a girl. I responded with “that’s probably because I’m a girl”. This was the same guy who said to me one day that he didn’t like women working on tugs because they were taking jobs away from men. I was completely unprepared for this remark and had no idea what to say at the time. But I was furious. Really, genius? Because women don’t need to eat or pay bills or anything like that, right? This kind of incredible rudeness, this ignorance, is rare and definitely the exception, but I heard these offensive words early in my career and I wasted a lot of precious time thereafter worrying about whether I would encounter this negative attitude again in the future.
If I’ve learned anything in the last few years, it’s that I don’t need to hide the fact that I’m a woman; I don’t need to change or act more masculine to fit in. I can just be myself, and the guys should treat me like any other member of the crew. I’ve worked for many great captains and mates, most of them in their forties, fifties or sixties, who didn’t give a second thought to my being different: I was their deck hand, they liked me as a person, and we got along fine. And while some of them may not be able to be completely gender-blind, I don’t care as long as they keep their opinions to themselves. What I’d really like to see is for more women to enter the industry, and for their male counterparts of future generations to think nothing of it; to see a woman on the ship and see her not as a woman but as a human being and fellow crew member, and treat her with respect. And don’t make asinine assertions like she’s too pretty to be a sailor.