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Depicting women at sea – how a Swedish #metoo project seeks to show the true face of female seafarers

1 September 2020

A weariness with stereotypical images of women seafarers as pin-ups and mermaids has led the Swedish #metoo movement to launch a project to portray women seafarers in a more realistic and positive light. Andrew Draper reports

Petra Sviberg is a seafarer on Viking Line's ferry Viking Cinderella, which operates overnight cruises between Stockholm and Mariehamn. She is also the project manager of a new initiative to improve the way female seafarers are portrayed.

'When I was Googling for art about sailors,' she said, 'the results were depressing. They had stuff like mermaids, prostitutes from the Bounty, and stuff like that. Pin-up girls of course and children in sailor suits.'

She says women discussed this for about a year in the #metoo association in Sweden linked with the maritime industry: Vågrätt. A working group was created to drive the project forward, comprising Ms Sviberg, Kalmar Maritime Academy senior lecturer Cecilia Österman, and photographer Nina Varumo.

'How we appear in culture and what it tells about us plays a part and also has the power to change the world,' said the group. 'What the present and the past tell about us affects how we regard ourselves and our potential. There is a space which can limit us but which also allows us to grow, if we choose to tell new stories.

'If someone represents you as an exception or in a stereotypical way, that limits your room for manoeuvre and your possibilities. If someone instead talks about you and your work role in a way that reflects strength, competence, complexity and breadth, you and your view of what is possible are also changed and expanded.'

The project aims to build an image bank that journalists can use. Photographs will be published in an online exhibition and be included in a book. The group has also had interest from maritime museums for a physical exhibition.

Kicking off in the autumn, the project will contact female seafarers to ask them to take part and then photograph them and their places of work. A female photographer will be used 'in order to gain the right empathy and insight,' Ms Sviberg said.

And while photography has been chosen in the first instance, there are hopes that the idea of better representing women at sea will be expanded into other artforms. 'If people are inspired to produce more art – paintings or murals, or whatever – that would also be pretty awesome.'

If someone talks about you and your work role in a way that reflects strength, competence, complexity and breadth, you and your view of what is possible are changed and expanded.' Petra Sviberg, seafarer and project manager for the Swedish photo bank project

The project has obtained SEK 250,000 (£22,000) in funding from the Swedish Mercantile Marine Foundation. This will cover materials and travel costs. Karl Karell, director of the foundation, said it had already been discussing women's inequality and the work of Vågrätt when the application arrived.

'The photo project is a relevant and effective effort in the work to create and maintain sustainable working lives for both women and men,' he continued. 'It's in line with the aims which the foundation wholeheartedly supports for an improved working environment and well-being onboard.'

  • The Swedish maritime union SEKO Sjöfolk has held a number of Vågrätt seminars, and Petra Sviberg was seconded to the union for 18 months on a project on equality of representation in the union. On distribution of power, a members' survey in autumn 2018 found men and women had different views on the reasons for the greater proportion of men holding influential positions. The men were more inclined to believe the prerequisites for the jobs for men and women were equal. The men thought women were not as interested in the positions as men. Women believed it was easier for men to engage and to obtain positions of influence. Men choose men, they said. The survey found 26% of women would like to hold a position in the union, while only 10% actually did already. In 2020, of the 4,500 members of the union, some 60% were men, but the men had 77% of delegates to the annual assembly and 14 of 15 places on the national executive. The union's action plan envisages equal representation by 2024 in relation to membership (so a 40-60% split).
  • To celebrate the fact that gender equality is essential for economies and communities to thrive, Nautilus hears from the individual and diverse voices of our talented female members and Nautilus Champions on our Meet Members section. 

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