OPINION

When will we stop telling women they can’t do things? 

Sophia Walker

A merchant sailor was told to apply for a job on a cruise ship

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By Marisa Bate on

In the same week we saw a female adviser to the chancellor described as a hairdresser, we’ve stumbled across yet another example of society refusing to believe young women can do things over and beyond archaic, outdated and sexist assumptions. 

This time, it’s 24-year-old Sophia Walker, a merchant sailor. The fully qualified deck officer was turned down for a role as a deckhand at Wallem ship management, after a representative went to Walker’s college to recruit candidates. Walker was up against 10 men. 

Charming – not only was Walker discriminated against, she was mocked by her peers. She was actually laughed at because a qualified young woman had applied for the job of a man

Here’s an excerpt of an email Wallem sent Walker, explaining the decision not to give her the role: 

“Wallem is an equal opportunity company but we WILL not offer places for the female cadets [deck officers] because we can’t offer the appropriate onboard environment to make it work.

“In my opinion girls have a place and a chance to succeed, but it needs to be got right from the outset.

“I would suppose the cruise industry is the most appropriate (indeed the Captain of the Queen Victoria, on which I cruised recently, was a lady).”

I always get a shiver down my spine when either the word “girl” or “lady” is used when referring to a woman in a professional capacity. Girl: derogatory, undermining, patronising. Lady: Austen-esque bullshit that implies we’re ever so fragile, we probably don’t swear and, in Walker’s case, certainly aren’t deckhands.  

The blatant discrimination in the email – dressed up as a concern for equality – is quite something. 

“Wallem is an equal opportunity company but we WILL not offer places for the female cadets [deck officers] because we can’t offer the appropriate onboard environment to make it work. 

So, let me get this right: you’re down with gender equality, but you’re point blank refusing a female candidate because you haven’t figured out a way to make it work. Make *what* work? What on earth is an “appropriate onboard environment”? This is discrimination, plain and simple. What that email actually says is: “You can’t come here because you are a woman. We haven’t bothered to make this space accessible to you.” Just imagine if you replaced the word "woman" with "Jewish/disabled/old". Sometimes, it feels that women are so undermined so regularly that people don’t even see discrimination against women as discrimination. We’re just different, less important, less able, less worth bothering about. As if that’s just a fact. 

But, helpfully, after admitting their inability to create an appropriate environment for women (presumably because they’re not willing to paint everything pink or plaster the walls with pictures of Orlando Bloom paddle boarding), the shipping firm did suggest somewhere that doesn’t discriminate against women: a cruise ship. Yes, the cruise industry is most “appropriate” for women. Why? Because it’s a leisure boat that morphs into Butlin’s by night, and you’ll never need to do anything difficult or manly, of course. 

Walker’s frustration is palatable: “I am a qualified deckhand and gained all my qualifications at Fleetwood Nautical Campus. I have served on tankers, yet I am not given the opportunity of an interview despite the Wallem representative stating he would see all the candidates. A copy of one email was sent by the tutor to the other 10 male deckhand candidates and I sustained deep humiliation – they were being encouraged to view me as inferior to them ­wholly because of my gender.” Charming – not only was Walker discriminated against, she was mocked by her peers. She was actually laughed at because a qualified young woman had applied for the job of a man. 

In response, Walker’s college has released a statement damning the shipping company’s behaviour. The company claims it was just a case of a poorly worded email. Perhaps there just wasn’t the appropriate onboard environment to write a non-sexist, non-discriminatory, non-humiliating email. 

@marisajbate

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Sophia Walker
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