I gritted my teeth as the company training officer showed yet another “funny” video, this time about a woman who removed the lock-out from an electric breaker so that the could use her hairdryer, and the electrician was electrocuted.
My company had sent this person on board to run a week of refresher training while the ship was at sea. This was day three, and I’d lost track of the number of “funny ice-breaker” videos that showed either a scantily-dressed woman doing something stupid and being rescued by a white man, or groups of white men harassing female colleagues. The first day, the crew had laughed; by day two, they sounded uncomfortable; now, I was seeing more and more of them just looking at me quietly when the training officer showed another “funny” video.
What most of them didn’t know was that two of their number had approached me for help because the training officer was making them uncomfortable with private sexual suggestions and derogatory comments; a third had complained to the captain. I’m the second mate, the safety officer, and the only female on board, so I’m often the first point of contact when people want to know how to deal with bullying, harassment, or anything that falls under that banner.
Ships are hierarchical, isolated societies, and the cultural norm against speaking up against someone above you in the hierarchy is strong. The training officer was from “The Office,” which meant he was perceived to be above all of us in that hierarchy. As I sat there, fuming, watching more and more of the crew disengage, I realised that I had to speak up. Knowing that is one thing: actually speaking up is another.
While I get on well enough with most of the crew, if I were to publicly call the training officer out for unprofessional behaviour, I doubted that any of them would back me up. The ones who had asked for my help were ashamed of not standing up for themselves and afraid of causing trouble; the rest would see it as my problem. I didn’t want to out the ones who had complained, and I knew from experience that speaking up without backup results in accusations of being “too sensitive” and “unable to take a joke.” If I’m really unlucky, they decide to give me a real problem to complain about.
I decided to stay back and talk to him at the end of the training session. For the next two hours, I sat, squirmed, and ran through contingencies. I have no idea what the training session was about, but it eventually ended. The crew escaped for dinner. There were several curious glances, and a surreptitious thumbs-ups from one of the crew who’d approached me. But the chief engineer stayed.
He was fairly new on board, but he seemed to be a stereotypical engineer: the strong, macho type. I waited for him to leave. He waited for me to leave. Silence fell as the training officer stared at each of us. I indicated that the chief should go first, as he outranked me; he told me to go first, as he would take a while. Eventually, with a deep breath and a nervous glance at the chief, I launched into it. I explained the problem, the company policy on appropriate behaviour, gave examples of inappropriate comments that he’d made, explained the issue with the videos, and suggested what he needed to change to resolve the problem. Then I waited.
Predictably, the training officer denied everything. The videos were necessary to make the male crew pay attention, to put them at ease. I was obviously lying, or imagining things: if his comments about certain races, sexualities and genders made the men uncomfortable, they would have said something. He denied there was a hierarchy on board. He denied that he was in a position of authority. Then he folded his arms and stared at me. His body language clearly said, “Your move.”
Then the chief engineer spoke up from behind me. “I agree with the second mate.” Both the training officer and I turned to stare at him as he said agreed the videos were inappropriate in a professional setting and he doubted our company had approved the videos. He said that a company representative was definitely an authority figure, and that he’d also heard crew complaining that they were being made uncomfortable by the training officer’s behaviour, both during and outside of training sessions.
An awkward silence ensued while the training officer and the chief stared at each other, waiting. Eventually, the training officer caved in and we were able to discuss solutions, and what needed to change if he wanted to avoid escalating this to the company level. The rest of the voyage was still tense, but at least we were all finally able to stop shifting in our seats from tension and awkwardness and return to the normal situation of shifting in our seats from boredom and a dislike of paperwork.
To that chief engineer, thank you. Thank you for reminding me not to rely on stereotypes. Thank you for using your position to help. Thank you for being a decent human being and speaking up. And thank you for fixing the air conditioning, but that’s a different topic altogether.