Female captains make up just under 3% of cruise ship captains worldwide – but this number is slowly growing. Women now comprise 20% of the industry workforce, with between 5 and 20% of women in officer roles, depending on the cruise line.

Compare this to a hundred years ago, where the only female presence on a ship would be the carved wooden figurehead – and you can see that the industry has come a long way!


In the 19th Century, women were considered bad luck for sailors, with none permitted onboard, and mythical monsters such as mermaids and sirens taking female form to lure sailors to their doom.

Ship Officers traditionally came from Greece, Italy, England and Norway, home to decades of sea-going tradition and world-renowned maritime academies, where women were not allowed until the last quarter-century!

A perfect example of change within the industry can be seen in England, where women weren’t permitted to attend maritime academies until the 80s, but today make up 25% of cruise ship captains in the country.

Women Captains

The first woman appointed captain of a cruise ship was Karin Stahre-Janson of Sweden, who took command of Royal Caribbean’s Monarch of the Seas in 2007.

America’s first cruise ship captain, and the first woman to be in command of a “Mega Ship”, KateMcCue took the helm of Celebrity Equinox in 2015, and will soon take command of Celebrity Edge, a ship designed by women, and overseen by the first female CEO of a cruise company, Lisa Lutoff-Perlo.

Lutoff-Perlo has been a key figure in encouraging women into the industry, forging a partnership with Ghana’s Regional Maritime University to encourage more African women into the maritime industry. Through this program, in 2017 RMU Cadet Nicholine Tifuh Azirh became the first West African woman to work on the bridge of a cruise ship.

Belinda Bennett, the world’s first black female cruise captain, made her maiden voyage with MSY Wind Star in 2016.

In 2020 Serena Milani will be the first woman in the world to captain a new cruise ship at launch with Regent Severn Seas. Melani has spent much of this year working with engineers and designers in Italy’s Ancona Shipyard, helping to bring the final shape to the Seven Seas Splendor before it embarks on its maiden voyage.

Virgin Voyages is actively recruiting women to the bridge of their first ship Scarlet Lady, due to begin sailing in 2020. Their Scarlet Squad has been formed with the intention of growing leadership roles in the marine, technical and hotel management roles on board.

Encouraging Women

While these history-making women have made amazing achievements, they didn’t walk straight from the academy classroom and onto the bridge. The process of encouraging women to become captains starts with encouraging women to join the industry, and giving them the opportunities to work their way up to captaincy.

Women Offshore, fosters and supports female interest in maritime professions, providing resources and sharing opportunities for women who work on the water. The organisation also offers virtual peer-to-peer mentor-ships, where women within the industry can encourage and support one another.

Many bodies in the industry are committed to encouraging the employment of more women captains; the IMO focussed this year’s World Maritime Day on “Empowering Women in the Maritime Community”, and its Women In Maritime programme, is still going strong after 30 years encouraging women into the industry.  

Obstacles to Overcome

While positive change is being made, there are still many obstacles to women entering the industry, and awareness is a major factor. Many women still have the view that the marine industry is a “men’s world” and not a welcoming place for them. Some countries still don’t accept women in maritime colleges, and others only offer shorter, less intense courses for female students.

It’s also worth recognising that the cruise industry has made the greatest gender equality improvements in the marine sector. As of 2017, 94% of all female sea-farers were employed in the cruise industry. So while the cruise sector is improving, other areas of the marine industry have a long way to go.

Looking to the Future

Of the 1.25 million sea-farers worldwide, women makeup just 2% – showing us there’s still plenty of room for growth in the cruise sector, and in the maritime industry as a whole. With certain areas of the industry facing potential labour shortages, and an estimated 147,500 officers needed by 2025, encouraging young women to join the maritime sector will alleviate this strain.

More and more companies are being urged to make commitments to employ more women; Maritime UK is encouraging companies to sign their pledge to “commit to building an employment culture that actively supports and celebrates gender diversity”, and has thus far successfully gained BP Shipping, Hapag-Lloyd (UK) and Stena Line UK as signatories.

Although the industry has a long way to go to redress the gender imbalance, bold steps are being made towards a future where women make up more and more members of a ship’s crew.