In a pivotal and empowering panel discussion at last year’s World Maritime Rescue Congress (WMRC) in the Netherlands, led by Cia Sjöstedt, IMRF Trustee and CEO of the Swedish Sea Rescue Society (SSRS), the focus was squarely on pivotal role of women in maritime search and rescue (SAR) operations.  

In its role as a non-governmental organisation, the IMRF has long showcased its unwavering commitment to fostering gender diversity and equality within the maritime SAR community.

In 2024, the IMRF is set to launch a number of events and activities to continue its push to provide women with unique opportunities to improve their skills in maritime SAR and promote an inclusive and equal industry. In August, the IMRF will run its second-ever #WomenInSAR training programme in August and in November, it will run its first-ever maritime SAR Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion Seminar in Greece. 

This continued effort to ensure that the #WomenInSAR initiative remains an integral part of the IMRF’s calendar was driven by the activities of IMRF members during last year's gathering of maritime SAR personnel in Rotterdam. 

At WMRC 2023, Cia established a distinctive tone for the session, diverging from conventional discussions with 'check-in questions'.  As speakers reflected on their unique strengths and dream superpowers, the atmosphere resonated with a sense of unity and celebration. This distinctive approach marked the commencement of a session dedicated to acknowledging both women in SAR and the strides made through the IMRF’s #WomenInSAR project.

The initiative can be traced back to the 2019 WMRC, where a profound session on 'Women in SAR' underscored the need for visible role models.  The phrase "You can't be what you can't see" became the driving force behind the IMRF's commitment to empowering women in SAR.  Since then, the IMRF has been a driving force behind the industry’s collaborative efforts to improve gender diversity and make the sector more welcoming to women. Primarily, the #WomenInSAR campaign has long sought to remove the stigma that maritime SAR is an industry that is dominated by men. 

The discussion at WMRC 2023 in Rotterdam underscored that the issue of gender diversity is not confined to women alone.  Men in SAR were encouraged to comprehend the challenges and collaborate with women to ensure 'gender blindness' and equal opportunities. Amid the discussion, David Jardine-Smith, an analyst of the IMRF’s #WomenInSAR survey, shared how the survey responses, after 35 years in SAR, opened his eyes to the depth of the issue.  'Women in SAR' is a universal cause, demanding collective efforts for meaningful change.

Frederike Bensch from the German Life Saving Association and Martina Capriotti from the Italian Federation of Aquatic Rescue delivered a compelling joint presentation on their experiences during the IMRF’s “empowering” #WomenInSAR event in Finland in 2022.  Their stories extended beyond the event to the establishment of a support group, emphasising that this was an ongoing journey, not a one-time affair. During their session, both Frederike and Martina shed light on the stark reality that, of the 1.2 million seafarers globally, only 2% are women. The SAR environment, consequently, is male dominated, leading to practical discrimination in facilities and equipment provision. To be accepted as equals, women often find themselves having to outperform their male counterparts.

The importance of role models and mentoring, including guidance from men who understand the challenges, emerged as a recurring theme throughout the session.  Attracting women to maritime SAR is just the beginning; retaining them requires cultural and structural changes at an organisational level.  Frederike and Martina's parting words echoed resilience: 

"They whispered to her: 'You cannot withstand the storm.'  She whispered back: 'I am the storm.'"  The call to action resonated in the room: "Be the storm."

Jaakko Heikkilä of the Finnish Lifeboat Institution (FLBI) and Caroline Jupe, CEO of the IMRF, then detailed the progress made under the IMRF’s #WomenInSAR project.  More than 1,650 responses to the #WomenInSAR survey from 48 countries have shaped the landscape of recommendations and best practices. Stemming from this initiative, the IMRF has published a report and critical guidance, introduced the #WomenInSAR Award, developed STEM resources, commissioned and released podcasts, conducted training events, and initiated the #WomenInSAR Mentoring Scheme.

The survey and guidance from the IMRF establish a baseline, emphasising the need for adequate training, equipment, supportive management, and an inclusive organisational culture. Awareness of career opportunities for women in maritime SAR has been elevated, inspiring the next generation to consider joining the SAR community. Training events have become platforms for sharing experiences, forming peer support groups, and participating in team-building exercises, promoting a sense of community among women in the maritime SAR community.

As the IMRF continues to champion women's roles in the maritime SAR community, it paves the way for a future where diversity is not just acknowledged but celebrated. The call to action remains clear: "Be the storm!" – a collective invitation to everyone involved to be a driving force for positive change in the maritime SAR landscape.