Maritime search and rescue (SAR) organisations around the world remain steadfast in their desire to improve the diversity of their staff and volunteers by improving the gender balance of those who help save lives at sea. However, with women still making up a small percentage of the total number of SAR personnel, many countries are looking at how  to increase the number of women volunteering or working in their organisations.

South Africa appears to be leading the charge when it comes to promoting women in the maritime SAR community. NSRI is a major advocate for gender balance and has a significantly higher percentage of women involved in SAR than other countries.

Approximately 26% of the NSRI’s current volunteer and paid workforce are women, a huge increase compared to the 2% of the world’s 1.2 million seafarers, according to the International Maritime Organization (IMO).

Two women who have been involved as volunteers for the NSRI are Sharon Crowther, a trainee coxswain at NSRI Station 10, and Carmen Long, a class one coxswain and deputy station commander at NSRI Station 8.

Both Sharon and Carmen were involved in the IMRF’s first-ever #WomenInSAR Training and Seminar Event in Finland in late August, which looked to raise the representation of women in the maritime sector and to provide support for, and raise the profile of, women in the maritime SAR sector specifically.

“It was a huge honour to be selected to represent the NSRI at the IMRF’s #WomenInSAR event,” said Carmen. “I went with a great amount of curiosity. I wanted to know what they do in other countries, as well as how women are faring in other maritime SAR organisations.”

“One of the main takeaways I took from the event was how well the NSRI is doing when it comes to promoting and encouraging women compared to other SAR organisations, something that I was incredibly proud to be a part of,” said Sharon.

“The NSRI has given us all the opportunities and support to achieve what we want over the years and it has made tremendous improvements to encourage more women to join the organisation,” she added.

Speaking about the IMRF’s #WomenInSAR event in Finland, both women noted how being able to interact directly with their peers provided an invaluable experience.

Sharon, who joined the NSRI in 2012 after witnessing a live helicopter exercise from her home, said, “I greatly enjoyed the networking and sharing aspects of the event. At one point our discussions became quite emotional so it gave us a safe space to talk freely. It gave us the chance to get to know each other and I’m pleased to say that I have made some new friends from the experience.”

Carmen, who joined the NSRI in 2011 with a desire to help people, added, “The offline discussions we had brought a lot of insight and was eye opening, and I realised that the NSRI’s training levels are of a high standard.

“However, although the organisation is doing well, I believe there is still room for improvement. It might not necessarily be in opportunities or training but there may be other areas that we can improve  to support the women that are part of the NSRI,” she added.

When asked about some ideas to improve gender balance in maritime SAR, Sharon noted that role models play a crucial role. “We have some fantastic female role models at the NSRI. We should build on this to encourage more women to join and achieve positions of authority."

However, both women reinforced that there should come a time when women are no longer separated during maritime SAR personnel discussions and that, instead, everyone is thought of as one unit.

“Maybe we’ll get to the point where we don’t have to distinguish women as a particular sector of maritime SAR,” said Carmen. “Instead, we are a team member in maritime SAR.”

“One of the discussions during our training was the role women can bring to emotional aspects of the SAR community such as dealing with survivors or in being able to communicate feelings and give emotional support” Sharon added. "Ultimately we are all part of a team and we must not forget that.”

“Maritime SAR has always been a male-dominated environment and women have had to adapt more to that and, at times, overperform to prove their worth. Women do not need special treatment and should be treated as equals. I don’t like referring to men and women as a differentiating factor. We are all part of a team and I think the individual’s contribution to the team shouldn’t be measured or validated by their gender,” Carmen concluded.

Click here to find out more about the IMRF's #WomenInSAR initiative: