CAN THE MARITIME HIERARCHY BE CHALLENGED?

By Therese Landås, Human Factor Specialist

The hierarchy is a central structure and form of organizing roles, relations and responsibility in the operating field of the maritime organization. There is no doubt that this is a structure which is well established and a natural way of organizing the human resources in the practices of everyday life amongst officers and crew on vessels. Bridge Resource Management, Engine Room Resource Management, are one of the many important courses in accordance to IMO and the STCW convention in which officers on the bridge are trained in increased understanding of human factors in consideration to resource management.

Simsea offers various courses that focuses on resource management and these are courses of high quality and gives the participants an increased understanding of human factors that affect behaviour, interaction and communication, and improve team-working skills as well as develop skills for avoiding misunderstandings and the prevention of incidents. One interesting aspect of looking at resource management then, is to understand the structure in which the resources operate and the human factors which can affect its structure. Let’s take the 2019 IMO campaign as a point of departure to answer the question presented here.

2019 has been a year in which IMO, the International Maritime Organization, enforced its focus on empowering women. As the global standard-setting authority for the safety, security and environmental performance of international shipping, IMO has lifted a central issue both for the maritime community as well as for the international community at large. The campaign IMO has fronted is to empower women in the maritime community. The goal has been amongst other to raise awareness of the importance of gender equality in an otherwise male-dominated maritime community.

While the campaign looks to the broad aspect of empowering women by focusing on the gender equality, the recruitment of women to the maritime community and the importance of having women in the organization, it is inevitable to look at how gender is a factor that can cause the experience of social inequality. Throughout history up until modern times, it is a well-known fact that women have been perceived as inferior to male, and the struggle of gender equality is a still a phenomenon of modern time.

Now, when we look at one of the essential structures of the operative field of shipping industry it is the hierarchy which is the leading structure of the organization. A hierarchy is a system in which one person is put in relation to another in a linear structure where persons are arranged according to their importance. The hierarchical structure spells out a clear organization of roles, responsibilities, and nonetheless authority. Hierarchy is also a structural form of organizing people in different societies and cultures, weather in formal systems or in indirect underlying forms which shape the social life of people. Consequently, when looking at differences, we here then look at differences which make a difference and generates a distinction of social inequality. In the latter, it is interesting to look at how a social factor can affect the authority of one person in relation to another.

In the international shipping community, there are many teams on vessels dominated by a broad specter of different nationalities working together. It has become common, and expected, amongst officers to pay attention to “good BRM, Bridge Resource Management” in which looking at the human factors in its micro-dynamic processes, have become essential. When we look at how to work with a good BRM (which effectively have become an expression amongst officers) we are focusing on how every person is both the causing factor of challenges in maritime operation, non-the-less, and more importantly, the great resource to safe, secure and well-executed voyages an operations. BRM is primarily about acknowledging the fact that we are human beings that work with other people and that there are broad aspects of this to be considered. At SIMSEA we focus amongst other on situation awareness, decision making, teamwork and leadership as central elements to good BRM. These processes are shaped by the structure in which they operate: the hierarchy.

While considering the importance of the human factors in maritime operations, it is important then to understand that a person is strongly shaped by the role in which (s)he functions, never-the less, it is important to have knowledge about other social factors that can affect human behavior. Looking at authority then as a central element of hierarchy, it is like ways important to understand what legitimates the right exercise power. Take a ship-to-ship operation as an example. Two essential roles and responsibilities that are played out in a ship-to-ship operation is the role of the Captain and the role of the Mooring master. Roughly speaking, the Captain has the responsibility of the vessel and its team whereas the Mooring master is responsible of the operation. The Captain is the authority. Though, in its micro-dynamic process and complexity of a ship-to-ship operation, to what extent does (s)he exercise the authority given a situation where the Mooring master makes firm suggestions during a ship-to-ship operation of continuing the process based on the knowledges the Mooring master have of local conditions while the Captain is not convinced that the conditions of the operations a acceptable for the vessel? In most cases, the Captain will practice his/hers given authority, however, in other cases, we could be witnessing a Captain that experiences a Mooring master being so convincing in hers/his authority that the Captain chooses not to overrule the decision in the operation.

Now, for the simplicity one can say that the above-mentioned example is question of whose knowledge one makes most relevant in the given operation. However, knowledge is also a factor of power and authority. Furthermore, looking at the roles of the Captain and the Mooring Master, one can also in one way claim that they both have different kinds of authority given the considerations that one have to make towards the vessel, the team on the vessel, the ship-to-ship operation in it selves and the “external” team involved in the ship-to-ship operations for instance when tug-boats are involved etc.

When we talk about whether or not the hierarchical structure in the maritime organization can be challenged, more specifically in the operational field amongst officers and crew on vessels, there are situations which can challenged the well-established structure.  It might be easier perhaps to understand that if we give an example of a situation of crisis on the bridge where the primer authority, the Captain, suffers from a panic attack and is unable to handle the situation or falls ill during an operation. In such case one can say that on the one hand chief officer is obliged to take command, nonetheless, s(he) must first understand the situation and actually take the authority in a given situation. Of equal interest is the factors of the mundane that could challenge the established authority amongst officers and crew on vessels.

Now, returning to the point of departure then, the issue if gender is part of a long history of understanding social organization of society. Age, cast, class, ethnicity, religion are just some of the few complex relations in which there exist an organization of power relation which in a broad specter of different societies worldwide have become expressed in some kind of hierarchy. When we talk about these human factors, we talk about potential pre-dispositions that have the potential to shape the social relations between individuals or groups. To what degree would it affect the relation of authority between a Captain and a Chief officer if the Captain was female and the Chief officer was male, or if the Captain was younger and female and the Chief officer was older and male? There are two answers to this question; yes and no, depending on many other situational factors and non-the-less depending on other human factors.


With great respect for the well-established hierarchy in the shipping community and its social organization, it is imperative to consider human factors that might challenge its hierarchy in specific situations. The human factors might present themselves as aspect of individual personalities or choices or these might be connected to other complex systems of social organizations which touches up-on other system of social organizations.
IMO has rightfully in 2019 given attention to the issue of gender equality, followingly, it is important for all of those who work in the maritime community to continue the good work of gender equality. In the field of human factors in maritime operations it is followingly important to pay attention to factors of gender equality, but furthermore important to pay attention to other forms of social organization that makes a difference. Can the maritime hierarchy be challenged?