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Harassment situations among women onboard

Atualizado: 3 de jul. de 2023

English edit by Lidia Paes Leme and Carla Elliff

Drawing of women dancing in a circle holding each other’s hands.
Illustration by Caia Colla.

Trigger alert.

On December 10, 2019, Chat with Neptune launched a campaign on social media to map harassment situations in research vessels. We are immensely thankful to all women that filled out our form and the people that helped spread the word. It was very important to take this initial step so we could begin to understand the reality of women that work onboard or that participate in scientific projects onboard vessels during their careers.

Although the results obtained cannot be generalized to the reality of all women working onboard in Brazil, they are important because they generate discussions and raise a flag to the institutions involved (universities, research institutes, private sector, the Brazilian Navy etc.) about the seriousness of the problem.

What we will demonstrate here is, for now, the tip of the iceberg, but it highlights the relevance of the issue and the urgency for actions to be taken to protect and guarantee the safety of women onboard.

The problem

Why talk about harassment onboard? A 2012 study by researchers in the United States showed that, in the world of tropical system ecologists, women participate less in field activities than men and more often identify personal security as a primary factor for bringing an assistant to the field with them. Moreover, women also had a greater need to hire other people to take care of their kids when they went to the field, while men, generally, left their children with spouses. This is particularly relevant, because in several areas, scientists who engage in field activities tend to produce more scientific papers and receive more resources for research. Therefore, being in the field is crucial for the full development of their career and to have greater chances to conquer spaces of recognition and power.

When we think of the women in marine sciences, fieldwork and various academic activities often take place in a confined way, onboard ships, catamarans and fishing boats, for example. In addition, a significant portion of marine biology, oceanography and geology professionals work onboard ships or oil platforms. In 2016, Chat with Neptune published an interview called “Atenção ao embarcar” (“Caution when going aboard”). In the post, we listened to a female researcher describing unacceptable situations that happened during a research cruise, involving a lot of disrespect and harassment to her and other female researchers, which ended up compromising the quality of the data collected and causing personal and psychological damage. In addition to this post, unpublished stories mobilized us to build a map of the harassments happening on vessels in Brazil.

The data

We made a form available for 50 days on Chat with Neptune’s social media. We obtained responses from 117 women, of whom 78 (67%) answered that they were harassed while onboard and 71% knew at least one woman that had suffered harassment on a vessel. In 99% of cases, the perpetrator was male.

As shown in the graphs below, harassment was reported in all age groups, with the exception of those between 51-60 years old. Most respondents (77%) identified themselves as white, followed by “other” (14%). Black respondents represented less than 1%, which seems to reflect the lack of representativeness of black women both in academia and in the job market of marine sciences. According to data from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), 23.5% of white women and 10.5% of black or brown women over the age of 25 years in Brazil had completed higher education in 2016. In addition, although black people represent almost 56% of the Brazilian population, only in 2018 did the number of black and brown students enrolled in public universities surpass 50%.

Although the number of respondents is still small, there were proportionally more situations of harassment among women who identified as black. In this group, the report of harassment was 77%, while among women who identified as white harassment affected 66%, for the “other” category it was 69%, and among those who did not want to inform race/ethnicity it was 50%. This difference also seems to reflect the higher levels of violence against black women in our society, which is not only sexist but also racist.

Undergraduate students represented 44% of respondents and 62% of them suffered harassment. Graduate students, researchers and research team leaders accounted for 31% of respondents, 89% of whom had been harassed. Women who work as technicians and other occupations onboard corresponded to 25% of respondents and 89% also reported harassment.

The aggressors occupied a higher hierarchical position in 44% of the reports, followed by aggressors with a horizontal position (27%) and very few with a lower one (<1%). In 12% of cases, respondents were unable to indicate the difference in hierarchical position of their aggressor. This demonstrates that harassment situations can occur regardless of hierarchical differences between those involved.

Graph showing the profile of respondents of the sexual harassment survey conducted.

Figure 1: Profile of respondents. The numbers represent the raw data on the number of women who responded to the form.

We received reports of harassment that occurred in expeditions along 11 Brazilian states: Amapá, Bahia, Espírito Santo, Maranhão, Pernambuco, Rio Grande do Norte, Rio Grande do Sul, Rio de Janeiro, Santa Catarina, Sergipe and São Paulo. Most of the situations reported occurred off the coast of Rio de Janeiro, followed by Bahia and Santa Catarina, where the combined harassment reports represented 75% of the total. These numbers may reflect the greater number of expeditions and studies in the waters adjacent to these states, where there is the highest concentration of oil exploration basins.

In several reports, women described more than one situation of harassment, at different moments in their experiences onboard, from moral harassment, intellectual discrediting to physical and sexual harassment and even rape. The specialized literature describes that episodes of violence present themselves progressively, from the most subtle and least visible modalities to the most serious and most easily recognized. Thus, it is possible to state that hardly any type of violence occurs in isolation.

Most harassments took place onboard ships, followed by boats. The private sector and the Brazilian Navy were the most aggressive environments for the respondents, with 45% and 37% of all reported harassments, respectively, followed by expeditions led by universities and research institutes (12%). When we consider the proportion of harassment by sector, we obtained 74% in the private sector, 73% in the Navy and 36% in the universities and research institutes.

Graph showing the profile of occurrences of the sexual harassment survey conducted.

Figure 2: Profile of occurrences. The numbers represent the raw data on the number of women who responded to the form.

Sexual harassment corresponded to 31% of the reports, followed by moral harassment (30%) and discrediting physical capacity (> 15%). It is important to note that 12% of women identified more than one type of harassment, while 2 women were unable to identify what type of harassment they had suffered. Harassment situations occurred mainly through words addressed to women (72%), by touch (14%) and through gestures (13%). The most serious situation was a report of rape, which happened to an undergraduate student, aged 21 to 25, on a navy ship, off the coast of Rio de Janeiro. The aggressor was a naval officer. The disclosure of this report was authorized by the respondent: “I was (quite) drunk and I was led by a military man to an unused room, he kissed me, I tried to leave, I said no, but he was stronger. There was an armchair in the room, I was pulled up to it and I can only remember flashes of what was the worst thing that ever happened to me. I think I gave up fighting because of fear and just 'accepted'... I remember asking him to please put a condom on if he had one, but I don't know if he did, and then I remember being completely aimless entering my cabin”. Rape, through violence or serious threat, is a crime that can carry a punishment of 6 to 10 years in prison in Brazil. Even if there is no explicit violence, the practice of any sexual act through fraud or other means that prevents or hinders the victim's free expression of will is also a crime, and can carry a punishment of 2 to 6 years in prison (LAW No. 12,015, OF AUGUST 7, 2009).

Graph showing the types of harassment reported in the sexual harassment survey conducted.

Figure 3: Types of harassment reported and how they occurred. The numbers represent the raw data on the number of women who responded to the form.

We want to highlight the variety of professions of men who were reported as aggressors, such as: undergraduate students, advisors, research team leader, public institution employee, senior researcher, commander, army corporal, officer, immediate, boat master, lieutenant colonel, corporal of the navy, captain, mechanic, diver, sailor, cook, chief of machinery, principal investigator, supervisor, offshore manager, technician and even a security technician, whose function is also to safeguard and watch over the physical integrity of people onboard.

In 50% of cases, women reported that the harassment/embarrassment affected their work. Most of them (80%) discussed the matter with someone, but 82% did not make a formal report. Only one of the reported cases had some effect: a group of gathered reports from six women and the harasser lost his position as coordinator, but continued to go aboard with another title. In all other cases, nothing happened or the reporting woman was punished, isolated from the crew or prevented from boarding again.

What have we learned and what can we do?

From this initial mapping, we note that the victims don't always identify or understand that they were harassed, or that it takes time to understand the seriousness of the situation to which they were subjected. The female body is always a target, which takes on particular characteristics according to age, social class, color and position of power. In addition, several other forms of harassment, which do not necessarily have a sexual connotation, can also have a major impact in the workplace. The reports demonstrate that there is no single profile: harassers can occupy both a leadership position and a subordinate position to women. Therefore, the onboard environment, for teaching and research activities and for the exercise of professional activities, is not a safe place for women.

As a consequence of this scenario, harassed women showed dissatisfaction at work, drops in performance and impacts on physical and mental health. Recent studies by Kathryn Clancy and collaborators and by Darius Chan and collaborators show that even more serious effects are observed when the harassers are in a superior position and when the victims are younger, exactly the case of most of our respondents. This type of situation can cause the abandonment of the career, generating a loss of human resources. Studies indicate that, the more diverse teams are, the more efficient they are in solving problems. Furthermore, training professionals to work onboard is an activity that requires financial and time investments. Therefore, by allowing professionals fully capable of exercising their function to go through situations like those reported here, we are also allowing the waste of the investment made so far and, most importantly, the waste of talent.

But what can we do in the face of such a scary scenario? We at Chat with Neptune want to hear more people, especially professionals who go aboard on a routine basis. We want to access an even greater number of women considering a diversity of profiles (age, occupation), factoring in racism, considering women who never boarded for fear of suffering harassment situations, the experiences of the LGBTQi + community and also include men in this conversation. We want to know if the small number of formal reports happens because women do not believe that a complaint will take effect, if they fear exposure and stigma after, fear of being reprimanded, of losing their jobs, or of missing the opportunity to go aboard again or if they don't know how to report, or what communication channels to use. It is also important to recognize that the accusation involves reliving the trauma and that the lack of acceptance in the report channels constitutes institutional violence.

In addition, to better understand what is happening, we need to promote actions to change this scenario. We are already mobilizing and promoting courses, workshops and conversation circles about harassment onboard, but this needs to be done widely in undergraduate and graduate courses, just as we need to take the discussion to companies in the offshore field and to the Brazilian Navy. We need to work on security measures, strategizing ways to protect one another. We need to promote educational campaigns and develop booklets, explaining what harassment is and what to do when this type of situation occurs. As a community, we must demand that public and private companies, universities and the Brazilian Navy promote a safe environment for women, presenting clear policies to avoid harassment, with routine educational actions and the implementation of welcoming listening channels. But we can only do this by knowing and talking about the problem. We can no longer remain silent.

It is important to recognize that Brazil is a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which took place in New York, on December 18, 1979. According to Decree No. 4,377, of September 13, 2002, in which, among other guarantees, provides the adoption of all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in the sphere of employment in order to ensure conditions of equality between men and women.

Additionally, sexual harassment, defined in the Brazilian penal code as “Constraining someone in order to obtain sexual advantage or favoring, with the agent prevailing in their condition of superiority or inherent exercise of a job, position or function" is a crime, with a prison sentence of one to two years (Law No. 10,224, of May 15, 2001).

According to the booklet on moral and sexual harassment at work published by the Brazilian Ministry of Labor in 2009, sexual harassment in the workplace, "consists of embarrassing colleagues by constantly flirting and insinuating to them in order to obtain sexual advantages or favors. This attitude can be clear or subtle; it can be spoken or just as hints; it can be written or made explicit in gestures; it can come as coercion, or when someone promises promotion to the woman, as long as she gives in; or, still, in the form of blackmail”.

Feminist author Joice Berth warns us that there is no empowerment at the individual level, if it is not articulated with a change that affects the entire social group to which it belongs. She understands empowerment as an instrument of social welfare, which allows the displacement of the position of subordination through awareness of the place occupied by subjects and collectives in society. It is not possible to have equality and justice as long as behaviors that attack people's integrity are tolerated, excused and, even worse, defended by society.

That is why fighting sexual and moral harassment is everyone's duty, including all men who want a healthy work environment. We have no way of knowing how many women gave up working onboard because of stories they’ve heard from their colleagues or even abandoned their careers because of harassing situations they’ve experienced. All of these potentials are being lost, wasted. Not only potential professionals; before that, women are people who deserve to be treated with equality, respect, dignity, humanity. We need to prevent and combat onboard harassment. What are you going to do about it?



Berth, J. O que é empoderamento. Belo Horizonte. Ed. Letramento, 2018

Brasil, Ministério do Trabalho e Emprego. Assédio moral e sexual no trabalho. Brasília, 2010. 44p.

Chan et al. 2008. Examining the job-related, psychological, and physical outcomes of workplace sexual harassment: a meta-analytic review.

Clancy et al. 2014. Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE): Trainees

Report Harassment and Assault.

IBGE. 2019. Desigualdades Sociais por Cor ou Raça no Brasil. Estudos e Pesquisas-Informação Demográfica e Socioeconômica, n.41.

IBGE. 2018. Estatísticas de Gênero - Indicadores sociais das mulheres no Brasil. Estudos e Pesquisas-Informação Demográfica e Socioeconômica, n.38.

McGuire et al. 2012. Dramatic Improvements and Persistent Challenges for Women Ecologists.



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About the guest author:

Gabriela Lamego is a professor at the Professor Milton Santos Institute of Humanities, Arts and Sciences of the Federal University of Bahia (IHAC/UFBA). She is a psychologist with a doctorate in public health and develops teaching and research activities on the themes of violence, gender, communication and health.

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