As yachts, like all other kinds of boats, are objects, we like to think of them as not being gendered. Yachts or yachting, as an industry, does however not only have inequalities related to gender but also to among other things, class, race, sexuality, and appearance. Let’s unpack this by looking at who drives and works on these yachts, and how the preferences of yacht owners and recruitment agencies affect who these people are.
As the personal is political (and my love for reality shows cannot be tamed), what better way to start this entry than by sharing the experiences of Below DeckBelow Deck is an American reality television series on Bravo that debuted on July 1, 2013. The show profiles a group of people who work aboard yachts that measure well over 100 feet long. The crew members, known as yachties, live aboard the luxurious, privately owned vessels while making sure that their demanding clients' ever-changing needs are met.close stars “Zee” (Mzi Dempers) and Lloyd Spencer, who were both parts of the deck crew of the 8th season of Below Deck Mediterranean. Although not the first, Zee spoke out about racism and racial bias in the yachting industry, pointing out that Black individuals are a minority. He added that discrimination also happens based on other aspects of people’s identity: “You’re working with the top 1% so they can do whatever they please, it may not necessarily be the colour of your skin but where you’re from or ethnicity or anything like that.” In this way, recruitment agencies, owners, and captains might be biased when they decide who to employ and what job they will do. Owners might insist on having an interior department consisting of only women, and there are many stories of people being rejected based on their appearance, be it their skin colour, size or age.
Zee’s crewmate Lloyd broke down on a night out and opened up to his crewmates about his fluid sexuality. The captain on the previous boat he worked at repeatedly made homophobic comments toward him, and this traumatic experience made him feel as though he had to hide part of himself, which made him question whether to pursue a career in the yachting industry. Sadly, we were also reminded of the heteronormative (privileging of heterosexuality) standards of yachting later in the same season, when stewardess Delaney not under any circumstances was allowed to share a bunk bed with chef Mathew, despite neither of them having issues with sharing a room with someone of different gender identity. As we all know a man and a woman will most definitely hook up when put in the same bunk bed right, right?
Yachting is known to be more than a bit outdated when it comes to gender equality, with women mainly serving as stewards in the interior of the boat, and men on deck, in the engine rooms and in the cockpit. The first-ever industry-wide, quantitative and qualitative research on diversity and inclusion in the yachting industry found that women make up only 28% of crew members. While the study didn’t investigate why there are fewer women in the industry, the lack of career progression, as well as the unpractical lifestyle of yachting in regards to personal and family life stand out as common explanations for “yachties”.
The lack of career progression is confirmed by the study, which finds alarming discrepancies between entry-level and senior positions. Whereas women deckhands amounted to 10.9%, only 1.2% of captains were women. Similarly, while women make up 42.6% of sous chefs, they only amount to 15.5% of head chefs on yachts. In line with traditional outdated gender roles, men make up 15.4% of stewards and 10.8% of chief stewards whose main tasks are to serve food and drinks, clean, and care for guests.
When women fill the traditionally masculine positions of bosun and captain, they are often met with bias and discrimination, be it conscious or unconscious. Fans of Below Deck might remember Peter Hunziker, who as a deckhand serving under Malia White in season 5 of Below Deck Mediterranean kept referring to his boss as “sweetie”, also after she confronted him about it. Or season 7’s widespread misogyny towards all the women working on the boat. Until we have proper data on the yachting industry, the total 18 seasons of the show, including the spin-offs “Below Deck Mediterranean” and “Below Deck Sailing Yacht” give a good indication of how people of different intersecting identities experience working on yachts, and the many biased and discriminatory practices in the industry.
Yet, it is only the tip of the iceberg, as both the demographics of owners and guests are left out of this entry. Hint: They are rich, mostly white, mostly cis-heterosexual men, mostly drunk (this goes for guests at least), and perhaps exactly for that reason hard to find statistics on.