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Women at sea? How to uncover maritime's best talent

The benefits of equal representation have long been at the forefront of organisational debates. The OECD estimates that equalising the role of men and women could increase GDP by 10% by 2030*. With an aging workforce and difficulty in attracting young talent, the maritime industry lags behind diversity trends. Only 2% of global sea force represents women, who also receive 45% less compensation than men**.

In a recent webinar on equal shipping, led by Dr Katerina Konsta, CEO of SeaWorks Training & Consultancy, 8 women in maritime addressed the issues that they faced and continue to face in the industry. They covered organisational culture, lack of a suitable support network and inadequate industry awareness:

  • Caitlin Vaughn - Project Manager of ISWAN
  • Natalie Shaw - Director Employment Affairs of the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS)
  • Karin Orsel -Vice Chair of the ICS, Board of Trustees member of the ISWAN and WISTA International Ambassador
  • Dr Cecilia Österman – Senior Lecturer in Maritime Science, Linnaeus University
  • Lena Göthberg – Host and Producer of The Shipping Podcast
  • Dr Kate Pike – Associate Professor and Senior Research Fellow, Southampton Solent University
  • Birgit Liodden - former Director, NOR Shipping and Founder and first Secretary General of YoungShip International

Equal shipping: the key to organisations’ survival

Interestingly, the discussion started with all the women taking part in the webinar quickly discovering that they entered the industry either by chance or because of family members. It is well-known that the industry has been historically male-dominated; most issues today persevere because not enough is being done by companies or even earlier on, by universities, to attract women into the industry.

Birgit Liodden:

“I think that the lack of investment in recruiting females in our industry is a result of actually somewhat traditional thinking, and the lack of understanding that without a sufficient number of women in the industry, we will not recruit the best talents worldwide. Very often in the shipping industry, recruitment has been done based on your network, rather than open processes with external people involved, with a lot of family professional networks, etc. And I think that in the same way that our industry lags behind on image, and digital technology, we also lag behind a lot when it comes to diversity. I don’t really think that the industry as a whole realises the enormous potential, financially, that companies can gain from ensuring diversity in their groups. So I basically think that if you only think of diversity and equal opportunities for women as an ethical thing, you will never get there. Once you start understanding that this has financial and operational impact, then I think we are getting somewhere a lot quicker.”

Caitlin Vaughan:

“I think there’s quite a lot of evidence out there that the more diverse an organisation is, the more profitable they are, and the more positive an experience that all employees have working there. Because you have such a rich variety of different backgrounds and different opinions and different experiences to bring, and new ideas in any sort of industry that you’re working in, and I think that the shipping industry is really missing out on that at the moment, whether that’s on board or ashore. “

Young women need to be presented with and understand the benefits of a career in maritime early on. More awareness needs to be raised by both educational institutions and senior management:

Dr Kate Pike:

“Our student ratio represents what we have in the industry, a very minor amount of women that come through our training compared to men. That male dominance in the industry is a problem when you’re trying to address the problem of gender, because shipping companies really need a new way of thinking about recruitment and retention.”

Improving retention

Even when women enter the industry, organisations don’t do enough to retain the best talent. The lack of a power balance and the working conditions simply don’t provide an environment that is encouraging of women in the industry.

Caitlin Vaughan:

“We know that women can find it challenging to even find employment at sea simply because of their sex, and we often hear anecdotally that many women working at sea feel they’re constantly under scrutiny, and that their ability to work to the same standard as men is called into question. So how can these experiences ever foster an environment where a woman feels confident to report any unfair treatment if she constantly feels her career is under threat? Similarly, a woman who is harassed or assaulted could benefit from immediate support or may wish to seek support from another woman. This might be impossible if she’s the only woman on board. This is a problem and it’s extremely rare to find women working in senior positions at sea.”

Lena Göthberg:

“What we risk losing out is a lot of great female potential that enters the industry and then they leave us again, if they feel that they don’t really have equal opportunities, if they see that they are differently treated from their male colleagues.”

Dr Cecilia Österman:

“[…] we need gender inclusive strategies to make the women feel right at home, and welcome to the education, to make them stay and actually graduate. With role models as lecturers, making sure that they are treated in a good way during lectures, off campus activities, having open lectures with women to be role models, etc.”

A support network for future generations

What about women who already succeeded in maritime – are they able and willing to help? There is a vicious circle whereby a lack of participation from women leads to a lack of role models for the next generations. Increased awareness and support from other women is how the different areas of maritime will stop being no-go zones:  

Dr Cecilia Österman:

“I didn’t have any female role models when I started in the industry and mostly that was because there were none. I didn’t even meet women when I went to the shipping companies’ offices, I didn’t really have anyone to look up to. I also must say that during my early career and my time at the maritime academy studying to be an engineer officer I didn’t meet any women either. […] What you see is what you become – if I don’t see anyone who looks like me, then I have nothing to aspire to.”

Dr Kate Pike:

“It’s hugely important to have role models. It certainly was harder in the early years to find role models, and I believe that is something that has changed more recently.”

Overall, everyone felt optimistic about the positive changes seen recently and the ones to come, with each of the speakers taking an active role in advancing the role of women in maritime:

 Birgit Liodden:

“I have been seeing, especially in the last 5 years, there has been a lot of new female role models that are very visible in our industry across segments. And I think that companies are starting to see in a bigger degree than before that they have to find new ways of attracting and retaining new talent.”

Lena Göthberg:

“Another aspect that I think is really exciting for female talent and leaders these days is this expression of the glass cliff, where we see that women are often given the opportunity as leaders in difficult times, and our industry is truly in a very challenging time still, in terms of digitalisation, sustainable opportunities/ challenges etc. so that I think that this change will actually cause more women to be given the chance to actually be at the top.”

To listen to the entire recording of this session, click here.