While gender inequality is alive and well in the superyacht industry, it’s very rare that people actually talk about it. That’s where Jenny Matthews comes in.
A first officer and founder of online support forum for women in yachting, She of the Sea, Jenny is aiming to rewrite how women fit into the maritime scene. We speak to her about the extreme gender gap in the industry, and what she thinks we need to do to make a change.
OnboardOnline: What inspired you to start She of the Sea?
Jenny Matthews: After passing the Officer of the Watch 3000gt, I became distinctly aware that after nearly seven years at sea I had never worked with another woman on deck and had barely ever seen one. Once I had the ticket, along with congratulations, I kept hearing that there were less than 10 women in the industry that had this ticket – which, by the way, isn’t true - and hearing that raised a lot of curiosity.
This curiosity led me to start She of the Sea to see who else was out there. Were there other women on the same path? It has now evolved into an incredible network of women from all corners of the world working in the typically male-dominated roles, and of course, the many men and women who champion them along the way.
OO: What are you aiming for with the forum?
Matthews: She of the Sea holds a clear mission to re-write the narrative of Women in Maritime. We are doing that by cultivating equality, realising potential and celebrating diversity. This is the platform to connect and champion each other towards excellence. Our aim is to create not only a community of women, but to usher in united industry wide action for change
OO: What has the response been like so far?
Matthews: Overwhelming! The engagement from the women has been incredible – it’s completely reframed my yachting experience and we now share a beautiful connection which most of us hadn't had before. There’s also been a really heartwarming level of engagement from the men in the industry, too, which has been particularly inspiring. Male captains and crew are reaching out to say how much they support the women they work with, suggesting women who should join and generally are just being huge advocates for competency-based crewing, regardless of gender.
This has been really prominent from the older experienced generation of gentlemen who have either been working with the original trail blazers in the industry, or who have daughters, granddaughters etc. and resonate with our vision.
I was pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm and extremely generous support from the shoreside community, both men and women. I had spent most of my career with very little contact with this part of the industry, so I was blown away by how closely it resonated with both sides.
Hanna Leoranta, Lead Deckhand
OO: Why do you think there are so few women in the maritime industry?
Matthews: Great question, and one I have been deeply looking into over the last year and a half. There are a number of factors: some internal, some external. One of the major ones is as simple as the fact that young women deciding what to do out of high school wouldn't even know what a career at sea could look like, let alone what a superyacht is. And if they did, unless they are already passionate sailors, it’s unlikely they would think of becoming an engineer when all the visual representation in the media almost exclusively show gender specific roles. It’s always the men outside, in the engine room and on the helm, while women are designated to holding flowers and pouring champagne.
Apart from the lack of visual representation and awareness of the career, we can sight issues such as the gender leadership ambition gap, the opportunity gap, biased crew placement, expectancy base and more. Of course it’s important to remember that a lot of these issues are relevant to any minority, yet all these topics are complex and hold a lot of moving parts. You could talk about each of them for hours, so this is just a small recap!
OO: What do you think we can do to raise awareness and get more women involved?
Matthews: To change the way the industry and wider audiences view a woman’s role we must provide an alternative narrative. We can do this through advertising, uniform catalogues, social media platforms, publications, online articles, and more. The more images we see of women at the helm, on the controls and in the engine room, the more likely we are to change the subconscious, outdated stories we have been told.
Sharing and promoting the female perspective equally alongside the male is imperative to changing the narrative. The more women we have weighing in on topics and sharing their journeys and perspectives, the more normal it becomes, and the less alien it seems to have women in power or in typically male-dominated roles. We need to get more women writing articles and speaking out on podcasts and social media. We definitely need more presence on panels and discussion boards. It’s all about giving women the platforms to have their voices heard and their stories shared.
Our own social media provides a continuous flow of images showcasing women at work. We give women their own hashtag - #sheofthesea - to share their visual stories to our growing audience, while our podcast features women from all corners of the industry, including captains, engineers, head chefs, Americas cup racers and more.
Jess Frost, Sole Deckhand, 50m
OO: How would you encourage girls to get involved in the industry from a young age?
Matthews: Continuous community engagement. Firstly, through the 1851 Trust, which is the official Americas Cup Teams charity. There is the opportunity for young women all over the UK to engage with our members at the STEM roadshow. To find out more, follow this link :https:// www.google.com/amp/s/www.portsmouth.co.uk/education/ portsmouth-charity-the-1851-trust-inspires-a-new-generation-offemale-scientists-and-engineers-1-8841227/amp . Additionally, we are engaging with schools and speaking events in New Zealand to raise the awareness of the careers available to young women.
OO: Which sectors of the maritime industry would you like to see women involved in more?
Matthews: Any area they want to be! I think it’s important to be clear that our vision is one of equal opportunity, not one of promoting females over males. The best way to look at it is that we as crew are employed to look after the 1% of the population. We require crew to be at the absolute height of standards. By only looking at half the population ie. men for that level of excellence, we are only doing ourselves as an industry a disservice.
There are incredible men and there are incredible women. There are also less great crew from both camps. It’s about giving ALL the crew, regardless of gender or any other factor, the opportunity.
OO: How did you get into the yachting industry?
Matthews: It’s all thanks to my next door neighbour - he was a captain and she was a chief stew. I was immediately curious about the career after hearing their stories. After researching courses with him, I promptly returned home, announced that I was dropping out of university, which I had not even started, and booked a flight.
OO: Can you tell us a little about your background and how you got to where you are now?
Matthews: I joined the industry at 19, and had been heavily involved in rowing for most of my time at school as a coxswain. The role of a coxswain and an officer are actually quite similar - you are the connection between the coach and the rowers, just like between the captain and crew, and your job is to get everyone working at their peak performance. There’s a lot of team building, leadership and psychology in both roles. I ended my rowing career on a high as part of the New Zealand under 21 team and then went straight into yachting. Along the way I have picked up my Dive Master, Personal Training certification, Holistic Health Coaching certification, and even opened an raw organic café. I guess you could say it been an eclectic journey so far.
OO: What has been the proudest moment of your career?
Matthews: While I should say it was passing the oral exam, which currently only has a 57% pass rate, the proudest moments I have are connecting with the other women on the same journey, hearing their stories and the pride I feel in them, their perseverance, their knowledge and passion for their work. I’m lucky to have my proudest moments on a daily basis now.
OO: Looking back, is there anything you would do differently?
Matthews: No. And I say that with confidence because I believe all the experiences we have shape us into who we become. Especially the tough times. I am eternally grateful for every experience I’ve had, and can see that the struggles are just lessons that I can now pass on to others.
OO: Are there any women in the industry who really inspire you?
Matthews: My Partner Natasha Ambrose inspires me every day. She is a fellow Chief Mate 3000gt and is one of the most knowledgable, compassionate leaders I know at our level. We have a WhatsApp group of 26 women, ranging from captains and engineers to very driven deckies, and every single one of them is daily inspiration to me.
OO: Where do you see the industry in 10, 20 and 50 years in terms of gender equality?
Matthews: My hope is that we come to a space where gender becomes something we don't even talk about anymore. The complete normalisation of competency-based roles as opposed to gender, race, sexuality, age, nationality…the list goes on.
OO: Have you found sexual harassment to be an issue during your time in the industry?
Matthews: This is extremely prevalent. We cannot plead ignorance to this anymore.
OO: What do you think needs to be done to combat this issue?
Matthews: Firstly, sexual harassment policies need to become standard practice. We also need clauses in charter contracts that protect the crew against harassment of any kind from the guests. Crew training on harassment in general is also vital, especially focusing on the Head of Department standard operating procedures when presented with a claim.
We have to remember that although this is an issue that devastates its victims, it also renders the owners vulnerable to huge financial liability. Sexual harassment training and procedures are about protecting everyone, from the victims to the wrongfully accused to the owners. It is our due diligence to deal with every report as if it were an official legal report, because it very well could be. We need to create a culture onboard where every crew member can feel safe: emotionally and physically.
OO: You’re currently running a yacht crew survey for the wider industry, what are you hoping to achieve with this?
Matthews: The survey is focused on industry growth as a whole and, of course, sexual harassment is part of the conversation, among others. The PYA did a fantastic survey specifically on sexual harassment last year so this is somewhat of a carry on to see what steps we can take to continue raising the standards.
OO: What’s next for She of the Sea?
Matthews: We are launching our podcast which is very exciting, as well as developing our mentorship program which has been our most inspiring project so far.