Women in Maritime Leadership

Posted: 30th April 2019 | Written by: Karen Passman

Captain Heidi Hansenfus

How many captains, officers and chief engineers do you know in the industry? Now ask yourself the question, “How many of them are women?” Of the 14,350* officers within the merchant sector in the UK, only 3% are women; 4% of all technical officers and just 1% of the engine officers are women. This pattern is similarly reflected in roles that are shore based.

Roles are perhaps more divided along gender lines in the maritime sector than in many other fields within the UK, although statistics can be misleading. Take the target set by Lord Davies in 2011 for FTSE 100 companies to increase the number of females in the board room to 25%, supposedly achieved six months ahead of schedule. In reality women make up less than 10% of boardroom executive positions.

The aforementioned 25% includes non-executive positions which are not full-time roles, nor are the individuals involved in the day to day management of the business. Nevertheless, a survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD)** revealed that 89% of respondents believe a good level of gender diversity can improve boardroom effectiveness, in line with the broadly held view that diversity strengthens an organisation increasing performance and profit. The logical progression would therefore be to encourage more women into leadership roles both ashore and at sea. 

In 2018, Maritime UK established a Women in Maritime Taskforce to identify practical steps to increase the number of women working in the maritime sector, specifically in senior roles. It also addresses the knock on effect on shoreside roles traditionally occupied by ex-seafarers, since fewer women in senior roles at sea results in fewer women in senior jobs ashore. 

Such a comprehensive review is long overdue but it's an important step on the road to change.

Nautilus ILO diversity3

Nautilus recently reported on the ILO's consensus that more needs to be done to recruit and retain women seafarers and other underrepresented groups. Image: Nautilus/ILO

Finding the Balance

Not all jobs at sea prevent you from going home at night and, with increasing diversity at home too, more men are willing and able to take on a greater share of the childcare. Seafarers also have a degree of flexibility in their work patterns, depending on the types of contract they take, allowing them to choose extended periods of time back home if they wish.

Which other career allows you to spend just 50% of your days working? Today's typical merchant seafarer spends an average of seven years at sea before returning home to a shoreside position, an arrangement that could work equally well for women.

Changes in employment regulations and work patterns are certainly giving women more choice. Add to this the increased automation that makes on board roles less physically demanding, and the reasoning behind the need for male dominance is less convincing than it once was.

Within the superyacht sector more women are taking officer positions but their numbers are still woefully low. A number of female officers also report that initially they were forced to take interior positions despite being experienced sailors holding a variety of certificates.

The merchant sector is no different, with blatant discrimination by certain nationalities who refuse to give female cadets positions on board and the opportunity to gain sea time. Recent interviews with female captains and officers from both the superyacht and merchant sectors reveal how similar their experiences are.

On Board Culture

The maritime industry is a tough environment, with some vessels adopting a culture of bullying. This is not directed exclusively at the women on board but more generally to lower-ranking officers and crew. It is worth noting that male seafarer suicide rates are the highest of all professions, implying that men can also struggle with the on board culture. Perhaps more women aboard would bring about a culture change that would also benefit their male colleagues.

Engineers holland yachting3

Engineering consultants at RH Marine. "Engineering is an interesting, challenging and rewarding job. So don't let stereotypes get in your way," says Ana-Maria, right. Image: HISWA

For women considering a career in the maritime sector, there was some sound advice from the experienced female captains and officers interviewed for this article.

“Ignore those who say it’s not possible – stay focussed on your own goal, there will always be negative people in this world, just ignore them!” (2nd Officer, Merchant)

Staying focused on your goal is a theme that resonates for women who have achieved against the odds throughout the corporate world. Take Dr Sandie Okoro, Senior Vice President and General Counsel at World Bank Group and a highly reputed lawyer. Okoro has experienced her fair share of negativity. When she began her career, she was told: “You’re black and female, you won’t really get far in the law and in the city”. It must have taken unbelievable resolve to battle that kind of prejudice but Okoro claims to have done nothing magical, she just stayed focussed on her own goals.

“Find yourself a mentor and, when you are able, offer yourself up as one to your juniors.” (Chief Officer, Superyacht)

In 2012 the Nautical Institute launched “Mentoring at Sea – The 10 Minute Challenge” to encourage crew to find 10 minutes a day, during a coffee break or before starting a watch, to share experience, support or listen to the concerns of a new or junior colleague. Much learning occurs on the job and it's important that knowledge passes from one generation to the next.

What’s more, for the women trailblazers in the maritime sector, finding a mentor who will understand their specific challenges is crucial. In the words of Madeleine Albright, “There is a special place in hell for women who don't help other women!" This sentiment is echoed by Barbara Judge, Chair of the Institute of Directors, who said, “Women that make it to the top must also help others follow in their footsteps, by acting as role models and mentors.”

“Every time I went on board a new vessel I would be tested by my male colleagues.” (Chief Officer, Merchant)

Girls 17

Heidi Hansenfus, Captain/Mate: Girls on Deck  

“You will need to prove yourself and be better than your male counterparts – that’s just how it is. But if you are in this career, why wouldn’t you want to be the best you can be? Be someone crew want to follow. Work hard, keep learning and, above all, maintain your integrity.” (Master, Superyacht)

Regardless of whether you are male or female, it can be hard at times to look yourself in the mirror and answer the question: “Would I like to be led by me?” Taking time out to reflect on your own performance and interactions throughout the day is an integral part of raising your own self-awareness and considering the impact you have on others. You can’t control what happens to you, but you can control how you react to it.

“Much emphasis is placed on the technical skills of the roles at sea, but there needs to be more focus on the 'soft skills', such as demonstrating empathy, being clear about your vision and being emotionally resilient.” (Chief Officer, Merchant)

Whether male or female, there is recognition both at sea and ashore that more training and development is required in supporting individuals as they move into management roles. Taking control of your own leadership development and making a commitment to be the best leader you can be, can only be a positive step forward.

A final note is to remember that there are always people who struggle with change and having more women on board is a change that will undoubtedly bring a negative response from some. However, to all the inspiring trailblazers out there, remember to channel your inner ‘Sandie Okoro’, stay focused on your goal and heed the words of Oprah Winfrey who said, “The great courageous act that we must all do, is to have the courage to step out of our history and past so that we can live our dreams.”

*Press release Gov.UK 29th October 2015 – Lord Davies: FTSE 350 boards should be 33% female by 2020

**Gender Diversity in the Boardroom: Reach for the Top – published by CIPD February 2015


Impact Crew supports crew in the maritime industry on board and ashore to develop leadership capability and unite individuals into cohesive high performing teams. 

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