What is it really like for women working in the maritime sector?

In celebration of International Women’s Day, we spoke to four professionals about what it’s really like to be a female working in the maritime industry, and their stories may surprise you...
What is it really like for women working in the maritime sector?

It is International Women’s Day on the 8th of March, a day when people the world over celebrate the accomplishments of all females and call for greater equality between the sexes, particularly in the workplace.

Whether you work in the shipping industry or not, it’s generally accepted that the maritime industry has traditionally been an incredibly male-dominated industry. But the sector does wants to change. The IMO has been working for over 25 years to promote change for the better for women working in shipping. The organisation's programme for the integration of women in the maritime sector encourages member states to open their doors to allow women to train alongside men to ensure that its goals are in line with those outlined under the United Nations Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 3 "Promote gender equality and empower women", under the slogan: Training- Visibility - Recognition.

And there is little debate on the fact that women are needed in the maritime sector for it to flourish.

Last year, the World Maritime University hosted the Maritime Women: Global Leadership International Conference to promote discussion of women in the industry. In his welcoming remarks, WMU President Dr. Björn Kjerfve, put the message across well, saying:

"An industry that carries 90% of the world’s goods needs at least 90% of the world’s talent…and gender is irrelevant.”

Associations such as WISTA go a long way in encouraging women into the industry, but there is still work to be done. Sexism certainly isn’t confined to the past in any industry. Just two years ago, The Caribbean Maritime Institute revealed it was turning women away from one of its training schools because shipping companies were requesting men. So while the mind-set may be fading away, it has not completely disappeared. Sometimes it still lurks in the shadows.

We spoke to four individuals, each with their own successful maritime career, to get an idea of what it’s like to be female and working in this exciting industry. The stories they tell are surprising, inspiring and sometimes even shocking...

Jennifer Schelmeier, Purchasing Manager at United Seven GmBH, Germany

“Women entering the shipping industry must expect to struggle.”

In 2002 I began working in the purchasing department of EO Lubeck, as part of a career change.

The first weeks and months it was very difficult to understand the work on board and the priorities. Superintendents were all “old” seamen, meaning they sometimes had a tough tone. But all my colleagues invested time to explain what could happen on a vessel if they do not receive equipment or supplies. It was also fun for the crew to see a female purchaser in the engine room, wearing a boiler suit and safety shoes!

In the beginning there were a few suppliers from some countries that were surprised they had to talk with a woman regarding prices, quality and contracts, but this has already begun to change.

Once I asked a Korean supplier for a meeting with his purchasing manager on his stand at SMM Hamburg and as I came to this gentleman he would not allow me to enter the stand. I showed him my business card but he refused as he expected a man and not a woman. I actually had to inform our director about this and he called the gentleman to demand that he spoke to me otherwise his company would not be getting any business from us. All these experiences made me tougher and stronger.

As a woman you must be much better than a man, especially if you’re aged between late twenties and early thirties. Some bosses are still considering why they should give a team leader job to a more qualified woman (who could become pregnant) instead of a man. But of course you will also have some bosses who say they prefer to give the jobs to women because they work in more clear, organised and structured ways. Plus, multi-tasking!

For women working in the maritime industry, and marine procurement, it is a hard and tough business because most business partners are male. As a woman you also have the chance to be charming and (sometimes) it works if you have to claim a delivery or ask for a special discount. If you have to discuss prices and contracts you must be very well prepared and must have more and better arguments to win.

Women entering the shipping industry must expect to struggle. They must demonstrate a great commitment, especially during their first years. A woman has to learn to become strong, and have no fear for discussing and asking questions.

Susan W. Koefoed, Procurement Manager at Dannebrog Rederi, Denmark

“The maritime sector can be challenging and demanding but I never once felt I was entering into a man’s world”

In 1975, I applied for a training position as a chartering broker, and although there were only a handful of women trainees, I was never treated any differently from my male counterparts, at least not in Denmark and the areas where we operated.

Working as a chartering broker and an agent in the port of Copenhagen presented no real problems for me. Everyone I came into contact with was very helpful and I did not feel there was any other attitude towards me than towards my male colleague. Occasionally the seafarers had an attitude, but I believe this was more because of my age rather than that it was a woman clerk coming on board.

It was not until I came to live and work in London that I experienced some clear apprehension towards the fact that I was a female project-chartering broker. I sometimes felt it was quite strenuous to fend for what I believed was correct. Also the amount of times I was mistaken for someone’s secretary got to be hilarious in the end.

It was quite challenging at times but eventually I just got to be one of the crowd. I worked for three different companies while in London and the last one I worked for was the very least conservative and very proactive. I really felt at home there and everyone worked as a team had a deep respect for each other.

In my current role as a purchase and logistics manager for Dannebrog Rederi, I work in a fairly male dominated office environment. We are presently 22 women and 42 men. However this does not affect my day-to-day life and it is nice at Christmas parties because you always have a partner to dance with! It’s not necessarily more difficult for women but in certain areas of the world, it can be an uphill struggle. However, it is a question of perseverance and patience.

I try and tell every young person, be it male or female, about the fantastic business shipping is and over the last few years I feel there has been a definite evolution in the representation of women. There are organisations that provide a platform for women to exchange knowledge and work experience. They help bring together like-minded individuals and facilitate mentoring.

The most important advice I can give to women entering the shipping industry is to be yourself. Do not pretend to be something you are not or someone you are not. Recognise your limitations but extend them by gaining experience. The industry is versatile, get as much knowledge of all areas and choose the one you are most confident with.

The maritime sector can be challenging and demanding but I can honestly say, I never once felt I was entering into a man’s world I just took the challenges as I would any other world. By choosing shipping as a career you are given not only a career but also an adventure for life. 

Stephanie Whitehead, Maritime Client Manager at KVH Media Group, Liverpool, UK

"Being a woman has helped shape my career as I’ve continually had to step-up and prove I’m capable."

My first role in the maritime industry was in the leisure sector, which came about after volunteering my time at a floating sailing and diving school.

Although there are a lot more women in the leisure industry than in the commercial sector, it was still a predominately male industry and involved a lot of work ‘getting your hands dirty’.

The attitude towards women was the usual attitude you would expect in the leisure industry; you’re expected to be domesticated, organised and a good host. Even though I possess these qualities, I refused to conform to the typical stereotype and continually challenged my right to perform other duties. At first this was met with some reservation, mainly due to the fact that my colleagues were gentlemen and would struggle with allowing me to handle what would be perceived as a ‘male task’.

However, upon learning that it made me happy, they embraced the idea and gave me helpful advice and guidance. Many of the men I worked with also loved cooking and cleaning and we had a real feel of equality and a family atmosphere in the workplace. The attitudes have improved even more over the last 10 years and I see many more women in the leisure industry, instructing and managing.

I have always been supported and encouraged by my colleagues. Although in my early career I remember feeling a certain pressure to be in the galley a lot and took on this role by default many times. It is important to stand up and be counted if you want to push your own boundaries. This goes for any work place or gender but is especially important in the maritime industry.

My current role as a supplier of licensed content to the maritime industry (commercial and leisure) often involves networking and meeting with ship managers (over 95% male). Most women would expect to be met with reservations about their ability but I find that having the right attitude and being confident in what I know, I can speak to anyone in the industry. Being a woman has helped shape my career as I’ve continually had to step-up and prove I’m capable. It has made me more confident and has led to better opportunities. I can work with males or females and love the challenge of changing the perception of what women are capable of to both men and women.

As a woman I would never ask to be treated as ‘equal’, I want to be fairly represented as myself, and do what I can, because I can. I don’t profess to be able to do all the things that a man can do because I can’t – it isn’t as simple as that. We all possess different qualities and it’s up to forward-thinking companies and teams to recognise that and use the best tools for the particular job at hand.

Most women in the industry get to where they want to be because of their own attitude and through changing the minds of, and ignoring old-fashioned viewpoints on gender roles. If a woman can truly perform a role, she will and can do a fine job but it is important that those around her are willing to accept it.

For me being a woman in a male-dominated industry means you stand out, it’s then up to you to make sure you stand out for good reasons.

Lena Göthberg, founder of maritime company, GIGS by Lena G, Sweden

"Women my age have a responsibility to be the role models we never had."

I stumbled into the maritime industry back in 1990 after being recruited by someone I knew to help build a brand new marine insurance broking house in Gothenburg, Sweden.

I was 30-years-old when I entered this new world of shipping. It was exciting, fast and capital intensive. I also found myself in a very male-dominated industry, working in a foreign language and without the knowledge of the special shipping lingo, which I needed to learn in order to be respected. In addition to being female I did not have a background in sailing. But to my advantage I knew about football!

Every Monday morning I called London to speak to some Lloyds’ brokers. If I knew their favourite soccer team and how they had played during the weekend, I was home safe. I actually think I built a career out of being a blonde, Swedish woman who was genuinely interested in football.

After 10 very successful years as a marine insurance broker, I finally felt that glass ceiling. There were only 11 people in the office and there were four men older than me that were sort of blocking my way. So I decided to make myself available for a new one and ended up as an Area Manager for Coen Marine Sweden. Then five years ago I started my own company GIGS by Lena G. My first client was the Institute of Shipping Analysis, and I became secretary-general.

I’ve had my share of negative experiences over the years. For instance, when we had a meeting and an insurance company invited all participants to lunch at a men’s club and I was not allowed in. I enjoyed the moment when they all came back to continue the meeting. Or when I first attended a business meeting in Singapore in 1993 and I was not allowed to sit in a chair around the table, so had to sit behind my male colleagues, only to find myself to be the “guest of honour” for lunch and seated next to the CFO.

I gained the trust of a Malaysian client because I was a woman and someone they could put, what they considered, “stupid” questions to without losing face. That was my upper hand on my male colleagues and built up their respect for me, as because of this I was able to bring in lots of revenue to the company. 

In hindsight, I would say that when I was 30 I was new to the business and immature, which was a challenge for men. They tried to make me make mistakes for them to explore. The older men tried to attract me and were only challenged more when turn down. This was even CEOs for listed companies. One even threatened to take away all business from our company if I didn’t accommodate his request for a relationship.

Today I am respected for my knowledge and for my extended network in the international shipping community. I now enjoy working in a male-dominated environment. I think it comes with age and experience, I see the person not the gender of the person I work with.

If I was a young woman working in shipping today, I would try to find out who the real decision makers are, they might not be the ones who meet the eye. I would also try and find a mentor. I think women my age have a responsibility to be the role models we never had, to show the younger generation that there is a place, and a need for women in shipping. 

Are you a woman working in maritime? What's your experience of the industry? Tell us in the comments below or tweet us using the #maritimewomen hashtag and we'll retweet your story.


by Laura Stackhouse

readmt.com Editor

Laura Stackhouse is the Web Editor of readmt.com, an official publication of the International Marine Purchasing Association (IMPA). To discuss news, features or contributing to readmt.com please get in touch.

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