Time to rewrite the rules of this maritime boys’ club (source: Tradewinds)

Shipping is proving slow to take onboard that diversity makes good business sense

May 24th, 2018 14:33 GMT

by Lucy Hine

Diversity and inclusion (D&I) is not a buzz phrase that is big in shipping. Not yet, anyway.

This issue of TW+ shines a light on the subject and focuses on the lack of women in senior positions in the industry.

D&I is clearly about so much more than just gender. Independent consultants highlight that while the male-female balance is often the most obvious and quantifiable metric, companies also need to be thinking about ethnicity, sexuality, disability and age when striving to achieve a truly diverse organisation.

Why should they bother? Aside from the simple compelling reason of equality, there is growing social and political pressure, and the benefits of good business practice.

Studies have shown that companies with a more diverse leadership tend be the ones that can attract the top talent, achieve a higher level of employee satisfaction and produce better returns.

Compared with other industries, shipping is coming from a low base.

Zeroing in on the gender issue alone, it is striking that there are almost no current figures for how many women are working in the industry.

What statistics there are reveal that women comprise 2% of the global maritime workforce — a figure that is mirrored in the proportion of women working at sea — and just 1% of these are in senior roles.

Such is the paucity of information on the issue that the Women’s International Trading & Shipping Association (Wista) is launching a project in partnership with an external consultant to get some numbers for the industry worldwide. “We don’t have the data,” Wista president Despina Panayiotou Theodosiou tells TW+.

The problem is deep-rooted.

A traditional career path in the industry has seen former seafarers, from the predominantly male workforce serving at sea, progress to onshore roles within companies.

Job specifications have requested seafaring experience, thereby largely excluding female candidates.

The family culture within shipowning has traditionally seen businesses handed down to offspring, precluding a search from a wider talent pool. Male heirs have tended to take preference, and while there are notable examples of daughters who are taking a lead — Maria Angelicoussis in Greece and Hong Kong’s Sabrina Chao, to name two — women who have made it into the family firm may not have inherited the top job.

Culturally, there have been barriers for women. One Asian senior director, who is almost the lone female voice at that level in her sector, explains that the patriarchal society in her country makes it less likely for young women entering the business to push forward for promotion.

A large gender pay gap may be another deterrent. A survey last year by maritime recruitment specialist Spinnaker Global’s HR Consulting arm revealed a 46.4% difference in the average hourly rate of pay between men and women in maritime. The data in part reflects that the bulk of the female workforce is not employed in the senior, top-paying jobs.

Shipbroking has to be singled out as a bastion of male dominance. One company chief of a major shop struggled to think of any senior females on his staff when asked, while a second said women tend not to stick around, as they generally left to have children.

“It’s a side of our business that is still a boys’ club,” one tanker shipowner admits.

At sea, the situation is similarly discouraging. The UN Conference on Trade & Development (UNCTAD)’s Review of Maritime Transport 2017 highlights the need to improve working and living conditions for women onboard vessels, and to tackle issues such as sexual harassment, bullying, gender-specific health issues, isolation and onboard accommodation.

Karen Parker, who is marketing manager and senior consultant at UK D&I consultancy Brook Graham, explains that in sectors like maritime where a homogeneous group tends to head organisations, that group will have a subconscious bias against employing anyone who is different, thus potentially missing out on fresh talent.

Source: ITF, Bimco and HR Consulting

Parker is clear that for change to happen, senior management needs to be onboard, to drive cultural and behavioural change.

Appointments must be based on merit, not simply to meet targets, but there is much companies can do to attract, mentor, nurture and retain female talent, and to make maritime more visible as a career choice.

There are positive signs.

D&I is starting to become a talking point within shipping, as the industry wakes up to what many areas of the wider business world have been wrestling with for 10-20 years.

Senior figures speak of a rise in the number of young women coming into the business, highlighting examples in China and Greece, and increasingly efforts are being made to ensure female voices are heard on conference platforms.

In the UK, the April deadline for companies employing more than 250 people to report their gender pay gap revealed data confirming the chasm between what men and women in some shipping companies earn.

When challenged on the figures, a few companies said they would be taking action.

Shipbroker Clarksons, where women make up 27% of the workforce, said: “As a leader in our industry, we intend to take further action to help address the gender imbalance throughout our organisation.”

UNCTAD’s figures, albeit a few years old, show an increase in female cadets, with the implication that these numbers could eventually filter through to officer ranks.

At Wista, where membership is at an all-time high and a diversity committee has been set up, Theodosiou describes the increasing focus on technology and digitalisation in shipping as a “good opportunity for women”, many of whom are already working in or starting up companies in these sectors.

“We think diversity is key in providing a sustainable future for the shipping industry,” she says.