Empowering women as leaders to secure a sustainable maritime industry

Today, all oceans related activities, in particular the maritime industries, both seagoing and shore-based, are facing many challenges. These include the need to respond to climate change and other environmental issues, economic, security and conflict related crises, as well as the problem of shortages in personnel to work on ships. There is also a call to move rapidly to address the impact of the technology on ships and shipping – sometimes called the 4th industrial revolution. To successfully meet all these needs there is a pressing demand for skilled workers and competent innovative leaders in all areas of marine activity. We are in an era of immense change and any institution or company that does not invite diversity and support the potential contribution and leadership of qualified women will be left behind.

June 25 2019

Although the number of women graduating from universities and other educational and training institutions with oceans and maritime programmes has increased rapidly in the last few decades, their engagement, retention and promotion to leadership in all areas of ocean activities – and particularly the shipping related maritime sector – has lagged. This is the case not only at the seagoing-seafarer level, but also in the numerous connected activities in ports and logistics, as well as legal and other services.  While explanations for this slow progress – the “gender gap” – vary depending on the specific area of activity, the key point is that the failure of the maritime industry to attract, employ and retain women as employees and also promote and support women in leadership roles represents a significant lost opportunity.

The importance of making changes to embrace and support diversity was emphasized by Kitack Lim, the Secretary General of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in a statement about the theme for World Maritime Day 2019 “Empowering Women in the Maritime Community”: “Empowering women isn’t just an idea or a concept.  It is a necessity that requires  strong, positive action to address deep-seated structural, institutional and cultural barriers.” More recently at Nor-Shipping 2019, with its focus on technology, innovation and leadership, the Secretary-General highlighted that “a diverse industry is a sustainable industry.”

The need for greater diversity – and specifically ensuring equality for women, to help achieve global socio-economic and environmental sustainability – has been the subject of many statements and programmes at the international level. It is one of the UN Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 (SDG 5 – Gender Equality). One of the key measures or indicators for progress on achieving this goal is the “Proportion of women in managerial positions.”

Despite many efforts, a wide gender gap persists in the maritime industry

In the maritime sector, there has been over 30 years of action taken at the international level.  For example, in 1983 the IMO established the World Maritime University (WMU) to help build global capacity in the maritime sector. In 1988, the IMO established a women in maritime gender and capacity-building programme [1], at a time when very few maritime training institutions admitted women.

Even before these and other institutional responses – in 1974 – women leaders involved in shipping and trade formed a support network, now known as the Women’s International Shipping & Trading Association (WISTA) [2]. Today WISTA has national associations in over 40 countries with over 3000 members.

However, there is a lack of data regarding how many women, other than those working or seeking work as seafarers – where it is estimated that only 2% are women – are working in the maritime sector. In part, this is because of the diversity of occupations involved, including port management, financing, logistics, insurance, maritime lawyers, maritime administrations, regulators.  In fact, the need for up to date information on the numbers and position of women in the oceans and maritime fields across all sectors was a priority recommendation of the recent 3rd international conference hosted by WMU on “Empowering Women in the Maritime Community”.

Nevertheless, the many women maritime leaders who spoke at the Conference provide testimony and excellent examples of the change that is taking place today.

Why is leadership and participation of women good for business?

There is ample evidence that investing in women is the most effective way to lift communities, companies, and even countries. Countries with more gender equality have better economic growth. Companies with more women leaders perform better … [3]

In the industry there is an increasing awareness of the importance of the impact of women as leaders. For example  Lloyd’s list of the Top 10 Women in Shipping in 2018 commented that “ From finance and insurance to politics, dry bulk and oil, women are increasingly making their mark in an historically male-dominated shipping industry. We look at the impressive outcomes achieved by just 10 of these powerful women.”

As mentioned above the maritime industry has been facing many challenges including the impact of technological change as never experienced before with what is referred to as Maritime Industry 4.0.  Increasing gender diversity means an exposure to a variety of new ideas and inspiration by persons of different backgrounds. Conventional approaches are no longer effective. It requires “transformational leadership” where a leader encourages and inspires his/her teams to come together and to problem solve or come up with solutions to move forward.

As recently noted by the Secretary- General of the IMO, “Gender balance is not a women’s issue, it is a business issue. Studies have repeatedly shown that organizations that have a critical mass of women in leadership perform better and are more profitable.”  Research also suggests that women leaders are more conscious about a healthy working environment for all and zero tolerance for harassment at work. The latest research shows that women’s leadership generally positively affects a firm’s performance, in particular sales performance [4].

WMU’s capacity building to educate more female leaders

Explanations for the relatively slow progress on this issue in the maritime sector vary. Certainly, access to education, training and capacity-building as well identifying and eliminating the physical and social barriers that prevent women from participating are pre-requisites for progress.

WMU has proven that it is possible to make change to promote women in the maritime industry in a relatively short period of time. Until the late 1990s, female students made up less than 5 per cent of the WMU Malmö campus intake. In 2018, the proportion of female students rose to a third of the annual intake in the Malmö campus, and 50 per cent in our MSc programme in International Transport and Logistics (ITL) in the Shanghai campus. Since the establishment of WMU in 1983, out of the total of 4,919 graduates, 1,029 have been women (approx. 20 per cent).

Diversity in the workplace and gender diversity in leaders, are important for the future maritime and ocean communities. Both men and women are responsible for our future, our oceans, and our children. With a global maritime network of nearly 5,000 alumni from 168 countries, WMU will continue to promote gender equality by educating future maritime and ocean leaders in support of the UN SDGs, in particular Goal 5 (gender equality) in maritime and ocean sectors.


[1] Since 2004 it also supported the establishment of seven regional Women in Maritime Associations (WIMAs) as well as providing support for training etc.
[2] WISTA is an international networking organization whose mission is to attract and support women, at the management level, in the maritime, trading and logistics sectors.
[3] IMO, supra, note 3, referencing a 2007 study, The Bottom Line: Corporate Performance and Women’s Representation on Boards
[4] Hoobler, J. M. et al. (2016). The Business Case for Women Leaders:  Meta-Analysis, Research Critique, and Path Forward. Journal of Management, 44(6): 2473-2499.

The views expressed in this Insight are those of the author alone and not necessarily those of the Global Maritime Forum. Excerpts may be published with reference to the Global Maritime Forum.

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