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WISTA ‘sistas’ aim to level maritime playing field

Women from around the world come together to push for gender equality in the industry.

Yasmin Mohd Hasni, left, and Veronica Maina were part of a panel addressing gender bias at the WISTA conference. (Photo: WISTA)

Organizations dedicated to women in maritime from around the world are vowing to join forces to eradicate gender bias in the industry.

Although the women came together last week for the annual meeting and conference of the Women’s International Shipping & Trading Association (WISTA), panels on gender diversity and bias included representatives from such groups as the Women in the Maritime Sector in Eastern and Southern Africa (WOMESA), Women in Maritime Association Asia (WIMA Asia) and Women in Maritime Association Caribbean (WiMAC).

WISTA International President Despina Panayiotou Theodosiou said collaboration with other associations dedicated to advancing women in maritime is crucial to benefit all females in the industry.

“We need to work diligently and hard to make a difference. Awareness of diversity- and gender-related issues has never been higher. There is a lot to be done to create lasting and meaningful change,” Theodosiou said at the Oct. 31 opening session of the WISTA International conference in the Cayman Islands.

“Prejudice and discrimination keep the doors of opportunity closed,” said Theodosiou, CEO of Tototheo Maritime Ltd., headquartered in Cyprus. “We the WISTA members have an opportunity to inspire everyone — and I mean everyone — to be an agent of change.”

Finding WISTA ‘mistas’

Later, in a session on how the different organizations can work together, Theodosiou addressed “second-generation gender bias.”

“Many of the biases we have seen in the past and that were so blatantly obvious are now illegal. We are left, however, with bias preventing us from reaching a true level playing field in our industry and society as well,” she said.

Helen Bruni, left, says the IMO secretary-general is a “WISTA mista” as Despina Panayiotou Theodosiou and Nicole Martin look on. (Photo: WISTA)

Panelist Helen Bruni, principal program assistant for resource mobilization and partnerships in the Office of the Director of the Technical Cooperation Division of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), said, “Still, in 2019, we’re having the same conversation. Whether conscious or unconscious,” gender bias remains.

But the IMO is making strides, Bruni said, calling Secretary-General Kitack Lim a “WISTA ‘mista’” and pointing out more women are leading committees and subcommittees, the numbers of females are growing throughout the organization, and its women’s network is making an impact with the use of role models encouraging young girls to pursue maritime careers.

“The role models … have generated a huge amount of interest on social media because girls, traditionally, don’t do that. As we’ve seen today, girls do. It’s changing a mindset,” Bruni said.

Strength in numbers

Growing the number of women in maritime also is important to Dwynette Eversley, president of WiMAC, whose organization encompasses 19 Caribbean countries and territories.

“We are working on growing membership and growing new chapters. Strength lies in numbers. Strength also lies in strength,” Eversley said.

Despina Panayiotou Theodosiou is the president of WISTA International. (Photo: WISTA)

“WiMAC’s focus really is on gender mainstreaming and … speaking the language of gender equality,” she said, adding that she was pleased that the Maritime Transport Ministers of the Caribbean Islands had agreed “to factor in gender mainstreaming and gender-responsive programs for all national and regional maritime transport policies. … But there is still a great level of effort to see that is actually done.”

Veronica Maina, head of the WOMESA Secretariat, said that group’s “mission is to advocate for gender equality and improve women’s access to the maritime trade and to … promote their advancement to key positions in the maritime sector. We have so far managed to launch over 10 chapters. We are looking forward to launching two more chapters,” in Zambia and Uganda.

Yasmin Mohd Hasni, vice president of WIMA Asia, said her organization is “very far behind.”

“We have 26 individual countries across Asia. We started in 2010 … but only managed to have a governing body in 2017,” Hasni said. “This is due to lack of funding.”

Hasni, who also is president of Women in Maritime Malaysia, called for a platform enabling collaboration. “We need to build a strong network between ourselves across the organizations,” she said. “We are helping out our sisters.”

Maina agreed. “We can create e-platforms where we can reach women … [and] build portals and platforms which allow reporting of what women are going through.”

Eversley said, “I am very sad I’m not intimately aware of what is happening with WIMA in Asia or in Africa. That platform needs to be created, and we need a repository of results and issues with women in the sector.”

She called the meeting of organizations at the WISTA conference a “wonderful opportunity.”

“Let’s not have a gender discussion as a periphery of a conference. Let’s have a whole, dedicated conference … to discuss what are the issues in maritime and shipping that we want to work on,” Eversley said. “We don’t want anecdotal issues, we want research, we want the data. How can we get that?”

Theodosiou agreed. “As well-respected organizations within this industry, we have the responsibility to ensure that we have a positive common set of outcomes,” she said. “I agree we need to have research. … We need the numbers. Without knowing where we stand, it’s very difficult.”

Agents of change

Helping give those women visibility also is vital, according to Bruni, who said IMO is bolstering its speakers bureau with “female speakers so that we are promoting diversity and inclusion. … I’m so bored of seeing these ‘manels’ time and time again of just male speakers.”

During an all-female panel session on empowering women in the maritime community, Jennifer Nugent-Hill, director of governmental and community affairs for Tropical Shipping USA, said gender equity makes “good business sense.”

But Jodi Munn Barrow, secretary general of the Caribbean Memorandum of Understanding (CMOU) on Port State Control for Jamaica, said there’s still a long way to go.

There are nine global MOUs on port state control but only two female secretaries general, Barrow said.

“We have not felt that our voices have been heard at IMO meetings,” she said. “When we go to the IMO and we speak in work groups, our interventions aren’t necessarily taken onboard unless they’re repeated by a man. … We will say something, it’s ignored, and then a male from a member state will say the exact thing and all of a sudden it’s good.”

She wants to get rid of “maritime cliques.”

“Within the Caribbean, I don’t think there are any female marine pilots,” Barrow said. “I’ve seen cases where we’ve had overly qualified women apply for the marine pilot role, and they don’t even get an interview because the men don’t want female marine pilots within the Caribbean, it seems.”

But Barrow said women aren’t always welcoming of other females either.

She conducted a survey of women in government in Jamaica in 2018 and found that among senior staff members, three-fourths said a male, rather than a female, assisted them.

“We need to look at ourselves, ladies. When we are in those senior positions, how often do we assist the females that are below us?” Barrow asked. “I had one female in my career who helped me in my development — one.”

Joanne Edwards, general manager of the Shipping Association of Trinidad & Tobago, said to applause, “We often assume that all women hold to the value of gender diversity. … Some women don’t bring other women along with them.”

She urged women in attendance to “be the change that we wish to see. This is something I live. … We hold power. Sometimes we subdue those powers to be accepted. Step into the power.”

Edwards said she recruits men as allies “because I’m in a male-dominated industry and more often than not the only female in the room, and I don’t act like a man and I don’t think like a man.  … Sometimes you have to look at the path of least resistance without compromising, of course, your results.”

Nugent-Hill said she too has turned opponents into allies.

“Our biggest adversaries can become our greatest gurus, and oftentimes if we’re truly open to growth, I have found that men who are strong and sure about who they are and women who understand fully who we are … become agents of change,” she said.

Kim Link Wills

Senior Editor Kim Link-Wills has written about everything from agriculture as a reporter for Illinois Agri-News to zoology as editor of the Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine. Her work has garnered awards from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, the Georgia Institute of Technology and the Magazine Association of the Southeast. Prior to serving as managing editor of American Shipper, Kim spent more than four years with XPO Logistics.