Women in Yachting
At the moment the media is buzzing with cases of sexual harassment and misogyny. Yachting has long been known as being a little “old school” in its approach towards gender equality, with a woman’s role being traditionally viewed as being interior based, and where women on deck or in the engine room is still viewed as an exception to the norm. Retaining women in the yachting industry is a problem which cannot be denied; stewardesses are perceived to have a shelf life, this job is not a long term career for the majority as progress is limited, and many women feel the interior crew are not taken as seriously in their roles compared to, say, deck officers.
When it comes to onboard training, the priority will still often lean towards the deck and engine departments, as pointed out by a Chief Stew Chloe, “I’ve asked a captain if he could assist with any interior courses - time wise or contribute pay wise. We had very high profile clients coming back on charter year after year and after a trip to the chèvre d’or it made no sense as to why the interior didn’t have more training - you expect it in a Michelin restaurant so why not a yacht? He said to me ‘well it’s not health and it’s not safety, so no’ I didn’t feel valued as an interior member after that and it helped make my decision to move on and undertake my courses.” Without the girls on the interior to provide high end service and make the guests feel at home and looked after, that yacht’s operation would quite simply fail. It’s sad that such an integral part of the yacht’s operation is still being overlooked.
Weight and appearance of female crew seem to be fair game when it comes to onboard discussions, with one chief stew saying “You still hear captains asking ‘how hot is she’ when recruiting/looking for a day worker despite her skills”. How exactly does perceived hotness equate to how well a person can scrub the heads? Are we still in the 1950s? One would hope not.
Then of course there’s the discussion about having a family. Where some female crew feel angered that the industry does not offer maternity pay or any chances of future employment when they decide to have children, others will argue the fact that the high salaries and potentially tax free earnings gained over one’s career should allow people to put money aside for long term plans such as maternity time, or even a pension. In a land based role, a woman would have to hold a permanent contract and may only be eligible for maternity pay after a certain amount of time has been served. Realistically, how many crew stay on a yacht for longer than a year or two maximum? Should a yacht owner be forced to pay 6 months maternity for a crew member who has worked for him for a few months? And then of course, could she return to working onboard? Well, no.
It’s accepted by most that once you have a child that will be the end of your onboard yachting career, at least with regards to long term roles.
So outside of the interior, for those who decide to pursue a long term career in yachting, it makes sense to go down the deck or engineering route where a person can continue their professional development via courses and qualifications, and onboard mentorship or training, and their age will not stand against them. Although a woman doing “a man’s job” will always present challenges and difficulties from those who believe in stereotypes, there are plenty of strong women out there in the yachting industry who refused to tow the line and do what they wanted, and there have been lots of great men who have supported them in achieving their goals (in case you thought this was going to be a man bashing piece, it’s not).
Chief officer Jenny said, “If you lined up 5 men and 5 women- all qualified and experienced equally, and asked them to captain a vessel - what would happen?
They would each perform the task in their own unique way using their own unique skill set and strengths regardless of their gender. Every person has their own interpretation, reactions, past experiences etc - Gender is about as much of a performance indicator as hair colour in my eyes.” And she has a point! Why should gender matter, if the job is done well? And why do men feel threatened by a woman who can do the same job? Perhaps that’s an indication of his insecurity in his own ability. She added, “Our gender has nothing to do with our jobs or our ability to do it, and if we truly believe it and want others to believe it too, we must be the change we want to see.”
Captain Heidi said, “Over the past 22 years, never did the term female mate or female captain get used or played,” confirming Jenny’s feelings that it’s about being able to do the job, and do it well. Something else Heidi picked up on was learning about ourselves, and making sure we develop our own individual skills. “I did have my moments in the early days of being a mate directing deckhands, when I thought some negative reactions received were due to gender (or nationality) issues but later realized I was lacking leadership skills. Once that A-ha moment came, my life and colleague relationships aboard got easier and easier. I’ve also noticed that to maintain good relationships with all, I have to be sure to participate in the occasional spa or pamper days (painful to me!) as well as the go-cart and paintball days (way more fun) when extra-curricular activities take a perceived gender bias.”
Karolina, a Polish OOW joined yachting after working in the commercial industry on tankers and bulk carriers where women were very much in the minority, and she felt she wasn’t taken seriously. Moving to yachting has been a great move for her, she said “It’s the first time in my life I have received respect and people have faith in my abilities.” A female colleague told her she’s proud to see a woman in an officer’s role and it’s given her the faith to keep working hard, “it’s worth it to be patient and work on making your dreams come true. Never doubt yourself.”
Leah, a sailing mate, said “While I have indeed faced a lot of denial and criticism for working on deck, I never could help myself. I love what I do and have always held fast that if someone doesn't think I can do it or doesn't want to give me the same opportunity as my male counterparts, then I wouldn't enjoy working for them anyway.” At the start of her career she had a temp opportunity on a beautiful classic vessel, and found her mentor; the current Captain. He helped her learn about the ups and downs of the industry and after keeping in touch for a time, she was hired to be his first mate. Leah found his input invaluable. “I always try to work smarter not harder. I wake up every morning excited for the new challenges of working on a boat, and the paycheck at the end of the month is a happy bonus. My focus was always fueled by the naysayers. I have worked hard to get to where I am, but I guess I've also been luckier than some in that I had people who noticed potential in me and nudged me forward.” It’s important to find people around you who will support you and help you achieve your goals.
Abby, a skipper at the tender age of 26, overcame serious injury (from a yachting accident) which could have ended her career. Despite being left high and dry by the yacht, she undertook a year of surgeries and physio to ensure she kept her dreams alive. Finding her abilities to be doubted by sailing captains, she took a job on a motoryacht for a season whilst reassessing. This turned out to be a brilliant move – that captain was great to work with, and gave her a glowing reference which set her up to head back into sailing as mate on an oyster 885. Her new captain was an excellent mentor and helped Abby learn more about engineering and boat handling, and pushed her in the right direction. She’s a strong believer in never burning your bridges, and has enjoyed having some great mentors in her career. As a result she’s currently skippering a beautiful 60ft yacht and says “Here I am today, over a year after accepting the job, as happy in my job as I was the day I accepted the job! I now have a years solid experience as skipper, a very good owners reference, and genuine happiness in my job!” When asked if she had some advice for new crew, Abby said, “It’s not been a smooth ride, and anyone that tells you this industry is easy is definitely lying. But every lump, bump and hurdle has made me a better, stronger and more knowledgeable person. My advice to anyone, no matter whether you are a guy or a girl, want to be a steward or an engineer, is to persevere. Be your absolute best at all times, learn from everyone you follow, your mistakes and theirs, ask questions rather than guessing, on my boat, there is no such thing as a stupid question. It may not come to you when you wanted it to (I wanted to be a captain at 25, and have crossed the atlantic 10 times, turns out I was captain at 26 and have crossed the atlantic 8 times), but it will happen if you really want it!”
Captain/Engineer Zehra said it quite simply, “Girls just need to focus on success at their job other than negativity or sexism, you just need to show how smart, intelligent and strong you are beside your beauty... then everyone will listen to you, look at you in the room... and respect you the most. It is simple.”
So to sum up, as Jenny puts it, “Being a woman in this industry is an amazing experience that has forced me to grow, realise my own power and build amazing relationships with men and women equally. As women we have so many beautiful men out there who support and love us and they far outweigh the ones that don’t. I love being part of this journey and just hope that when the time comes to hang up my uniform I can be happy that I was part of a movement and did some good things with some good people.”
In conclusion – let’s all support each other and help each other achieve our goals whatever they might be!