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Women in Yachting - Revisited!

Onboard 2020

Since the last article, the OOW we spoke to, Jenny Matthews, has launched a pretty amazing platform alongside Chief Mate 3000gt Natasha Ambrose called She of the Seas. Their aim is pretty straightforward, “to connect and empower women working in yachting and those who support them. Cultivate equality, realise potential and celebrate diversity.” And since launching in 2018, She of the Sea has not just gained momentum, it’s seen an avalanche of support from all facets of the yachting industry.  You only need to visit the Ambassadors page of their website to get a feel for the type of backing they’re receiving from strong women, men, and organisations. These Ambassadors are using their own platforms to “champion change in their own environments and within their industries”, many are well known industry figures and are proud to put their names to the cause. In addition to the Ambassadors, SOTS is seeking support of companies and individuals to sign their Yachting Diversity and Inclusion Pledge. At SOTS, they are “committed to building practices and cultures that actively facilitate, cultivate and celebrate diversity and inclusion, at all levels, throughout our organisation and our industry”.  But it doesn’t stop there, they’re not just looking for people to talk the talk, they’re keen to make us all walk the walk, capturing data,  promoting the pledge, and committing to fair recruitment and hiring practices. It’s been refreshing to watch people actively commit to make the industry more inclusive and diverse, SOTS is bringing like minded individuals together with a common goal.

Pre-covid, SOTS were out attending conferences to deliver their message. Most recently, Jenny spoke in front of 200 senior executives at the Superyacht Investor Conference in Feb 2020, one of the leading events for connecting and informing. This was even picked up by the Guardian newspaper. Even during the pandemic SOTS hasn’t taken a day off from fighting for the cause, using social media platforms such as Instagram TV to hold Q&As. This organisation is going from strength to strength and it’s going to be very interesting to see where the next few years takes them.

Another platform gaining momentum, is the Facebook page: Girls on Deck: Connecting Female Deck & Engineering Superyacht Crew. Created in 2016 by Sophie Jordan, the page is now nearly 5000 members strong. It’s a great place for crew to ask questions and also for agents and captains to find the right crew to join them.

Speaking of which, we spoke to a couple of captains who’ve hired females on deck or in the ER to get their thoughts on diversity in the industry.

Captain Ron* told us, “We have actively recruited women for the second officer position the last two times it has come up. we do this because I find it brings a really nice balance to the bridge team.  The ratio of CV's received was around 20 guys to every woman (we advertise without specifying gender). The first time we recruited we only received three female CVs, we ended up interviewing two guys and a woman. All three were very capable but we went with the female as she stood out.”

We asked him what we can do to attract more women into the industry, “I'm not sure what I think about actively encouraging more of either gender to a specific role. For me it’s more about looking after and encouraging those who have already decided their career path. I still see and hear of horribly sexist behaviour, we have to do better with this. Sadly in an industry where client demands are placed above all else, its often ignored.”  

Captain Helen* told us, “When I have hired female deck crew it’s generally been because I've had prior knowledge of the candidate and I've seen her working well on other vessels. Regardless of sex, knowing that a candidate has proven history on skills/work ethic etc is a huge plus when hiring. Cabins can be a hindrance for sure (MLC didn’t do girls any favours there).  It’s always going to be a certain type of girl who will progress into these areas of yachting… but even for them it takes courage to overcome the male image that the business projects. I think the key is to find those young dinghy sailors, team sports players, outdoors enthusiasts etc and convince them that it is possible to be successful in the business… probably while they are in their teens!  Similarly for engineering, school age girls showing aptitude/interest in practical science need to find out about the industry and the opportunities it offers. The marine industry as a whole not just yachting, needs to sell itself more to girls in schools, sailing clubs, summer camps etc Something for Nautilus/PYA to get into perhaps.”

Captain James Thom married his mate! He’s hired many women in traditionally male roles over the years, his view is “if someone’s got the competence, experience and attitude I’ll hire them for the job, male or female. I’ve worked with a number of women stronger than me (not hard!) but we always said it’s not about strength- if it’s too heavy, get someone to lift it with you or use a halyard. Generalising, some men can often be too testosterone led in their thinking and their interactions with other crew- wasting time and energy arguing about ‘their’ way of doing something, or rushing into tackling a job without scoping it fully first, trying to get something done with brute strength- and breaking it. Women tend to think things through first, less likely to bust stuff, are more aware of the importance of keeping a good crew dynamic. All the female deck crew I’ve worked with I would employ again- all showed high competence, professionalism and conscientiousness.”

Good to hear increasing numbers of captains are looking at the experience and qualifications of the candidates over their sex, and in some cases, actively seeking to increase the diversity in the crew in order to achieve a better dynamic. But what about the girls on the front line, looking for work and experiencing this from the other side?

We spoke to several women working on deck and a few in the ER (honestly they’re harder to find!). Sadly all of them relayed the same story – when they started out most agents and people they encountered told them “be a stew”. And then throughout their careers, all of them have dealt with gender discrimination, and as mate Angie* put it, “chronic mansplaining.” It seems as a woman, you will be questioned, your knowledge will be doubted, and your abilities will be mistrusted until you prove yourself. In my experience, that was something that happened over, and over, and over.

So what can we do to keep improving diversity in yachting? Angie feels crew agents need to take more responsibility and “take green female deck crew more seriously! For greenies, crew agencies are usually their only gate way, so push forward more women into the deck roles, support them, [agents] are usually their only way into the industry!”  Even last year Angie was still being pushed by agents to take a stewardess role and told us there are now only two agents she will contact when she is looking. (Proud to say I’m one of them… )

This was echoed by Captain Molly* who almost gave up on her yachting career after being told by agents that stewardessing was the easier route, and after a few years of fighting to prove herself, took the summer out to get back to her roots and race small sail yachts. “This reminded me of why I chose this career, the parts of the industry I loved, and how to deal with the parts I didn’t.” Amy went on to become a skipper on superyachts permanently. Sometimes a little step back and regroup is all we need.

Deck and Safety Officer Kaitlyn* thinks we need to support groups “like She of the Sea [and] be vocal about how awesome our jobs are, there are so many talented women who can share the information about how to get into the industry.” This is a great point, and SOTS was invited to present with Young Professionals in Yachting UK only recently to push that across.

I think we can see from the past few years that the industry is adapting (yay!) but it’s important we stay focused and continue pushing for change. Don’t stop now.

Co-founder of SOTS, Natasha Ambrose, told us “From my experience in the industry and through the work we do at She of the Sea, there are several things we can still do. The first being we can begin to adopt a more active balance in the visualisation and representation in our marketing materials to show more women in deck and engineering roles. The second is that women are significantly under-represented in technical and engineering careers such as those in the Maritime sector, and the gender divide is clearly seen in school subject choices. It is widely accepted that we will face a talent shortage of skilled workers in the maritime sector and yachting industry, one of the things we can do to counteract this is actively inspire more females to choose this path. Last year we took part in the 1851 Trust Maritime Roadshows for girls which is aimed to inspire them to take more STEM subjects and introduces girls to positive and inspiring female maritime role models.”

All of us seniors in the industry have a duty of care to the juniors. We have a responsibility to educate, nurture, and mentor the crew of tomorrow. Our goal should be to encourage and help these crew develop their skillsets, regardless of gender, age, orientation or race. And let’s not forget, it’s not just about attracting them into yachting, it’s keeping them.

I think it’s best we let Jenny Matthews wrap this up. “The industry is ready for this, things are changing, education is happening and its coming from the top as much as it is from the bottom. We must understand that change doesn’t happen overnight and that it’s a journey, it takes time and it take compassion and understanding. There are a lot of good people doing a lot of good things. And also let’s remember that things are the way they are because of a system that we have all grown up in, we change the system, we change the outcome. Big task but how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time…”

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