Understanding the importance of women’s role in the development of the maritime industry

The importance of women’s role in the development of the maritime industry, and global economy, cannot be understated.

Diversity and inclusion will be key to strengthening businesses and ensuring their success.

Ahead of the Women in Shipping Summit, we spoke with Christa Sys, BNP Paribas Fortis Chair on Transport, Logistics and Ports at the Department of Transport and Regional Economics, University of Antwerp.

Iain Gomersall: The presentation you will give at the Women in Shipping Summit will focus on scene setting. What can we expect to hear from you?

Christa Sys: We conducted research for the port of Antwerp to uncover what the jobs of the future will look like. We started by the looking at the current situation, so that we have a reference point, and so that we could make some recommendations regarding the future. We based the research on the real data from 2008, 2010, and the year of 2014, and on the characteristics of employment in the port of Antwerp provided by the social security administration.

The share of women at the Port of Antwerp (the geographical scope of the port – the maritime cluster and the non-maritime cluster) in the sector was 18%. It had stayed the same over this time.

This was surprising to see as it was much lower than other sectors, which were up to 44%.

I believe there is support and several initiatives (including the IMO and IAPH to name a few) which are looking to empower women in shipping, but I believe it is more than just in shipping, it is the full maritime supply chain.

The conversation is broader than just shipping, and that is something that I would like to explore at the conference.

IG: So, you are not just looking at the maritime sector but across the entire supply chain?

CS: I would like to cover that, without a doubt, but I suspect there will be some issues with regards to data. I believe there will not be enough data to have a clear view of how things have evolved over time.

Previously, I was the Director of the Policy Research Centre on Commodity and Passenger flows (MOBILO) in Belgium – the back-bone of the Ministry of Transport.

At that moment the Minister of Transport was female, and she needed to give a speech on/to the sector. I was asked to give input to the Minister of Transport and assist with writing the relevant section of the speech. It was then that I noticed how challenging it is to find accurate data on this topic. I had to broaden the scope to women in logistics, and I received assistance from two dynamic female students who worked on helping me with research.

When we were finished, some press organisations were interested in the results. When we sat down with one of the organisations in the Netherlands, they said that they thought the topic was a joke at first and they wanted to see if there was any merit in our research. Of course, it was not a joke!

At about this time in Belgium, the national television had problems with the gender balance in interviews as most of the experts invited to interviews were male.

I remember thinking, how is this possible? Since then I have been intrigued as to the role women play in the sector, and how can this be improved.

IG: You mentioned previously that you were looking into research on this topic. Will you be doing the research for a specific paper?

CS: At present, no. I am thinking that maybe I need to take the responsibility and write a paper. I am quite sure that there is some research done with women in shipping, specifically with regards to women as crew members, but I have doubts whether women in other roles and functions within shipping has not been sufficiently researched.

Maybe I will expand this to look at women in academia as then I can share some of my own experiences.

Currently, I am the holder of BNP Paribas Fortis Chair Transport, Logistics and Ports for the University of Antwerp. In a nutshell, the goal of the chair is to establish bridges between critical research, industry and education around new developments in the maritime and logistics sector.

We focus on innovation, and how innovation can help with respect to the integration of the maritime supply chain. At our most recent event we were discussing the war for talent, and what was clear was the need for more colourful, diverse female talent in the sector.

IG: You briefly mentioned the challenges in getting data? What sort of challenges have you experienced?

CS: Finding the correct data, and data that extends over a sufficient time period have been two major issues. Also, finding disaggregated data where you can indeed see the number of females who are employed, the age categories, and in what positions. These are just some of the challenges I have experienced.

Some reports from the ILO give limited information, but the picture is incomplete. I want to know more, and I need to find better data sets.

IG: Why do you think an event of this nature is useful to the industry?

CS: There are three reasons.

Firstly, while knowledge sharing could contribute value, the sharing of knowledge has already been done. It’s now about finding solutions, and then the networking – getting to know each other.

I am so pleased the summit is not only for women, but also men. And I do hope it is a 50/ 50 split in the room.

It’s like an experience I had at the previously mentioned event I was hosting on the war for talent. I was speaking with someone I knew, and he called me up and said, “Christa, I think I will not attend this evening as it could be more for my HR manager rather than me.” And then I said, “no, you are mistaken,” and I explained that it is not it is no longer an issue for the HR manager alone, but for all managers.

I could convince some of the people I spoke to, not all of them, but a few mailed me the next day and said, “Christa, you were right. It was a good thing that we were there, that we realised how important this topic was.”

At the event, I showed some slides with respect to age, and some other data, (and I will probably show them at the Women in Shipping Summit) and some said that the first thing they were going to check was if the same was true at their company.

And this is when I realised, this is a success. It was action.

It was no longer about just women coming together, but about what can we do with regards to the war for talent, expectations of the new generation of workers, sustainability goals, and what actions are we really going to take?

The problem is known. It’s time for action. So that’s also the reason why I would like to explore this topic a bit more widely in my presentation.

IG: Why do you believe a topic of this nature is so important?

CS: Firstly, I think this topic is so important from a sustainability perspective. It’s important that we edge more towards gender balance as we all have talents, and if we combine these skills we will have a greater level of collective competency.

Secondly, perhaps there is no war for talent if we really look at talent across a broader scope. If we move towards a more colourful and diverse balance, maybe there will be no war for talent?

Finally, as I am an academic, I believe in the value which education can play in a conference of this nature.

From the research I have done, I have noticed that people who have been in more diverse or multi-disciplined environments are more likely to help. They can recognise talent, put talent together, and help people work together successfully.

This topic is also important for a new generation of employers, as well as more traditional or established companies. While I was teaching in at the Shanghai Maritime University, I noticed what a challenge there was capturing the attention of students. It’s a new generation!

There is a huge shift in the mentality and pace of society. Everything is so quick. For the students, it’s about wanting to be on top of the hill in a very short period.

They need to have leadership that shows it’s not just a hill to climb, but it’s really a Mount Everest, with a lot of camps in-between. There are plateaus we need to reach in our careers where we have people who coach us and help us develop. We need to have both male and female doing that.

Ultimately, it’s about finding solutions. This is why I am excited for the Women in Shipping Summit. It’s two days with a good agenda.

There are other events where I think, “How many years are we just going to talk about it? How many years will we just continue talking about it?” So, what about solutions? Can we not go one step further and try to find solutions?

Some women find their way into the maritime industry for their first job, but we need to investigate why there are some women who leave the sector afterwards.

I think it’s important, not to just speak about the problem again. By now everyone should be aware of the value a diverse team can offer.

Book your seat to see Christa at the Women in Shipping Summit, 10-11 September 2019, as she sets the scene on what we really know about women in shipping. Or join the conversation on Twitter at #WomenInShipping.

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