Many happy returns to a trade body with a lot of heart and soul

4 years ago

From an idea mooted 40 years ago at a Christmas lunch to an organisation that spans the globe, WISTA serves an important function not only as a trade body concerned with industry issues but also as a platform for women working in a historically conservative business

terrymacalisterTerry Macalister, Business writer for the Guardian 18th July 2014

Bottles of bubbly will be cracked open on 30 July as a great maritime success story celebrates its 40th anniversary.
The Women’s International shipping and.Trading Association (WISTA) began life as an idea at a humble Christmas lunch in London among a handful of like-minded women

Little did they know that four decades on and hudreds would be gathering for a gala dinner held at the central London headquarters of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) by the River Thames

WISTA is anything but a British institution now. There are 2,000 members in 32 different countries, with the US hosting the largest branch followed — interestingly — by Nigeria.

A Sri Lanka branch was launched in Colombo ealier this month, whileWISTA Australia was this week the latest outpost to hold its an annual general meeting.

The association has forged a positive future through a skillful balance of tackling mainstream maritime issues and supporting women in management positions.

Its most recent focus has been the “Came by ship” campaign, which has tried to stir awareness among the public of the importance of the shipping industry to their everyday lives.


In the 21st century, it should be a given that wornen are treated equally in the workplace. But there are bundles of statistics that show this is far from the case, not least on pay.

Europe and North America may  lead the way but still, how many women are equally represented in the boardroom , never mind female masters onboard even US or UK ships? Even senior WISTA figures I spoke to could only think of a dozen or so female vessel captains with whom they had been in contact.

While few business owners would knowingly discriminate against women executives today, in a conservative industry such as shipping the odds weigh heavily, one fears, against female preferment.

mjdixon“When I got my first job you often had to be lucky with a sympathetic boss who was willing to show you the ropes. Now there are plenty of degree courses, post-graduate studies and the Blue MBA course in Copenhagen where the director of studies is a woman,” said Maria Dixon, chair of WISTA and boss of her own shipping advisory company, ISM Shipping solutions, in London.

Dixon says attitudes to women in the industry have changed significantly, and she describes men as “our best allies” in finding new WISTA. recruits.

But that is not to say everything is fine and dandy on the gender equality front.

“There are still isolated cases you hear about where bosses insult thier [female] staff, and you think, ‘surely that could not happen’,” said Dixon.

Dixon says attitudes towards WISTA itself have also changed. Some people expected it to be overtly feminist or draw its inspiration from the suffragettes (women who campaigned for womens’ right to vote in England at the end of the 19th century).

“We are not feminists. This is a professional group that comes together to discuss issues of common interest. We talk about work and things happening in the industry. We have, in the past, looked at issues such as quotas [for women in the boardroom] but alongside others such as armed guards on ships and, recently, the ‘Came by Ship’ campaign.”

Dixon is keen to pay homage to key women such as Stella Marks of Star Brokers, Margaret Llewellyn, a former deputy chair of Dover Port, Jean Richards of Quantum Shipping Services and others who have done so much to support WISTA over the years.

Madrid-born Dixon — who previously worked for the Panama consulate — says her own involvement in WISTA has brought her nothing but good.


It might not necessarily have brought her any business and has certainly cost her time but she would not have been without it. “The amount of friends I have made has made it the best investment possible. In terms of the human element and the wonderful experiences I have had through WISTA, I am a millionaire,” she said.

Now it looks like Dixon might be inching towards the exit after six years in the chair. “My daughter is expect-ing her first child and I want to give that grandchild all the hours I stole from ray daughter,” she laughed:

Such commitment to family and friendship that Dixon spells out possibly sums up the heart and soul of the association.

It’s a very professional and forward-looking trade organisation but is clearly much more than that.

What can one say but: “Happy Birthday”.