March 26, 2010 — Are the leadership skills of women a boon to the shipping industry? The answer is a resounding Yes, judging by an overwhelming vote from an impressive cross-section of the maritime industry which was attracted to a debate organised by WISTA-UK at prestige City offices. Women and men were as one voice on the subject, for there were 32 males among the 62 people present.
After a lively and prolonged debate, they backed the motion: This House believes that women’s leadership skills are well suited to the shipping industry.
The success of the event, a tribute to International Women’s Day 2010, reflected the growing prestige of WISTA-UK among both genders, and all sections, of the maritime community. WISTA-UK is one of 27 national associations affiliated to the Women’s International Shipping & Trading Association. The venue was kindly provided by international law firm Reed Smith, which is located on the upper floors of one of London’s tallest buildings, the new Broadgate Tower.
Although there were two main speakers for and against the motion, all acknowledged proudly the historic role of women in contributing to influential levels of society, especially trade and industry.
Summing up the debate, the chairman for the evening Jim Davis, who heads the International Maritime Industries Forum and holds other key business appointments, said that it had shown that a lot of the attitudes towards women were local, rather than universal. Major passenger ships of 70,000 gt were now commanded by women. “By a process of osmosis, the position of women in the world is becoming almost the same as that of men.”
Proposing the motion, Susan Hawker, principal lecturer in international trade at London Metropolitan University, said: “We should not need reminding how capable women are; in a far shorter time than men, they have made it to the top. Women have become prominent at every level.”
Pointing out that at a crucial time of their lives many women chose to have families and stay at home, Ms Hawker said: “I think women are particularly suited to be good leaders because they have coped in a development structure and can be chosen as leaders against men who do not have the same social distractions. Under such circumstances one can say: I think that woman is the man for me!”
Adding his support, Allan Ashby of Ashby Marine Consultancy, asked: “Has anyone questioned whether men’s leadership skills are suited to the shipping industry, or the banking industry?” He said that some research had shown women to be risk takers, a factor which could be largely positive. “Unequivocally women are suited to be leaders, both ashore and at sea, with the qualification that for safety considerations they must not be risk takers at sea.”
Pamela Tansey, who works at the International Maritime Organization as deputy director of the Technical Co-operation Division but was speaking in a personal capacity, argued that there is no such thing as women’s leadership skills. There was only a perception by society of the gender differentiation when it comes to leadership. It was culture, and social mores, which shaped our management structures.
“There have been women leaders since there were women,” said Ms Tansey. It was just that they were not always widely visible and recorded.
Also speaking against the motion was Lt Cdr Andrew Griffiths, who is on the staff of the First Sea Lord, and will leave the Royal Navy later in 2010 to set up a strategic leadership development company. He said that the Royal Navy had a very high calling on its people, which could lead to self-sacrifice. “We have never had a woman commanding a ship at sea, or rise to the rank of admiral. I do not see many (female equivalents of) Lord Nelson or Thomas Cochrane coming forward from the general public,” said Lt Cdr Griffiths. This was not such a good career choice for those with young families. “We are equal, but we are different,” he said.
Moderator for the debate was Paul Gunton, editor of the publication Fairplay. After the meeting, Maria Dixon, president of WISTA-UK, said: “This was a magnificent follow-up to the lively debate session at our WISTA international conference in London last September on the desirability or otherwise of affirmative action. The debate then was the first of its kind in a WISTA setting. More shipping men are coming to our meetings and finding our events interesting. Our aim to unite the hard workers of the shipping industry regardless of gender is proving a reality.”
The meeting heard that work is advanced on setting up the latest WISTA association, WISTA-Egypt, which will open new possibilities for female executives and aspiring business leaders in much of the Middle East. Egyptian women have been inspired by encouragement from the IMO for advancement of their status and opportunities in the region.