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Empowerment, education, knowledge, and 'doing your best' - Women in Maritime Day

Informa Markets Group photo from the Women's Roundtable at SMLME 2023
A roundtable of maritime professionals in the Middle East discussed the tools available to address the maritime industry gender imbalance on the eve of the IMO's International Day for Women in Maritime

The Women in Maritime Business Excellence Forum gathered dozens of professionals and leaders from across the Middle East, representing seafaring, education, law, logistics, government and a host of other stakeholders.

After a welcome from the IMO Secretary General, the meeting turned its focus to the skills women need to succeed in maritime careers.

“It's not about skill, it's about knowledge. The more knowledge you have of the career that you want to proceed in, the more powerful an employee, leader and representative of the sector you will be. We should arm ourselves with knowledge and learn more about whatever that we want to do in the future,” said H.E. Eng. Hessa Al Malek, Advisor to the Minister for Maritime Transport Affairs, MOEI UAE.

Miatta-Fatima Kromah of the Liberia Permanent Mission to the IMO was the first to raise a point that was echoed by many in the room—female empowerment initiatives have brought progress in the maritime sector, but it is important that women occupy roles because of their skills and performance.

“Once you're educated enough and technically experienced enough in that space, what you need to do is to ensure that you belong. Come in knowing that you, just as any male counterpart, belong in the space and know what you're doing. Deliver your best, and give it your all,” said Kromah.

The subject turned to effective investment in women in maritime. Sanjam Sahi Gupta, Director at Sitara Shipping and Founder of Maritime SheEO referred to the IMO-funded leadership accelerator programme for women in maritime. That initiative was the result of a survey of women in maritime in India, which found that while there was a strong number of women in the industry, women were absent from leadership roles. The accelerator programme combined training to address skills gaps women felt they had including critical thinking negotiation skills, and strategic skills.

“We found that a lot of women who have undergone the programme have been stepping up to negotiate for themselves, stepping up at meetings to ask for roles and to take up new challenges, which they would not have done before,” said Gupta.

Dr Ahmed Youssef, Associate Dean for the College of Maritime Transport and Technology, Sharjah, shared the success of training at the academy, which has around 40% females in its courses, including a recent class of engineering who have finished their programmes and are heading out into the world of offshore marine. The experience of placing young women on vessels and rigs has shown that small changes in onboard routine can go a long way in making women feel more comfortable on board, including dedicated hours in the gym and laundry areas.

Dr. Carolin Stumm, Hapag-Lloyd’s Managing Director Arabian Gulf, said the container line was also focussed on training, aiming for 50/50 representation between men and women within their talent development programmes. Mentoring programmes were also an important part of the support at Hapag-Lloyd.

Mentorship was a common theme in the room, with leaders sharing their belief in the importance of sharing their experience to support and guide women at earlier stages in their careers.

Regulators key to progress

Gina Panayiotou, ESG Manager from the West of England P&I Club, said she was glad to see the IMO onboard with the roundtable initiative, as she saw regulators as key to progress.

“We need policymakers on board. We sit in different forums and we always discuss the same challenges, but it can feel like nobody's saying to policymakers here's what you can do, and pushing that forward. We definitely need a voice within policymakers,” said Panayiotou.

Panayiotou also picked up the common thread of engaging male colleagues as allies, saying she thinks that online training provided by the UN Global Compact on the subject should be mandatory for men in the maritime sector.

The role of the media in breaking gender stereotypes was raised in the room to mixed response, some attendees felt that the media could do more to promote seafaring and maritime careers to the public, while others felt the media had succeeded in promoting female leaders and role models.

The roundtable covered a subject often seen in the broader discussion of the maritime industry as a whole, that of raising awareness of the sector beyond its own businesses and networks. With a particular focus on showing stereotype-busting career paths for women, the attendees were in agreement that more should be done to show the maritime industry to children in school.

Depending on the age of students, the industry could be championed in entertainment like cartoons, and for older children the UAE had a particular opportunity to organise field trips to ports and shipyards to see the industry in action and build lasting memories by showing the scale of vessels and the importance of the people working in industry.

Dr. Aysha Albusmait, Media Expert and IMO Goodwill Ambassador, stressed the need for support of education initiatives. “It takes lots of effort to go to schools and have thousands and thousands of students participate. It's not one effort for the  media, it's not an effort of one person. The ideas that you've mentioned need budgets. I'm an innovative person, I can give you lots of ideas, but we need budget and need a force of will.

“I do go to schools, I go to universities, I grab the chance for any invitations I receive to educate and create awareness for students, for the new generation. To start doing that more, I need the support of all of you,” said Albusmait.

Emma Howell, Middle East Development Director, Informa Markets Maritime & Cruise portfolio, noted one frustration in promoting the industry—the breadth and depth of roles it comprises.

“If you're a child and say you want to grow up and be a teacher, you have an image in your mind of somebody standing in a classroom. If you say I want to grow up and be in maritime, what does that image look like if we're pictorially, trying to represent this?

“I think it's a little bit dangerous to say ‘you need to go into shipping,’ or ‘you need to go into maritime,’ it's about defining what opportunities there are within the sector that are going suit the skills and the knowledge and the talents of that generation as well,” said Howell.

Rania Tadros, Managing Partner of the Dubai Office, Stephenson Harwood LLP and President, WISTA UAE, summarised a point brought up by multiple contributors—for those in the industry, exposing young people to the maritime and logistics industries and increasing their understanding starts at home.

“I've never driven to school and not seen a container. I can ignore the container, or I can tell my kids about the container. I'm not saying my kids represent childhood, you can start with the little things. If there are containers, explain where that container came from, the process of stuffing a container, who does the container belong to whilst the goods are going somewhere? Does the container turn up at someone's house? Or does it go into a warehouse?

“There are a lot of things around us we can pick up on to explain the merit, the industry is much more alive than we think it is to the outside world,” said Rania.

The action points and recommendations from the meeting will be sent to IMO with associated timelines and KPIs.