Many of those reading this blog are likely already in the maritime industry, which can feel isolated and exclusive at times— as if you need to know the secret handshake or decipher terms like “SOLAS Chapter II-2 Part B” to participate in even the most routine or casual of conversations. Yet shipping as one of the world’s oldest and historically male industries is colliding with one of the newest – digital. The tech industry itself has raised its eyebrows at the percentage of women in its ranks and sought recourse to remove hitherto undeclared barriers to women – giving women the opportunity to join and progress throughout all echelons of their industry.
IMO’s published findings state that a mere 2% of seafarers are women. And so it is that this year’s IMO (International Maritime Organization) World Maritime Day on September 26th is dedicated to Empowering Women in the Maritime Community. This effort couldn’t have come at a better time. As our industry navigates the many complexities of digitalization and sustainable shipping, we will need a full talent pool of both men and women to tackle pressing issues.
I don’t pretend to know what will move us past the 2%, but I hope to provide some insight by explaining the pivotal parts of my journey that led me to join and stay in maritime.
I started with a leg-up. Both sides of my family are involved in maritime—my father’s side especially. I grew up surrounded by his sea stories, from his Academy days and back to our ancestors who sailed and how they made or lost their fleets and fortunes. Both my parents are resourceful and uncompromising, so while academic performance was demanded, they rewarded a questioning mind, exploration, and resilience over school grades. Above all, they instilled the mindset that success equals independence. When I struggled, they would point to the framed Spartan quote, “H TAN, H EΠI TAΣ” or “with your shield or on it.” Today, we might say, “be all in.”
As women apply for positions in maritime, I’d recommend anyone hire first for character (resilient with a creative problem-solving ‘all-in’ attitude), and only second for existing technical skill. It’s easier to teach someone how to evaluate an engineering design or survey a vessel but so very much harder to instill the traits needed to hold her own and carve a path.
I had early experiences of helping build and maintain small boats, clambering through the engine rooms of company vessels and just helping the family with charter agreements and paperwork in the office during the weekends. These experiences were all invaluable to me. There is no substitute for practical life experience. The IMO supports women at many of its global maritime training institutions, but these education programs create exponential value when they go beyond the traditional classroom and into the practical. This practical experience also needs to be frequent and become progressively more challenging. Even better if it instills responsibility for delivering a result that will be (in whole or part) implemented.
As an intern, the colleagues whom I respected the most (and who later went above and beyond to support me whenever they could), were the ones who took the time to show me my mistakes. They served as an example of the gold standard to aim for. Not an example of what was adequate or good enough for the moment but the very best way something should be done.
My advice to women starting out is to look beyond their assigned managers, or departments, and seek out those in their company to whom everyone goes to for professional advice or to fix things when they go south. Then commit to taking any opportunity to support them and to learn from them whenever possible. This commitment usually means working a lot of overtime, but if you’re learning, then it’s no different than taking a part-time evening class.
Elli's father in his youth as a young sea captain.
Elli's grandfather painting one of his wooden boats.
I’d been careful to select a company with a culture that resonated with my personal sense of purpose. A common malaise with new hires is a sense of dislocation from the purpose of work. They may not fully understand the consequences of failure and how our human errors can lead to the loss of life.
When I joined ABS, it was soon after I experienced the loss of a close family member whose ship, adrift and on fire, went down in heavy seas. Our industry can demand a great deal of sacrifice. I knew I was committed to working long hours in maritime, but I chose to work those hours surrounded by seasoned surveyors and engineers who treat their jobs and safety mission as a sacred duty.
From those that I have been fortunate to meet in the industry, but for women especially, we need to believe in the company’s culture and ethics before we can commit and thrive.
In this video, ABS supports the IMO initiative and celebrates the many women who have build their careers in the maritime industry.
Even if you have no interest in a career in sales, you will benefit greatly by spending a couple of years working within business development in some capacity—preferably early on in your career. It will cultivate a skillset that will be crucial to you at every point in your career.
There will always come a time when you must convince others to buy into your ideas, to allocate resources to your team or to believe that you are the best candidate for a promotion. By spending time in sales, you become your own best advocate. In most societal cultures, women have been raised to be patient and polite and to exhibit passive, non-demanding behavior as the ‘correct way to behave.’ The sales culture can instill self-confidence and competitiveness that is especially important for most women to learn if they are to rise within a male dominated industry.
When women fail to understand their value or ask for what they want, they negate their own worth. To be successful, newcomers, especially women, must learn how to leverage their individual strengths. IMO’s theme “Empowering Women in the Maritime Community” is not about others opening doors for you, it’s about knowing how to be empowered—how to identify what you want, commit to it, and win it.
Elli's grandmother at the steering wheel of her boat.
There’s a Root cause analysis tool we use called the 5-why’s. Ask ‘why’ something is the way it is, five times, to understand the reasons behind it. It works with people as well as it does for component failure investigations. For those entering, or those still rising within a maritime career, I find it’s important not to chase specific job titles but instead focus on seeking roles that bring new skills and experiences needed to progress.
I started out in R&D where I investigated failures and developed best practices. I took a special interest in the performance of composites and new materials in extreme environments– everything from high pressure risers, anti-icing coatings, to ballistic resistance glass and anti-piracy measures. My role allowed me to continue to advocate and develop business cases for the adoption of successful technologies from other industries such as 3D laser scanning from the automotive industry, remote inspection from aviation and mining, interactive failure databases from the medical industry and so on. It’s this constantly evolving technical diversity and working to address real industry challenges that keeps me in the maritime industry as well as with ABS.
Understanding this personal ‘why’ led me to a new fast-paced role supporting our clients with consulting services to address marine and offshore specific challenges related to cyber security, data analytics in asset management and bespoke engineering solutions. Titles are labels that change frequently within organizations and can distract you from new opportunities if followed too closely. You need to understand why you were interested in that role in the first place and look for situations that will add value to your future growth.
In our industry I have certainly witnessed that men tend to be hired for their potential, while women are hired for their experience and track record. Therefore, my advice to women (who may be cautious and sensible) is to seek out and jump on opportunities for new experiences and those which would add a new skillset.
It has been widely reported that women (unlike men) will over analyze job adverts and only apply if they meet almost 100% of the listed requirements. This is not only a misunderstanding of how most employers select candidates, but this ‘institutionalized rule following’ is women stunting their own careers.
As a Naval chaplain once said, “never be afraid to bite off more than you can chew, your mouth is usually bigger than you think it is.”
Elli Lembessis is Manager, Business Planning and Analysis at ABS Group. She has over 10 years of industry experience related to maritime consulting, innovation and novel concept development.