Taking the Helm: Gender roles onboard changing at glacial pace

Aug 17, 2018 by Paul Ferdais

Taking the Helm: by Paul Ferdais

In the news recently there have been calls to have more women in positions of leadership in all industries, which by definition includes the yachting industry. On the surface this seems to make sense, since women make up 50 percent  of the population. What I’ve come to realize, though, is that while the sentiment for gender equality in the workplace is an admirable aspiration, reality doesn’t always follow our wishes.

For instance, I work on a Canadian Coast Guard vessel and there aren’t any women on the team. Additionally, there are five other vessels of the same size doing the same program and none of those vessels have women on board either. So out of a collective group of roughly 20 people, there are no women in any of the roles.

It may simply be that the program is of no interest to women, or they may not know about the particular program, or any other number of other reasons. It doesn’t appear that women are held back or disadvantaged in any way from competing for or acquiring positions when compared with men on these vessels. All that can be said for sure is there are no women on the vessels. In fact, the department that handles staffing has a hard time getting and keeping qualified crew of any kind for these vessels.

It’s fairly easy to see why there aren’t any women in positions of leadership on the above mentioned Coast Guard vessels: There simply aren’t any women there to choose from. The next question to ask is why aren’t there more women in the top leadership positions – captains, chief mates or chief engineers, as well as chief stews – on yachts, where women can be found in abundance?’

This is a bit trickier to answer, and there are many reasons why men and women aren’t equally represented in the workplace. To keep things manageable, let’s focus to two ideas: a vessel’s culture and personal choice.

Broadly speaking, the yachting industry can be classified as culturally tight. What this means is that there are – again, generally speaking – historically rigid viewpoints, stereotypes or ideas of the people who do certain roles on ships. Men have traditionally been the captains and women have been the stewardesses. Yes, this idea is changing,  as evidenced by more women on deck and men in the interior. The point is, the majority of roles are still arranged stereotypically by gender.

Traditional role stereotypes are difficult to overcome, which makes it challenging for a person who doesn’t fit the mold to break through into a nontraditional gender role. Teammates may have no issue with a female captain or male steward. That doesn’t mean the person responsible for hiring will be as open-minded. Perhaps the boss or management company want to adhere to what they think is the “proper’” way to crew a vessel. Whatever the ultimate reason, change is glacially slow. In 2018, there are still a limited number of female captains, chief mates or chief engineers on yachts. Conversely, women are still the majority of chief stews or heads of housekeeping.

Besides culture, the most important factor in the division of roles on a boat comes down to personal choice. No one ends up in a leadership position overnight. In order to become a captain or chief engineer, years of work and study are necessary, which requires time and effort to achieve the qualification to be placed in the position.

Before anyone, man or woman, considers a career in the marine industry, a lot of other choices will be considered too: other jobs to take, length of time away from home, whether to start a family, where a family will live, what jobs one is qualified for, and so on. After the decision is made to pursue a particular career, will the person be able to commit to whatever the new path requires. For example, how will being away from home on a boat for months at a time affect a family/life balance?

There may be some who say there’s an “old boys’ club” that keeps women from positions of leadership on vessels. I’d suggest that the factors of culture; the types of jobs people want and choose, which includes the years of schooling and training for a particular job; or a major life decision, such as starting a family, are bigger forces at work in determining whether someone will become a leader on a yacht.

A former first officer, Paul Ferdais is owner of The Marine Leadership Group (marineleadershipgroup.com), and now an officer in the Canadian Coast Guard. Comments are welcome below.