In old maritime superstition, women were considered bad luck aboard ships. Their presence threatened to bring bad weather and choppy seas – or perhaps they were simply considered distractions to the all-male crew.

Regardless of the reasoning, those times have passed and to keep the modern shipping industry afloat, female talent is vital to fill jobs on- and offshore.

In jurisdictions like the Cayman Islands, where seafaring laid an economic foundation, attracting and retaining a diversity of young professionals is also about reclaiming maritime heritage.

“One of the things we’re trying to do in the maritime industry in Cayman is to revive the interest,” said Sherice Arman, president of the Cayman Islands chapter of the Women’s International Shipping and Trading Association (WISTA).

“We had a huge section of our population that actually were seafarers and involved in the industry and then we lost it. They stopped. It’s not a career [anymore].”

Speaking from WISTA International’s Annual General Meeting and Conference last week, Arman explained that careers in shipping look far different today than they did in past generations.

The industry now offers many more shore-based jobs, from naval architects to maritime lawyers, and careers at sea provide much better salaries and working conditions, Arman explained.

The professional diversity of the modern industry became apparent last week, as more than 200 women from 49 WISTA member countries converged on the Grand Cayman Marriott Beach Resort.

With this year’s event, 29 Oct. to 1 Nov., Cayman become the first Caribbean country to host a WISTA International AGM. By bringing the conference to Cayman, Arman hoped to shine a light on the local industry and to elevate the global conversation about gender inclusivity.

While Arman has observed an environment generally conducive to promoting women’s leadership in Cayman, many of her colleagues from elsewhere described substantial barriers to advancement in the shipping industry.

Jodi Munn Barrow, secretary general of the Caribbean MOU on Port State Control, highlighted the lack of female marine pilots in the Caribbean, despite the existence of suitably qualified applicants.

“In the Caribbean, I don’t think there are any female marine pilots,” said Jodi Munn Barrow, secretary general of the Caribbean MOU on Port State Control, based in Jamaica.

“I’ve seen cases where we’ve had overly qualified women apply for the marine pilot role and they don’t even get an interview because the men don’t want female marine pilots within the Caribbean, it seems.”

To help women overcome barriers to advancement, Vivette Grant has promoted mentorship programmes in Jamaica through the Women in Maritime Association Caribbean.

Research assisted by Grant in 2015 found a significant need for role models and coaching to guide young women in the industry.

Many young women, Grant said, have attempted to improvise their own coping mechanisms by hiding their femininity and mimicking the behaviour of their male colleagues.

For women who work aboard ships, the male-dominated environment can prove too much.

“There are no other women in that world. Some of them try to get close to males as allies but there’s a perception sometimes that they have interest in the males and their male colleagues are looking at them. Some of the females get frustrated and they leave,” Grant said.

Through mentorship and coaching, Grant hopes young women will develop better tools and master important professional skills, such as dressing for the job and chairing a successful meeting.

So far, the evidence shows that young women benefit from such support.

“Younger females are coming up and one of the outcomes of the study that was done shows that 90% of the women who were trained at the World Maritime University are now at the peak of their position within their organisation,” Grant said.

Now, Grant would like to see mentorship and gender diversity policies adopted on an international level to promote more inclusive conditions.

Helen Buni, who works at the International Maritime Organization, has observed similar constraints and objectives across regions – making a case for greater international cooperation on gender-diversity policies.

“We have limited resources and if we’re going to enact change, we’re going to do that together,” Buni said.

She described a widespread sense that women in the industry lack training and advancement opportunities.

“In order for shipping to meet some of the challenges it’s facing – shortage of manpower, shortage of skilled labour force – they need to attract and retain the best candidates. It’s about your competencies. It’s not about your gender,” Buni said.

Addressing industry challenges in automation, digitalisation and decarbonisation will require a robust and well-educated workforce. She encouraged young people to study STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths. These fields represent the present and the future of the industry.

“It’s opening up a whole new world of opportunities for careers in maritime,” she said.

And for hiring managers, the evidence is clear: “There’s a strong business case that diversity improves the bottom line. … We need all hands on deck.”

For more information on WISTA, visit https://wistainternational.com.