COLUMN | An industry diverted by diversity [Grey Power]

Photo: Maersk

It is a word that is found in every corporate message, inserted where they think it appropriate by all the HR gurus who have been over-promoted to positions of unimagined power in too many sectors. “Diversity” is something we all must aim for, as we comply with equalities legislation in umpteen different legal regimes. It must feature in slogans that advertise everything from fancy ice cream to mobile telephony, a feel-good word that almost certainly is honoured in the breach rather than in what actually happens in the real world.

I was moved to write about diversity after hearing about a granddaughter who is a mechanical engineer in a famous global engineering company, but who reports that she still struggles to find protective equipment, boots, and even a boiler suit that will fit her. She would buy her own except that it all has to be blazoned with the company logo, so she is required to be fitted out from the company store, from where working gear and equipment designed for big beefy chaps are issued.

She doesn’t complain and loves her job, but just cannot understand how, in a huge company that is going overboard about its diverse recruitment efforts, nobody seems to have thought for a nanosecond about the needs of the female minority, they are so anxious to recruit and retain.

“Why would any bright woman suffer willingly in the isolation attendant to life aboard most other types of ship?”

But moving on from family to more specific matters, it was interesting get a blast of reality from the outgoing President of the Nautical Industry Jillian Carson-Jackson, speaking at her final AGM in Plymouth the other day. She pointed out that when she began her maritime career in 1983, some two per cent of seafarers were female – a percentage that has remained unaltered for almost 40 years. So, we may all be waxing lyrical about diversity and inclusion, but in shipping, you would scarcely notice much in the way of practical change.

Why does the industry fail so abysmally to attract representatives of half the population and remain so male-dominated, thus restricting its talent intake in a way it can ill afford? There is no great mystery, with active discrimination against women by employers, manning agencies, and others, allegedly on grounds of accommodation or separate facilities not being available. When women thinking of a sea career read about cases of harassment, bullying, and worse, are they encouraged in this choice? When they find that nobody, even in the biggest companies, has thought that women might need smaller or more suitable PPE, are they convinced that diversity is more than just a word?

For what it is worth, my own view is that this dismal two per cent figure is never going to rise until the shipping industry admits that life for the other 98 per cent has become pretty bloody miserable and tries to do something about it. Women are social beings, and while there are perhaps some sectors like cruise ships and ferries in which they will flourish, why would any bright woman suffer willingly in the isolation attendant to life aboard most other types of ship?

“The operators don’t seem terribly interested in improving matters.”

I recall talking to a young female officer who had come up through the ranks in a major oil company and who, as second officer, was charged by the master with the role of trying to promote a more social atmosphere aboard the ship. She found it a lost cause, with a tiny, multi-cultural mix of basically misanthropic seafarers who weren’t remotely interested in any sort of social interaction outside their working hours. They just wanted to eat, sleep, and sit in their cabins with their “devices”. Indeed, you might say that they just wanted to be, as the saying goes, “left to their own devices”.  I suggested she would enjoy life more in cruise ships or ferries, but I think she came ashore.

But that sort of life has become normal aboard most merchant ships these days, and the operators don’t seem terribly interested in improving matters, even though, post-pandemic, they are staring at some real shortages. There was a Mission to Seafarers’ study on the adequacy of ship’s accommodation some time ago, where even the best was described, rather charitably, as “institutional”. Would that prove attractive to women? A “home away from home”?

You can roar around preaching diversity and inclusion, but if the shipboard environment remains lacking in just about every way, from personnel policies predicated on cheapness to the maintenance of an unappealing lifestyle in undermanned ships, that percentage isn’t going to change.

I’d love for you to prove me wrong.

Michael Grey

Maritime industry legend, and former long-term editor of Lloyds List, Michael Grey kicks off each month with topical issues affecting the maritime world at large.