International Day for Women in Maritime

18 May 2023

Today is International Day for Women in Maritime, which this year is being celebrated for the second time. Christel Pullens (president of the Dutch chapter of Women's International Shipping & Trading Association (WISTA Netherlands) and active in the maritime world for many years) talks about why she works in the maritime sector and why this day is important. Not just for the sector itself, but for every organisation where women work.

"The maritime industry is a fascinating sector which is unfamiliar to many people, women in particular. There are a great many career opportunities," Christel says. "In particular, these are executive, support and management positions in which technology and innovation play an important role. For me, technology and innovation are the ingredients for sustainability. In my work as Innovation & Sustainability Director at PortXL, I regularly meet women who work in these areas, but do not (yet) work in the maritime sector. In our sector, women are underrepresented and are desperately needed for making the transition. For me, it is therefore crucial to continue to draw attention to gender equality and the working conditions of women in the maritime sector. The International Day for Women in Maritime is a good opportunity for that. This year is about mobilising networks for gender equality with the goal of raising the visibility of women in the maritime sector. This is what I am committed to every day as president of WISTA Netherlands.


After COVID, a period when seafarers were stuck on their ships for long periods of time and sometimes unable to return home for more than a year, more attention is being paid in the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to the mental well-being of seafarers. Is that reflected at WISTA or in your work? 


"You bet! Being mentally fit is an important part of good health. At PortXL, it is a regular topic of conversation. We start important meetings with a 'check in': how are you doing right now and what do you need? Being with many people in a small space for long periods of time (like on a ship) has a big impact on your mental well-being, it's good that more attention is being paid to this."

"Also, the #metoo movement has created more alertness, awareness and change. Now that victims are seeing that perpetrators do actually face consequences, they are more likely to be emboldened to raise the alarm. We are becoming increasingly aware that pointing your finger at the victim is not the way to go. And that appointing a confidant or removing the perpetrator doesn't solve everything either, we need to look beyond that. At the factors in the environment that enable and sustain such behaviour. At what we can adjust to prevent it happening in the future. And we have to be aware that things are much more difficult on a ship than on shore, where you can (physically) step away from the situation."

"I was positively surprised by the appointment of Mari√ętte Hamer as government commissioner in the Netherlands for sexually transgressive behaviour and sexual violence. It's good to see that the cabinet also wants to do more to raise awareness and instil a safe culture."

"Inappropriate behaviour is broader than just sexually transgressive behaviour. It often involves structural behaviour such as gossiping, bullying, intimidation, discrimination and abuse of power. But also laughing along at inappropriate jokes. Within a business or association, it is important to talk to each other about what we think is appropriate and inappropriate behaviour. Based on this, you can create a code of conduct so that it is clear to everyone what is and is not permissible. Don't think "that doesn't happen here". Where there are people, inappropriate behaviour is possible. You probably can't get to 100% safety in the workplace, but you can normalise it that people feel emboldened to call each other to account for behaviour, and that certain behaviour has consequences. This is something I am happy to contribute to."

What do you think needs to be done to achieve more gender equality in the maritime sector? 

"IMO and WISTA are jointly researching gender equality in the maritime sector. Some of the (unsurprising) results of this are that only 2% of all seafarers are women and that women mainly hold support positions. This is a traditional division of roles that I would like to break. Recommendations from the study that may also be relevant to the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management are the use of neutral language in job vacancy ads, equal pay for men and women with the same job, training in recognising bias and engaging a diverse group of people when hiring new employees."

"In my previous job with the Sea Ranger Service, a sustainable, innovative company operating a sailing workboat in the North Sea, 72% of the seafarers were women in 2021. So it can be done. I deliberately reduced this high percentage to 50% the following year to achieve an optimum balance in the team. With the help of a specialised agency, a diversity statement was placed on the website, the language was changed to technical college level and only images were used that conveyed diversity. In this way, for both male and female seafarer candidates, the Sea Ranger Service became a company in which they recognised themselves and where they felt welcome."

"At WISTA Netherlands we are focusing on female role models. We draw attention to the Maritime Speakers Bureau initiated by IMO and WISTA, a database of women speakers. We suggest women speakers to event organisers, bring candidates to the attention of recruitment agencies, and share profiles of our members through our LinkedIn page. We also have candidate membership for young women who want to pursue careers in the maritime industry, for which WISTA members volunteer as mentors. We ask men to stop accepting invitations to panel sessions with only men and to speak out about the importance of diversity and inclusion. The latter is more effective than when women do this. 

In addition, WISTA International is sponsoring 10 places in the Leadership Acceleration Program (LEAP). The 12-week program is a collaboration between IMO, WISTA and The Maritime SheEO and is aimed at preparing women for leadership roles. 

Did you have a female role model who encouraged you in your work?

"I worked in a shipyard in Belgium for the first eight years of my career. At the time, there were several shipbuilding companies along the banks of the Scheldt at Antwerp, Hemiksem, Rupelmonde and Temse. One of those yards had a female director, Christine Avonts. I didn't have much contact with her, but she showed that it was possible for a woman to hold such a position. In 2010, I joined WISTA and met all kinds of inspiring women who encouraged me in my work. Karin Orsel, CEO of MF Shipping, board member of a range of national and international maritime organisations, and ambassador for WISTA, has encouraged me at various points in my career to take next steps."


What sage advice would you give young girls of today in the context of their (maritime) careers?


It's nice to have a mentor, someone you can ask for advice and spar with. But having a sponsor is even more important. Ideally, this is your manager, but it can also be someone else in an influential position within the company. Someone who knows the importance of diversity, sees your qualities and mentions your name when talking about possible candidates for a special project, training or promotion. Just working hard and hoping that you will naturally get noticed that way will not get you there. Speak up about your ambitions. Change jobs if you are not making progress internally. And invest time in building your network; there will come a day when it's no longer about what you can do but who you know.