Eleanor-Deirdre-tiller-helm-SaltyJobs

Our Stories: The Challenge of Being Female In The Marine Industry

Not My Usual Rant

I’ve never thought of myself as a feminist. At all.

I grew up wearing Arsenal football shirts, preferred baggy boys’ clothes and rocked a short haircut. I used to love playing football and ice hockey. I’ve never owned a pair of high heels. I have always enjoyed having male friends.

I can stand up for myself, speak for myself, and handle myself, and generally get along with the lads as well as the ladies.

So, I’ve never really had a need to embrace the female voice.

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Women In The Marine Industry

But this week alone, I’ve had conversations with one… two… three… four… five… six other amazing, strong women in the marine industry who all love/live on/work on boats and ships around the country.

We are AWESOME. And there are SO MANY AWESOME WOMEN doing awesome things out there, in the marine industry and beyond. These are some of the awesome boat things we get up to:

  1. One of us manages a tall ship
  2. The second runs the office side of a traditional ship charity
  3. The third is an RYA instructor, skipper and surveyor
  4. The fourth is an RYA skipper & instructor of a traditional gaff sailing ship
  5. The fourth & fifth are mother & daughter who live on their wooden boat
  6. The sixth has recently bought & restored a wooden boat with her partner, ready to go off cruising
  7. And there’s me – Yachtmaster, wooden boat owner & SaltyJobs founder

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Other than our mutual passions for boats, and our obvious skill and experience within the wide marine industry, we all share one thing.

We are females in a male world.

And we are reminded of this fact continuously.

The Beginning Of A Common Story

The first time I experienced it was in a watersports shop near Portsmouth. I was living with my boyfriend at the time on my first boat, and we’d stopped to look in the shop. I was really into flying powerkites, and wanted to ask about their stock.

We walked into the shop, and I asked an employee my question. He couldn’t answer it, so he went to get his manager from the back of the store. A minute later, the employee and manager came back out.

Without thinking, the manager turned to my boyfriend and started to answer the question that I had asked of his colleague.

Awkward.

Oh, You’re The Owner?

At 23, I took ownership of my previous boat Elizmor, a 1948 53ft 35ton converted Scottish fishing boat. Shortly after I bought her, Elizmor was out of the water in a boatyard in Preston, and my friend Dan and his partner & her kids came to visit from Manchester.

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We had a lovely day, and the five of us were standing by their car in the late afternoon as they were about to head back home.

A chap wandered across the yard and came over to us. He immediately turned to Dan and started speaking to him. He assumed he was the new owner of Elizmor, and wanted to know what Dan’s plans were for her.

We all waited for him to stop speaking, looked awkwardly at each other, and let him know that in fact I was the new owner of Elizmor, and how could I help him?

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My entire ownership with Elizmor was an extremely tough gender & age discrimination experience right from the start.

After cancelling my launch at the last moment, totally screwing up all my plans, the boatyard dismissed my concerns and told my mother, who was trying to help sort it out, that I was just ‘young and impatient’ and had to wait.

Many keyboard warriors, largely middle-aged men with nothing better to do, told me that I would fail in my plans for Elizmor (I didn’t). Somebody even wished that we would sink on our long sea voyage (we didn’t).

Steam is coming out of my ears as I think about it. But that is just the tip of the Elizmor iceberg, and that story needs telling another day. Overall, it was an awesome experience. And yes, I did all the driving.

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It Happens All The Time

Fast forward a few years, and I worked as the Mate onboard a large traditional sailing vessel. Often, people would look at the three of us crew – Skipper, Mate and Bosun – and assume that I was the Bosun, the lesser rank, because I was female and the other two were male. Somebody even said well done to them for looking after me. In fact, the Bosun was a male, and it was my responsibility to look after him. 

Other skippers and instructors have told me about this lowest level of sexism which happens to them all the time. Being short and female, they have often been mistaken for a fellow charter guest/Competent Crew course member – and have to point out that, no, they are their Instructor for the week. Welcome aboard.

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Younger female yacht surveyors being embarrassingly questioned over their experience when turning up at jobs, just because they don’t fit the traditional stereotype.

It’s amazing, it’s possible to have 20 years’ experience within the marine industry by the time you’re in your late thirties, and be female!

We have to continuously prove our worth just to let us stay where we are in the industry, let alone progress.

I have heard multiple stories of managerial men only being able to criticise someone for being ‘a short quiet female’ when otherwise fully qualified and experienced for a role. Even more examples of multiple women being stood up at important meetings by their own bosses, at multiple organisations around the marine industry. Is this OK? I don’t think so.

This is such basic stuff, but it happens all the time. 

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And It Keeps Happening

This Spring 2017, around the time I launched SaltyJobs, I had my current boat – a 1935 25ft gaff cutter Deirdre – out in a boatyard in Poole Harbour. Ah, boatyards.

After putting a new engine in Deirdre, with help from the amazing chap I bought it from, I gave her a fresh coat of paint and put her back in the water. I definitely couldn’t have done it without the regular comments from my boat neighbours, “Oh it’s great to see a girl doing something practical!” 😑 

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Anyway, Deirdre looked amazing, with untold new adventures to come now she had a fantastic new engine. Good job.

But one local chap around the yard didn’t quite share my enthusiasm. Apparently you should never paint boats green. Deirdre has a green stripe that I brightened up with fresh paint. He literally told me that she looked terrible, and boats should not be green under any circumstance.

Nor should they leave harbour on a Friday, or with a woman onboard, right?! I told him that thankfully she was my boat so I could paint her green if I wanted to. There is no way he would have spoken to me like that had I been an older man of his perceived equal. I am sure he did not subject every other owner of a green boat in the yard to his diatribe.

The Harsh Reality

I have so many more similar stories. And the ladies above have all told me theirs.

But some of these stories, we simply still cannot talk about. It’s a small industry, and it would be too obvious.

And until things change, and the power becomes better distributed amongst the young and the female, we have no choice but to keep quiet and put up with it otherwise we’ll lose our livelihoods.

Until the marine industry stops being dominated by old, white males of the old boys’ clubs – and I really hate to generalise, but I’m really sorry, this is the reality – we will keep experiencing these awkward, embarrassing, demeaning, patronising situations.

That Original List

Just have a look again at that list of awesome women in the marine industry which appeared at the top of this article. Can’t be bothered to scroll? Here it is again:

  1. One of us manages a tall ship
  2. The second runs the office side of a traditional ship charity
  3. The third is an RYA instructor, skipper and surveyor
  4. The fourth is an RYA skipper & instructor of a traditional gaff sailing ship
  5. The fourth & fifth are mother & daughter who live on their wooden boat
  6. The sixth has recently bought & restored a wooden boat with her partner, ready to go off cruising
  7. And there’s me – Yachtmaster, wooden boat owner & SaltyJobs founder

Think back to those stories you’ve read over the course of this article, stories which could have been about any one of these awesome ladies.

Doesn’t it seem absolutely wrong that clearly amazing human beings are having to face this prejudice on a daily basis, just because they happen to love boats and be female?

Yes, it’s wrong.

I feel ashamed on behalf of the entire industry that my absolutely brilliant friends and colleagues, working all across the marine industry, keep having to explain themselves and fight for their voice amongst a metaphorical sea of plastic. Another thing which we should be ashamed about and yet the old generations, who feed our capitalist addiction to a consumer society, keep adding to. Anyway, that’s a tangent. (If you’re interested in these ideas, check out The Establishment: And How They Get Away With It, by Owen Jones.)

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Let’s Make Change

Inspired after chatting with a male friend who works in marine law, and having chatted to so many awesome women just in the last week, I decided that it’s time to do something. This can be the start.

After all, 50% of us are female. We love boats just as much as men. We don’t need to be feminists to see that this is real. Women are experiencing these things every day, across the whole industry.

How can we change this? Let’s:

  • Talk about it
  • Share our stories
  • Support each other
  • Shine the light on something which needs to stop
  • Turn negative energy into a positive force for good
  • Give light and voice to the awesome, strong females that work in our industry
  • Make sure we tell our positive stories

Salty ladies, say hello.

We’ll write an article next outlining the positive side of being a female in the marine industry, because there are lots of these as well as the negatives. We’d love to hear your stories for this – please get in touch.

You could also submit your CV to SaltyJobs. It’s not all bad, and we know of some awesome marine employers who are actively looking to recruit females on their own strong merits. Get involved and let’s make this the norm.
 

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