The Wrong A-gender

Gender diversity is the durian of low hanging fruit in the shipping industry, argues KD Adamson from Futurenautics.

What if I told you that there was something you could do, which required no increase in capex or opex, and which could enable your company to outperform its competitors by up to 26% over the next six years. Interested? Good. Well here it is. Put me on your board.

Actually it doesn’t have to be me, although I’d like to think I’d be an excellent choice. It just has to be someone with two X chromosomes, or—as they are more commonly referred to—women.

According to a six-year study of 2,360 companies by the Credit Suisse Institute those with women on their boards outperformed those without by up to 26%. So if you haven’t got a woman on your board, get one. And if you’ve got a couple, get a couple more.

It isn’t just Credit Suisse which has been racking up hard data about the impact of gender diversity on financial performance. McKinsey has been tracking this for quite a few years now and its findings are incontrovertible. Gender diversity is closely correlated with profitability and value creation.

This kind of data—the kind that goes far beyond bland stats about the percentages of women in the workforce and their pay levels—is absolutely critical. It’s critical because we now know that it isn’t enough to have women in your workforce, they have to be in the right kind of roles to really drive improvements in profitability.

Executive teams of financially outperforming companies have more women in so-called line roles— typically revenue generating and where the bulk of the strategic and operational decisions are made—as opposed to staff roles. That means that filling more posts in HR, marketing, procurement and legal with women is not going to improve your bottom line. But putting them in senior executive positions absolutely is.

McKinsey found that top-quartile companies on executive-level gender diversity worldwide had a 21% likelihood of outperforming their fourth-quartile industry peers on EBIT margin, and a 27% likelihood of outperforming fourth-quartile peers on longer-term value creation, as measured using an economic-profit (EP) margin.

So in an industry where margins are wafer-thin, and companies are investing wholesale in order to shave percentage points off operating costs, you’d expect its leaders to be all over this like a cheap suit. Fruit doesn’t come much more low-hanging, and yet everyone seems to be avoiding it like the plague.

If you’ve travelled in Southeast Asia you’ll be acquainted with the durian, the so-called ‘King of Fruits’ which has the distinction of being the only fruit banned in certain hotels and on public transportation. Its fruit is delicious, but its odour is not. That has been variously described as “Pig-sh*t, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock,” and “Eating sweet raspberry blancmange in a lavatory.”

I’ve come to the conclusion that gender diversity is the durian of low hanging fruit in the shipping industry. It tastes really great, if you can just get past the smell of it.

I suspect that for many of you reading this the kind of solid data about the business case for gender diversity I’ve just outlined will come as a surprise. You may well have assumed that it was just another rather tiresome CSR measure.

That’s largely because the reluctance of shipping to hold its nose and grab this particular durian means that its data—or rather the lack of it—doesn’t smell too good. If you don’t measure it you can’t manage it, and when it comes to gender diversity shipping can’t even be bothered to measure it.

It’s 2018, the era of big data, analytics and evidence-based decision making, yet shipping is still doing the equivalent of licking its finger and holding it in the air, counting the relative lengths of the queues for the gents and ladies’ lavatories at industry conferences, and relying on anecdote and indignation to drive the narrative around gender diversity.

Evidence of how dysfunctional that narrative really is came on Twitter this week when a shipping journalist had the temerity to question why a WISTA conference had several panels with more men than women on the stage.

It was a measured and reasonable intervention, but the response on Twitter was depressingly predictable. “What’s your point?” the WISTA twitter feed demanded of the journalist. And it’s a good question, because I think the point is actually a rather fundamental one.

Should the role of WISTA be to stage conferences which don’t focus on gender diversity but have a broad and inclusive shipping agenda? And if that’s the case, why should the gender complement of the panels be an issue? As the sensible Lena Gothberg tweeted, surely the quality of the speakers is the important thing.

But hold on. If WISTA isn’t there to make the case for gender diversity, to reshape the agenda by undertaking the research, analysing the data, putting the talented women on its stage and engaging the senior male leaders who need to be convinced by the commercial case for gender diversity, what is it there for?

In an era where networking, sharing insights and information and accessing intelligence can be done globally at the press of a button, lots of membership organisations are having to reassess the value they really bring. The danger is that you end up being not much more than a drinking club, and—though I am a huge fan of drinking—it takes more than that to justify companies paying membership dues for their staff in an industry where money is currently tighter than a mackerel’s backside.

The reality is that gender diversity could be boosting the bottom lines of shipping and maritime companies right now, and somebody needs to start making the solid business case to take to their leaders. It’s a discussion that we got into on stage at APM earlier this year when I chaired a panel of senior shipping women including WISTA regional representatives.

If you spend your time trying to understand what the future’s going to look like, as I do, it’s clear just how vital this is. As automation increases occupations which place a premium on interpersonal skills will see major growth, and women excel in the one skill AI doesn’t have—EQ or emotional intelligence.

Women consistently outperform men in all EQ measures. So continuing to encourage women to go to sea in roles which are likely to be automated instead of embedding them into executive positions ashore isn’t just short-sighted, it could be utterly disastrous.

As part of the exchanges WISTA tweeted that ‘diversity is not women’s responsibility’, which I’m afraid I have to disagree with. It’s everyone’s responsibility. So if that’s really the attitude within WISTA then the industry may have to look elsewhere for the leadership, data and action it needs.

In the final analysis what this comes down to is not gender, but agenda. Shipping needs a positive commercial agenda around gender diversity which frames the debate properly and focuses on helping shipping businesses—the vast majority of which are SMEs without big corporate structures behind them—to make commercial and competitive value out of employing women in their organisations.

We need to give shipping leaders a solid reason to make a fast grab for this durian. And that’s going to take more than just causing a stink on twitter.


Splash is Asia Shipping Media’s flagship title offering timely, informed and global news from the maritime industry 24/7.


  1. Gender diversity at the workplace comes naturally to me, just like this south-east Asian love for the stinking king of all fruits. There are and will probably be more workplace roles in maritime that females are better at performing. What is important is also for my female counterparts to rethink your significance especially now we are talking about a 100-year life span.

  2. First, thank you KD for shining more light on the need for increased gender diversity in the shipping industry. Your article brings to light much of what we have discussed internally in the last year as global movements have increased opportunities for membership organizations like ours to make a significant difference in empowering women and changing the culture in the workplace.
    Gender diversity, equality and inclusion has been one of the main tenants of WISTA since it was founded in 1974. Our mission has evolved since then, but we continue to empower women at all levels of the industry. For example, last week’s conference which you mention above had a majority of women speakers, 13 women and 9 men. All speakers were well qualified and experienced and provided interesting discussions. There was indeed a comment about the line-up of the first two panels on Twitter. Comments like this are great, for as we work to increase gender diversity we cannot simply sit back and pat ourselves on the back for having gender equality on panels.
    Unfortunately, the answer on behalf of WISTA was expressed poorly. WISTA strongly believes that gender diversity isn’t only the responsibility of women but of everyone. Our industry is rapidly changing, and we completely agree with you that Twitter discussions are not enough.
    In the last year, WISTA has focused around this idea of propelling the industry forward with real action. In January we announced our Diversity Committee, which is creating industry guidelines, best practices, and recommendations on diversity issues. WISTA often cooperates with other organizations (IMO, European Commission, ISWAN to name a few) and companies providing our expertise on diversity issues; we promote women in our industry and give them a platform; we promote role models for the younger generations.
    We take any criticism with open-mindedness and look into how we can be better. We did miscommunicate our point on Twitter and for that, we apologise. But make no mistake that WISTA’s role is to empower women and promote the values of diversity and inclusion.

    Despina Panayiotou Theodosiou
    on behalf of WISTA International

  3. Top! Talking about the not so few remaining reservoirs with sole male human beings… you need not only to talk about overall numbers if you want to mix gender there, but also dominance, adrenaline as well as skills and attitude. You certainly do not want to do that without facilitation, training and choosing the best (cherry-picking gets a fully new meaning, sorry). We might end up – like with the Olympic Games – that female will have it much easier to gain advertising/support and to reach top levels among their gender than men. Where we are talking now about top-level positions, it might be a long way to go to mixed gender at top levels yet, but we should also avoid that it will be then just the other way round… goal should be top performance in business, not the gender subject. If all companies have mixed gender top level management, market dominance and outperforming competitors will be more difficult again. Isn’t it now first come, first served… ?

  4. Dear Chye Poh Chua,
    Thanks for your advice, I’m now considering that I am better suited to performing the role of CEO or any other high level C-suite role.

    I think it’s also great that as you say, 100 life span, what’s say a 5 year gap for childbearing mean to that career span. A mere drop in the ocean if you will.

    ??? On supporting gender diversity.

  5. If you want to see a more ‘diverse’ group of people in your workforce (gender and ethnicity), they must be trained and educated to meet the qualifications or requirements for any particular job. This is true for ashore or at sea. Though sea-going jobs have (surprise!) much more challenging legal and technical requirements.

    But before these females and culturally diverse individuals are “hired” for jobs, they must apply. You have to have candidates that are interested in your job openings.

    Before they are interested in your job openings, they must be aware of our industry and just what is it that we do….ashore or at sea. Therein lies the big disconnect. In my country (USA), our maritime industry is little understood or even known, grossly underappreciated for our contribution to the economy and job market. Therefore, most people take no interest in working in maritime-related careers, simply because they do not know of the opportunities that exist.

    How many of your readers work in maritime companies that “actively” recruit job applicants?? By recruit, I mean, they have a budget and a person (or department) that spends time, effort, and money to go out to maritime academies and business colleges to find the specific individuals they WANT to hire?? Very few I imagine.

    You will never have females employed as senior ship’s officers unless they are FIRST employed as ratings on your ships. OR you have hired them directly from maritime colleges.

    You will never have females employed in your office as execs until you hire them first as staff to obtain experience. Or you recruit them from business colleges.

    There was a significant lawsuit in the US just a few years ago, against a maritime entity. It was specifically about the lack of “gender diversity” within a maritime business. But the very specific qualifications that were required (for ANYONE) applying were highly technical and legally demanding. Therefore, the obvious result was, few qualified applicants were available each year. The number of ethnically and gender diverse applicants were even fewer in number. Or even existed at all! The female that filed the suit against this entity, won and was awarded several million dollars. Part of the judgment required the maritime entity to hire “…a workforce that included a gender and ethnically diverse group of individuals…”

    Post-lawsuit in a review conducted by a regulating authority shortly thereafter, it became very clear why there were no more females, African-Americans, and Asians applying for this job. The requirements to even apply were demanding, time-consuming, technically specific, and personally expensive to obtain. Even white males were simply ‘filtered out’ by the lifelong process to even be qualified to apply for a job.
    This fact underscored the reality that employers can only hire those who are available and actively apply for jobs where there are openings. It is a long road to travel in our industry, to get to senior management ashore or shipboard positions.

    Cultivating a cultural and gender diverse workforce ANYWHERE means starting at the early stages of a career path. You don’t ‘suddenly’ have young executives or Third Assistant Engineers or Mates arrive at your doorstep unless you’ve made the effort to encourage them or invite them. Thus, if you are not doing that now, how do you propose you will ever have a culturally and gender diverse business or ship fleet in the future???

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