Why we’re not stretching the men we have as much as we could

Heidi Heseltine provides readers with key takeaways from a recent webinar hosted by the Diversity Study Group.

A total of 285 people tuned in live to watch the Diversity Study Group’s (DSG) recent interview with Gill Whitty-Collins (ex-senior vice president of Procter & Gamble, member of numerous boards, gender equality expert and now a published author) and the video of this event has already been viewed online over 160 times. Now whilst this may not equate to being a YouTube sensation, it does give rise to positivity because it means people are increasingly listening and engaging within the shipping industry when it comes to equality, inclusion and diversity. And, with overwhelming statistics proving the business and social benefits of diversity and inclusion (D&I) combined with increasing reporting requirements in this area (such as ESG reporting, gender diversity reporting and pay gap reporting), it’s reassuring to see the interest and action surrounding the excellent opportunity we have as an industry to improve on our D&I and, through that, achieve better company results, have more motivated and loyal employees and improve our talent attraction and retention as an industry to work in.

The DSG discussion with Gill, focusing largely on gender equality, touched on many areas relevant to shipping for both employers and employees. For many, the biggest lightbulb moment came when talking about gender neutral working policies, traditionally perceived to primarily be of interest and benefit for females, being promoted internally to encourage a strong uptake from males, who it should be noted are keen to make use of such policies, but more about that later.

First and foremost, Gill reconfirmed that D&I is not an HR policy but a business strategy and made the case that if it is not seen in this way, companies may as well go back to the drawing board. D&I should be a business priority that is owned by senior management and not HR, although HR can support its activities as there are few organisations within shipping who employ a dedicated D&I person. Statistics across numerous industry sectors irrefutably demonstrate that those organisations who understand and embrace this will see better results and it seems that shipping is now ready to take a seat at this performance enhancing table and that we, along with the support of industry diversity organisations and initiatives, can change the conversation from why to how.

For organisations venturing into D&I for the first time, the working environment will usually be the starting point – if employees don’t feel able to be themselves at work, or feel confident in being able to speak up, any attempts to further diversity will not reach their potential. In fact, at this point it is worth pointing out that even organisations who are at more advanced stages of D&I will regularly swing between inclusion and diversity activities as both require regular review, monitoring and development in order to be sustainable and progressive.

Measuring progress is another critical component when looking at successful D&I. Within this, organisations will typically gather their own data on inclusion and diversity and use that to hone in further, identifying areas for more in depth focus and development, with ongoing measurement to track progress. Benchmarking within the industry also plays a major role, promoting insight into the bigger picture and detailed statistics together with sharing of best practice, enabling organisations to ascertain how they are faring in comparison to others in the same industry, facing similar challenges.

Leadership capabilities are also fundamental within D&I. Once data has been gathered and the business strategy for diversity prioritised, leadership teams will be responsible, and increasingly are becoming accountable, for delivering the objectives mapped out. Having leaders who are themselves diversity aware makes the task imminently more achievable. Diversity aware leaders create teams where all have a sense of belonging, leading them to feel more loyal and engaged resulting in better performance, innovation and results.

One topic from the DSG discussion with Gill Whitty-Collins that prompted the most reaction and lightbulb moments, was around moving the gender discussion from being about women to being about gender equality.

Gill argues that we’re not stretching the men we have as much as we could because of the lack of diverse competition. It’s currently too easy for them to get the jobs and promotions by the fact their female competition is presently in short supply in the workplace. Furthermore, a group dominated by men and lacking women is likely to be lacking in diversity of thought. Under more balanced scenarios (which also naturally apply to other diversity demographics), greater diversity gives way to more ideas which in turn allows for more complete decisions.

A growing number of organisations are offering enhanced parental leave policies and, largely due to Covid-19, flexible working practices are very much the new normal. BP have advised their staff they are ‘expected’ to work from home 40% of the time and a number of shipping corporations have also offered 40% flexible working and have, or are in the process of, downsizing their offices in order to bring flexible working into the fabric of their working culture and of course reap the economic benefits of smaller offices. If we look at other sectors more advanced than we currently are, it is reasonable to expect this is just the start and that greater flexibility such as an increase in part time roles or job shares, should be anticipated.

For gender equality to work successfully we have to focus on, and be seen to focus on, both sexes. Men not only need to have access to the same gender neutral policies and practices but the way a company positions and communicates these internally has to support it. There are numerous examples across industries of men being denied flexible working post parenthood and of the working culture being openly unsupportive in this respect, that has to change. For the shipping industry, an overwhelmingly male dominated environment, consider the positive change real gender equality could bring and the opportunities it could create for our businesses.

In the UK, the Government Equalities Office has partnered with the Behavioural Insights Team in a three-year collaboration (the Gender and Behavioural Insights programme) to generate evidence on what works to improve gender equality in the workplace. Within this research, remarkably a number of firms reported that they’ve never had a man apply for a flexible working arrangement. However, men do make use of informal flexibility suggesting that men and women both want to be able to work differently, albeit something is stopping men from officially asking for it. Flexible working is still routinely presumed to be for women, particularly mothers. Men who, for example, go part time or ask to work from home more regularly have to challenge gender norms. The report finds it is less “culturally acceptable” for men to work flexibly.

Those curious as to what the appetite for this might be should look to those who are already addressing this. For example, when Zurich Insurance recently overhauled their recruitment practices and focused on highlighting flexible working as an option, along with ensuring job adverts were written using gender neutral terminology, the volume of applicants more than doubled, female applicants for senior management roles rose 20% and there was also an increase in male applicants for these roles. Their CEO EMEA, Alison Martin, stated “….we’ve seen as much interest in flexible working from male employees as we have from females.”

We are seeing a large, and growing, number of gender diversity initiatives in shipping focusing on increased female representation at all levels, with an emphasis on senior management roles (unsurprising given only 17% of these roles are presently occupied by females, according to the DSG Annual Report 2020). We have also seen a significant uptick in female Non Executive Directorships (NEDs). Speaking to some senior industry figures about this, the feeling is that the NEDs are an important driver in communicating a desire for change but ultimately lack the substance to make effective grass roots change. In order to achieve that, a review of how we recruit and the people we seek to recruit is needed and work on that is already underway within the shipping sector – at both local and global levels.

When hiring for diversity, companies need to review their hiring strategies, from the job requirements in terms of skills and experience through to advertising and how to reach passive candidates in the market. On this last point, it is important to keep in mind that research evidences that men will often apply for jobs if they have 60% of the stipulated requirements whereas women tend to only if they meet close to 100% of the essential criteria. Furthermore, in order to drive equality, when hiring in a business area that lacks diversity, sometimes the focus needs to be on people without the years of experience but who have the ability and potential along with the soft skills that align with your business strategy. If on top of this, the males within your organisation are also embracing flexible working and parental leave, the pathway to gender equality may become more readily achievable and your working culture will benefit from better inclusion and employee engagement.

In response to the idea held by some that D&I is a luxury for large organisations, that is simply not the case. Reiterating the point made at the start of this article, D&I is a business strategy and, therefore, businesses of any size stand to benefit if they foster environments geared for equality, inclusion and diversity. For any organisation wanting to deliver the strongest possible results, statistics show that you will get there faster with equality and diversity.

Heidi Heseltine

Heidi Heseltine is the CEO of Halcyon Recruitment and co-founder of the Diversity Study Group. Her past career saw her work for shipowners, brokers as well as Levelseas.


  1. Why is diversity of thought a desirable thing in shipping? Technical personnel have a binary role to play, not an analogue one. Arrive alive and on time. There is very little room for interpretation when following procedures and checklists or promoting safety culture. Male or female shouldn’t matter. Every article on safety culture or BRM is about having ‘the same mental model’ shared in the whole bridge team. Diversity of opinion on what is safe, might be dangerous. That’s why all CoC holders study the same uniform STCW syllabus.

    The idea of genders competing for roles on ships is funny. Why are the vast majority of females at sea working in passenger ships, or on high-tech offshore vessels? Is it because they are european and good english speakers? With roughly 30% ex soviet nationalities, 30% filipino or SE Asian and 30% Indian nationals making up international crews, what exactly do you mean by diversity? Maybe women from those countries and cultures don’t want to go to sea on cargo ships? Isn’t consent important to the business strategy?

    Also, if you want people from lots of different backgrounds to compete for a limited number of jobs at sea, why don’t you focus on making those jobs desirable to more people? With people being held 9 months beyond their contract and reports of suicide, piracy and incidents caused by fatigue on the rise, why would youngsters be fighting to go to sea? Salaries should rise in line with house prices in the country of origin. Why should a female 3rd officer from England be offered the same ITF minimum salary as someone from a country with a far cheaper cost of living – including housing? The real income inequality at sea is between currencies in the home country, not genders.

    Hire on competence. Ignore diversity quotas. Shipping has bigger problems than D&I today. Solve those and plenty will work ashore. Automation of processes will solve this supposed ‘problem’ before any HR policy does.

    It’s hard enough to get good people of any gender. You’re making the complicated part too simple, and the simple part too complicated.

    1. Scott is right on. This DIE religion is a crock of sewage. Hire and promote on competence, not sex. We need people working sea who want to be at sea. Forcing gender quotas on the maritime trades will lead to disaster as surely as forcing gender quotas on nursing and teaching. Sorry ladies, there are no nursing and teaching jobs available to you until 50% of all of those jobs are staffed by men.

      HIre and promote the best REGARDLESS of gender.

  2. ‘Within this research, remarkably a number of firms reported that they’ve never had a man apply for a flexible working arrangement. However, men do make use of informal flexibility suggesting that men and women both want to be able to work differently, albeit something is stopping men from officially asking for it. ‘

    Agreed. Maybe they know that different standards are being expected of them, if they want to compete?

    STCW restricts supply of people going to sea, and the minimum sea time requirements stop people from ‘diiping in a toe’ and trying before they buy, as it were. Make it easier for people to go and do a single trip, and learn about the industry as a generalist and not a specialist, and you’ll naturally have more people (Male or female) to choose from in jobs both ashore and afloat.

    Hiring in shipping is notorious for being a tick box exercise based on stcw certificates and seatime. Very difficult to change sector. Make trips shorter, pay better, above all, make shipboard experience and qualifications easier to obtain.

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