Women in Top Jobs: WISTA-UK hears the stories from four women who have pushed the boundaries, By James Brewer
One of London’s youngest and most dynamic diplomats; a banker who asserts that ‘glass ceiling’ bias persists in the boardroom; a naval engineer who shone from an early stage in a male-dominated profession; and the world’s first ship surveyor to carry on working while pregnant, related their inspiring stories to the WISTA-UK 2013 Forum.
The four determined career women were speaking in the Women in Top Jobs session at the event in London, which attracted 100 delegates and guests. They acknowledged that while successful achievers had come to the fore, more had to be done to bring women into senior positions in maritime-related professions.
Her Excellency Ana Irene Delgado, ambassador of the Republic of Panama to the UK and permanent representative to IMO, spoke of the record of her country – which has a pivotal role in shipping because of its huge ship register and the strategic importance of the Panama Canal – in gender achievement. Among women in important positions were four ministers in the current government. “Still, there is a lot to do for women, not only in Latin America but in general in the corporate world, ” said Ms Delgado.
Ms Delgado, the youngest ambassador to London to be appointed by Panama, said that there had been occasions when she was asked if she were “the wife of the minister, ” but “after one and a half years of being in London, I feel I am respected by my colleagues and by my friends at the IMO, ” she said. Most of the team with which she works are women.
“As a young woman, you have to demonstrate to people from the very beginning your capabilities. I have had the support especially of my [fellow] Latin American ambassadors, including three or four women, ” among whom the ambassador of Costa Rica “is my dean.” Ms Delgado said that the London ambassador of Ecuador, who has had a “guest” [Julian Assange, Wikileaks founder, who has been sheltering at the embassy for more than a year to avoid extradition to Sweden and possibly eventually to the United States] has had to face annoying questions such as “Is he there?” and “Does he live with you?” Sympathising with the Ecuadorian ambassador, Ms Delgado said: “If she were a man, she would not have to go through these questions.”
The Panamanian diplomat summed up: “The key point is to demonstrate how the work of a woman can make a difference in the corporate sector and international relations.”
Lai Chan Rasti, senior banker with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), recalled going to an interview with a bank in the City 20 years ago. The interview went well but the last question was “when are you going to have a baby?” Ms Rasti said: “Of course, the subtext of the question is that ‘I hope you are not going to get pregnant when you are employed by us!’”
While women comprise up to 50% of the UK workforce, just 32% of managers and 28% of senior executives in the country are female. Statistics show that banking is an even more male dominated business. The number of female managers in the financial sector is similar to the national average (34%), but just 11% of corporate managers and senior executives in banking are women. “You find more women chairmen and chief executives in Asia than in Europe, ” Ms Rasti commented.
She declared: “I believe discrimination still exists but the difference here is that women are prepared to do something about it and not afraid to seek legal redress and also demand better and flexible working.. However, on the top floor, the glass ceiling remains, with women massively underrepresented in senior positions. Not a single global bank is run by a woman.”
Research suggested that women are more likely to avoid the excessive risks that helped to produce the current financial mess. Or, as the current International Monetary Fund director Christine Lagarde quipped in 2010 when she was French finance minister: “If Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters, today’s economic crisis clearly would look quite different.” Ms Rasti: “I think this says it all.”
She spoke of what the EBRD – which supports projects from central Europe, central Asia and southern and eastern Mediterranean, investing primarily in private sector clients whose needs cannot be fully met by the market – is doing to promote gender equality in its countries of operation. Earlier this year, the EBRD board approved what it called its Strategic Gender Initiatives, building on the experience gained under the Gender Action Plan approved in 2009.
The new strategy is putting emphasis in helping female entrepreneurs and employees. It was promoting access finance, especially for small and medium enterprises, to skills and employment, and to services such as transport, electricity and clean water.
A Small Business Support team offers grants under its Women in Business Programme to provide training for women starting their own businesses. As a result, women have held a significant portion of board seats in companies in which the EBRD holds equity stakes; in 2012 around 46% of seats were held by women nominee directors. “I think that is quite an impressive result!”
The EBRD actively supports conferences relating to the promotion of gender equality and every year gives awards to ‘Outstanding women in Business’ from its client list.
Jackie Campos, managing director of Petrobras Europe, said that at school, “instead of playing dolls and mummies, I was happy with hammer and nails. I built a ship and sailed it in the bath tub.” She went on to be one of only two girls in her group to study naval engineering. Ms Campos said she was fortunate to have supportive parents and that Petrobras, a state-run company, had an unprejudiced entry selection process based on performance.
Joanna Townsend, fleet services manager and head of classification at Lloyd’s Register, said she also was the only one in a girls’ school to go in for engineering… “I also enjoyed making things from a Lego box, and do even now.” She said: “Neither of my parents was in engineering, but I did have their support.”
Ms Townsend surveyed ships in many locations, and “I was the first Lloyd’s
Register surveyor who was pregnant. It was my decision about my safety and my company respected that. I was up and down ladders and all the rest of it. The last survey I did was when I was about 30 weeks.” That was in China.
A member of the audience asked: Was there a benefit from being a female surveyor? “Yes. Fortunately for me everybody remembers me in a good way. I might have not been there for 15 years and a shipyard will still remember me.”
Ms Townsend is the most senior technical woman at Lloyd’s Register, which has 8, 000 ships in its fleet. Two out of 14 people In Lloyd’s Register global management are female. As a classificatio9n society, Lloyd’s Register recruits from universities, but suitably qualified women “are just not there.” It was important to encourage girls to pursue such careers, said Ms Townsend, who applauded the work of IMO in that respect.
Pamela Tansey, senior deputy director in the technical co-operation division of IMO chaired the session. She said that the four speakers had encountered an enabling environment.
She said that research had shown that it needed three women on a board of directors “before they start to take you seriously.” That applied more generally to the workplace, too. Ms Tansey said: “There are a lot of perceptions that need to be challenged.”
Ms Tansey co-ordinates the strategy launched 25 years ago by IMO for the integration of women into the maritime sector – the IMO Women In Development Programme. Its aims include integrating women into mainstream maritime activities, improving women’s access to training and technology, and increasing the percentage of women at senior management level.
The panellists were asked about the desirability of legislated quotas for a specific percentage of women to be appointed to boards. Ms Rasti was against them; Ms Campos backed the idea because it would encourage the attitude that “once I am there I am confident that I will perform, and I have been preparing myself for that.” Ms Townsend said that quotas at candidate level could be supported to encourage businesses to monitor progress.
A paper was circulated at the WISTA-UK event citing analysis by the Guardian of 50 of the UK’s top companies carried out last year. The findings implied that women at the management level one rung below the boardroom – viewed as the pipeline of talent to fill future board vacancies – are even more scarce than on FTSE 100 boards, with figures from the Professional Boards Forum showing that 17.3% of blue chip company directors are women.