Women make headway in maritime industry

As the newest addition to the Women’s International Shipping and Trading Association, the Cayman Islands chapter, formed earlier this year, received a warm welcome at WISTA’s general meeting and conference in Limassol, Cyprus, in October.   

Such an embrace from the long-established 2,000-member organization, said the Cayman group’s president Sherice Arman, gave a big boost to the growing number of female managers and executives in Cayman’s maritime industry, which only in recent decades has invited more females into its decision-making ranks. “Being part of WISTA is making a huge difference in our connectedness to the world,” Arman said. 

As a maritime lawyer with the George Town firm of Maples and Calder, Arman predicts this new international connection will prove valuable to Cayman’s shipping industry and especially to the women who work in it.  

“It’s about strength in numbers. We women are a minority in the industry. But with the numbers and the professional affiliation, we have more of a voice.”  

A lot of the credit for pulling local female shipping professionals and managers into the WISTA fold, Arman and other members have said, goes to Dorisley Jackson, who works for the Cayman Islands Shipping Registry. Female shipping professionals had been talking for years about joining the international organization for its networking value and career support. Jackson took the initiative to attend a WISTA meeting in Greece and learned that no one in Cayman could become a member until local shipping managers formed a proper chapter. That would open the door. 

When she got home and began preaching the value of WISTA to her colleagues, Jackson “got overwhelming support” from the local maritime community, including the Cayman Maritime Authority. Under Jackson and Arman’s energetic push, the chapter came together, and the international organization happily invited the Cayman group to join the rest of the world’s female shipping leaders, as well as many male executives who are also members. 

The Maritime Authority and shipping registry here, where Jackson works, date to 1903 when the U.K. established an office in George Town to register sea-going vessels that met international maritime standards. In Cayman, matters of sea-going law and convention have always played a huge part in daily life, and the Cayman Islands government considers the shipping registry to be “one of the guardians” of the islands’ seafaring history. 

Cayman’s Category 1 British Registry designation qualifies the registry to document vessels of all sizes and classes, from yachts to supertankers. 

Over the years, this and other maritime traditions have had everything to do with the islands’ development. Virtually all of the food, fuel and manufactured goods arrive here by sea, as do a large proportion of the customers of one of its key industries – tourism (though of course many visitors also travel here on commercial aircraft).  

Cayman’s offshore banking and financial enterprises, likewise, are practically defined by the islands being a destination apart from and a voyage away from the world’s financial centers. 

In recent years, even through a global financial and trade meltdown and first stages of a slow recovery, maritime business on island has been a relatively bright spot. 

Cayman Islands Financial Services says, “Growth in business has been particularly marked in the past 10 years as more and more ship owners recognize the benefits of flagging into the Cayman islands. Registration across the whole spectrum has grown rapidly, with the ‘mega-yacht’ range particularly impressive. Today, some 350 commercial ships and 1,550 pleasure vessels – representing total tonnage of 3.4 million – are registered with the Maritime Authority of the Cayman Islands.” 

Concurrent with this trend, women have moved into managerial and professional positions in shipping and trade with far more momentum than in any previous 10-year period. So when Jackson began talking with her colleagues about a professional organization for women executives here, many heard just what she was talking about. Just weeks ago, Cayman became the latest of 34 WISTA chapters worldwide. 

“WISTA’s core principles of international networking, business relationships, improving members’ competence, sharing knowledge, mentoring and friendship are those already shared with Cayman’s maritime industry, and this is a wonderful way to formalise these ideals, using them to encourage the further development of Cayman as an international maritime centre,” Jackson said in a written statement,  

While the establishment of a new women’s professional organization here is good news for the women involved in shipping, the international industry confronts a number of challenges.  

For one, it has only recently begun to recover from the global recession that resulted from the 2008 financial collapse. Shipping rates are still lower than the industry wants. International shipping lawyer Jeanne Grasso, a partner with the Blank Rome law firm in Washington, D.C., and a WISTA member, says world regulatory issues will cost industry more in the near future, particularly in Canadian, U.S. and Caribbean waters, where tighter fuel sulfur rules seek cleaner air emissions from large vessels. 

In fiscally uncertain times like these, when many of the trading nations across the globe still feel restrained about importing more goods, shipping naturally suffers to some degree. But economic data show trade slowly picking up across national lines, and that portends well for the companies that move food and freight. 


Strength of WISTA  

WISTA first emerged in another time of uncertainty, 1974, during heart-stopping petroleum-price inflation and the appearance of a mostly Mid-Eastern oil alliance with the power to make its higher prices stick.  

It also was a time, Grasso reminds, when “women were a very small minority in the maritime industry. Today, 40 years later, women are still a small minority in a very male-dominated industry, but opportunities for smart and dynamic women are improving in this field. WISTA provides a great platform for women to network, share experiences and learn from each other. 

“Building worldwide networks also facilitates communication and business, as women tend to like to do business with women to the extent possible,” she said. WISTA in particular, is an organization aimed at “attracting more youth to the industry, including young women, through mentoring.” 

Grasso could not be more enthusiastic about her legal work. “I think shipping is a great and exciting international industry and I love working within it.” She comes to that through a lifelong affinity for the sea. Before law school, she was a marine biologist and worked for seven years in the fishing industry as a researcher on working vessels and still does a lot of legal work focused on regulatory issues in fisheries.  

Meanwhile, the regulatory issues regarding shipping and trade are by no means meager. Her firm’s maritime business is rapidly growing and just as in the rest of the shipping industry, many of the new hires – legal associates and of-council attorneys for the most part – are women. 

“The shipping industry is one that traditionally is very male dominated. But it’s opening doors and allowing for more advancement of women.” That’s sensible because “diversity matters,” she says. “Women and men think differently, and different views are important to all kinds of enterprises.” 

Arman, born and raised in Trinidad and schooled there and in Barbados, picks up on that point in explaining how shipping is finding its way into the 21st century.  

“Fifty or 100 years ago we had a very physical, manual industry. Now, much of the shipping business is operated by computers. The journeys are not as long as they were. The industry has changed significantly.” 

The world has changed significantly too, she points out. “This is a very traditional kind of business. A lot of these shipping companies were family businesses. Historically, you had sons getting involved in running the shipping companies. Now you have sons and daughters and mothers all involved in making decisions. It’s only natural that women take a bigger role in the executive ranks of the industry. 

“And the men in the business, the strong leaders who run these companies, have been very receptive to these changes,” Arman said. “We would not see the increases in women in management if it weren’t for the acceptance of the men who have been in charge.” 

Despite the advancement women have made in the shipping industry, as in most other workplaces there remains a gender wage gap. Both Arman and Grasso acknowledge it. “Here in the U.S. we’re pretty progressive, but we still have wage divides. I hope we get less of that in the future,” Grasso says. 

“Our organization focuses on advancement of women’s opportunity in the industry. Our goal is equality,” she said, “but our message is advancement.”  

Having their own WISTA chapter, Cayman’s women maritime executives believe, will help them advance.  


Standing from left, WISTA members Wanda Ebanks (Maples and Calder), J.D. Mosley-Matchett (UCCI), Robynette Hera-Bodden (CISR), Glenda Dilbert-Davis (CISR), Jenna-Dell Humphrey-Terry (CISR), Melanie Whittaker (Maples-FS), Stacy Foster (Maples-FS) and Nanalie Cover (Maples and Calder). Seated from left, WISTA board of directors Lorna Washington (CISR), Vangie Hunter – treasurer (Hyde Agencies), Sherice Arman – president (Maples and Calder), Dorisley Jackson – secretary (CISR), Natasha Bunting (Cayman Management) and Exie Tomlinson-Panton (CISR).