Speaking out for gender equality in maritime industry

Despina Panayiotou Theodosiou, co-CEO, Tototheo Global, a company driving technology and connectivity in the maritime industry, received the inaugural International Maritime Organization (IMO) Gender Equality Award on May 17. In an interview with Maritime Fairtrade, Despina gave an insight into gender equality and women empowerment. 

Despina Panayiotou Theodosiou, co-CEO, Tototheo Global. Photo credit: Tototheo Global

How did you feel about receiving the IMO Gender Equality Award?

I was incredibly grateful and honored to receive the award. I see it as an acknowledgement of the collective efforts of many individuals and organizations striving to create a more equitable and inclusive industry. Receiving the award from IMO Secretary General Arsenio Dominguez was a special moment. It was a reminder of the progress we have made and the importance of continuing to push for meaningful change. 

What is the edge in the roles women play, which benefit the industry in ways that men cannot?

Diversity is not just a matter of fairness, but a strategic imperative for industry growth. Promoting the role of women is a pragmatic approach to addressing the challenges and opportunities facing the maritime sector. 

Despite its conservative label, the shipping industry has known significant change over the decades. However, in the last few years, we see digitalization and sustainability change the industry at a rate much quicker than it has seen before. We are seeing increased collaboration and a willingness to bring in ideas from outside the industry, and not rely on doing things at the same pace and the same way. 

Our industry goals will not be achieved with status-quo thinking but with a broad range of minds working together to solve problems – and that means including both genders. If we do not, we will lose them to sectors which are more dynamic and rewarding for bright minds.

We need to have diverse perspectives that will lead to better decision-making and problem-solving, enhancing the industry’s competitiveness and resilience.

It is important to say that this is not a battle between genders. By embracing the strengths of both genders, we can work together to create a more dynamic, innovative and successful industry.

Despina Panayiotou Theodosiou and IMO Secretary General Arsenio Dominguez (right). Photo credit: Tototheo Global

The award is in recognition of your past role as president of WISTA. What were the goals you had in mind when you took the helm?

This award acknowledges our collective efforts to champion diversity and inclusion. Our shared goal was to break down barriers, foster inclusivity, and create opportunities for women to excel in a traditionally male-dominated sector. The overarching vision was to create a future where women have equal opportunities for leadership, professional development and recognition within our sector. 

To achieve this vision, we focused on several key objectives. Firstly, advocating for policies and practices which uphold gender equality and eliminate barriers to women’s progression in shipping. This led us to apply for consultative status at the IMO, ensuring we have a seat at the table where policy decisions are made. 

Secondly, we created regional and global initiatives to broaden their networks.  We made sure to enhance the visibility and representation of women in shipping by establishing alliances with industry stakeholders and other international organizations. 

My genuine objective was to listen to every national WISTA Association, understand and respect the unique aspects of different cultures, and identify what unites us. It was important to acknowledge and celebrate women in maritime at national and regional levels while remaining committed to our global mission. The overarching goal was to create a cultural shift within the shipping industry towards greater inclusivity, diversity and gender equality. 

Comparatively between Asia and Europe, what have you noticed are the different challenges women face in career advancement? 

It is important to acknowledge the uniqueness of each culture to effectively drive progress in both industry attitudes and international policy. 

Although Asia is a vast continent with significant internal differences, we generally observed that gender roles are more deeply ingrained within Asian societies. There is societal pressure to prioritize family responsibilities over professional ambitions. 

In Europe, although there has been significant progress in terms of gender equality, women still face systemic challenges like under-representation in senior leadership positions, and unconscious bias in recruitment and promotion processes. 

Women in both continents experience difficulties in balancing work and family responsibilities. However, in Europe, there are stronger social policies such as parental leave and flexible working arrangements that can help alleviate some of these challenges. In contrast, such policies are not as common in Asia and this can hinder career advancement for women. 

While women in both Asia and Europe face challenges in career advancement, these can vary substantially in their nature. What was very clear to me was that there should not be a one-size-fits-all approach to creating change. Addressing these challenges requires tailored strategies that consider the specific cultural and social contexts of each region.

Even though women’s professional roles have advanced for years, there always seem to be many pushbacks. In the maritime sector, how can the interests of women continue to be safeguarded and promoted? 

Shipping needs new thinking and new ways of addressing future and existing challenges. It also requires leadership that is fit for purpose and ready to do things differently. Our objective should be to increasingly build up diversity awareness, where leaders do not choose their workforce based on gender, color or ethnicity, but on capability and being fit for the job. However, to get there, we still have work to do. We must address deeply ingrained societal norms, biases, and structural barriers.

This change we aim to achieve is not only the responsibility of women. It is not only about women feeling they have the capabilities and the right to be part of the discussion about the industry’s future. It is also about maritime leaders needing to be aware of how their decisions impact a workforce and how a diverse way of thinking can benefit an industry in a new era of technological change. As an industry and as a society, we are changing and challenging the status quo. This is where diversity comes in. Diversity is the key to getting this right.

This is also why the IMO/WISTA Women in Maritime Survey is so important. It is the first time in this sector that we have actionable data, which helps gain insights into areas where women are or are not gaining employment, where women hold positions of authority, and where traditional gender attitudes are strong. Data like this gives us a chance to focus our efforts on broadening awareness, acceptance and bringing about the change we need.

To drive this change, we must set clear diversity and inclusion goals and track progress, promote flexible work arrangements to support work-life balance, advocate for initiatives that provide women with access to maritime education and training and encourage women within the sector to join networks, which will help them advance in their careers.

Photo credit: iStock/ celiaosk

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