Most Synergy vessels have multinational crews and there is an increasing number of lady seafarers, and I have sailed with Filipinos, Sri Lankans, Nigerians, Russians and Indians – but not, yet, with a woman. I expect that will come, and I have immense pleasure in sharing part of my already wonderful journey so others can hopefully learn from my experience, which I can here summarise as: “diversity is beautiful and it is at the core of Synergy’s value system”.
First, imagine a time like in the film “Pirates of the Caribbean”, where maritime trade used to happen between kingdoms with all-male crew from only their own nations. Now, come straight back to present day commercial marine transportation, where the industry is no longer wholly male-dominated, and there are all kinds of people from all sorts of backgrounds on board, with lots of cultural differences, and … also women in leadership positions.
That is a huge amount of change.
Having diversity on a ship is a blessing. One person’s strength can be another’s weakness and vice versa, and that can create such a powerful working atmosphere. Also, with women in the mix, men get to see (what lady seafarers know, which is that) the other gender can have the same, and sometimes maybe greater, working ability.
And this is why most ship owners nowadays prefer to have a strong diverse team on board, rather than having everybody from the same ethnic background or of the same gender. Looking ahead to 2050, we all need to continue with this thinking, and also to work on lots of things, so we always have an inspired, smart, determined, diverse team on every vessel.
For this, the absolute core things are communication and gender equality.
On communication, sure, there will be a common language, stated in the ship’s SMS, but speaking the same words does not solve the problem of cultural differences or address the fact that, in the same situation, we often act or behave differently from each other because of cultural roots. The way we say something, or how we act, may be interpreted differently because of cultural barriers, and this can lead to misunderstandings or even accidents. All this might also be accentuated by differences in personalities, interests and education. Also, many of the problems associated with cultural differences arise because of stereotyping – certainly, assuming that all crew members of one particular cultural group are the same can lead to misconception, and might even cause offence.
The first and most important step towards improving communication between cultures is awareness. Knowledge of other cultures leads to respect for differences as well as recognition of similarities. Being able to understand and interpret people’s behaviour in different situations is a great advantage, but it is also vital to see that this process works both ways. We all have a cultural background, so we must maintain awareness of our own culture and thus how others may interpret our actions.
On an individual level, one can build knowledge of what certain expressions mean, and do not mean, and also what certain actions might convey in another cultural context. All this is very important among a diverse crew, in order to create and maintain effective teamwork.
Any change in the behaviour and attitude of a crew or other workforce has to begin with a change among its leading members. So all leaders must reflect on their own behaviours, and also inevitable prejudices, so they can gradually increase intercultural competence, and also demonstrate that, and help with better-informed vigilance, with such things eventually becoming the standard for all.
On gender equality, it is meaningless to talk about diversity in the maritime industry, with some vision for 2050, or any other date, without totally accepting that there should be women on board, and also addressing the issues that many still face.
It has been amazing to see how strong women are, in coming into the industry and showing their prowess in such a male- dominated arena, and defeating all the preconceived ideas about their being women. Worldwide, women were in general subdued and stereotyped as regards professions like shipping and the military, but not any longer.
But the problem has shifted, so it is now discrimination, which is basically prejudice put into practice. Those who discriminate think that certain categories of people are inferior, and therefore not to be treated with respect. For example, women engineers can still be assigned menial tasks and denied the opportunity to use their knowledge and skills on more difficult work. Of course all jobs have to be done, but failing to share them out fairly is an act of discrimination.
Why does this happen? There are two main reasons, both rooted in ignorance.
First, upbringing – this is down to having been fed opinions as if they were facts, when growing up, or having had so little contact with a different group as to regard it as almost from another planet. Second, lack of understanding – behaviour other than our own is interpreted as bad, dangerous or peculiar, when it is merely different, and when seen from the other’s point of view is entirely normal and rational.
In tackling this particular problem, what should the Master and other officers do?
Discrimination, whatever form it takes, will poison the atmosphere on board ship, because it very often involves the unacceptable use of power. Thus, those whose position gives them authority are the ones best placed to deal with it, by setting a clear example, being systematic, keeping their eyes open and nipping any problems in the bud. In other words, and as I am glad to say, this simple route map for a company is that which is already followed at Synergy, according to clear policy, and backed up by a disciplinary procedure, and that is what is needed.