The gender divide

Steering a path: Auckland employee Johanna Hofmann takes to the controls on a portainer crane
Steering a path: Auckland employee Johanna Hofmann takes to the controls on a portainer crane
Change: New Orleans CEO Brandy Christian believes that as more women join and rise up in the industry, gender as a barrier to leadership will evaporate
Change: New Orleans CEO Brandy Christian believes that as more women join and rise up in the industry, gender as a barrier to leadership will evaporate
Balanced: at San Diego, nearly half of the staff are women, says CEO Randa Coniglio
Balanced: at San Diego, nearly half of the staff are women, says CEO Randa Coniglio
Out front: Auckland general manager Diane Edwards notes that women instantly made an impact at the front line
Out front: Auckland general manager Diane Edwards notes that women instantly made an impact at the front line

Great strides have been made in breaking down the gender bias in ports, finds Dave MacIntyre

Ports and shipping remains one of the most male-dominated industries in the world. But while women may not have reached gender equality, the enormity of the success in breaking down stereotypes should not be underestimated.

In recent years, women have broken through into middle management, executive and board level, as well as in operational roles on the wharf itself.

Randa Coniglio, appointed chief executive of the Port of San Diego in 2015, is the first female president and chief executive in the port’s 52-year history and as CEO has overseen some of the organisation’s biggest initiatives and deals including the Chula Vista Bayfront Master Plan in 2012, a $700m Convention Centre expansion, and a 25-year lease renewal for Dole Fresh Fruit.

She tells Port Strategy that when she was appointed, reactions were positive: “I feel like my position shows that hard work, professionalism and a focus on community benefit really pays off. I didn’t have any obstacles as a woman here at the port. I was given opportunities and took them. Challenges aren’t barriers – they’re problems to work on and solve.

“I approach my work in a scientific way – look at the data, draw conclusions, figure out what’s missing, and fill in the gaps.”

She says women are making great strides. “I recently read that only about 8% of employees at the 100 major seaports in America are women. Here at the Port of San Diego, nearly half of our staff are women – and of my five vice presidents, two are women. The tide is turning at other ports, too.

“I see more women working at every level of every industry. Women are driven and are earning their place in leadership because they have the education and experience. More and more, organisations are recognising the importance of diverse perspectives. When we see people like us in leadership roles, we know we can and will get there.”

A turn at the top

Brandy Christian, chief executive at the Port of New Orleans, says it is becoming common for women to hold leadership positions in the maritime industry.

“I feel strongly that diversity of all kinds – gender, ethnicity, age, background, skill set – helps make an organisation more vibrant and strong. I believe I was chosen because I had the necessary experience and skill set to lead the port.

“I never felt held back as a woman, perhaps because I stayed focused on my work. From the start, I was always willing to take on new assignments, even particularly difficult ones. This gave me valuable experience and also exposed me to all areas of port operations.”

She agrees barriers to women are receding. “As more women join the industry, gain experience, rise in their professions, and succeed at the C-suite and director levels, gender as a barrier to leadership simply evaporates. Currently, females lead 11 of the American Association of Port Authorities member ports and that number is only going to go up.

"I am also seeing diversity defined more broadly. The industry as a whole benefits when the best and brightest minds are contributing their experience and ideas at all levels, and I think more people in the industry are aligning around that.”

Her advice to women considering a career in the ports industry is: "Be willing to take risks. Jump in and volunteer when you see opportunities to learn new skills because your skill set will ultimately determine your ability to succeed. Step outside your comfort zone, and do not be afraid to speak up when you have ideas; exploring options will give you valuable experience.

“That said, if you are not chosen for opportunities to grow because of your gender – go find an organisation that recognises your abilities.”

No need for quotas

In New Zealand, Port of Tauranga chief executive Mark Cairns supports gender equality but dismisses “quota systems” to achieve it.

“That is quite demeaning to women. It is far better to make appointments based on merit, and to that end we have strived to remove the barriers to achievement that women may face.

“For example, we try to ensure that interviewing panels are not single-sex, particularly for jobs where there may be a traditional bias towards males. I feel we have been successful in boosting the number of women in operational roles.”

As examples, in 2010 Tauranga appointed Sara Lunam to its top executive tier and women now occupy positions as diverse as company director (accountant Julia Hoare), customer services manager and property manager, while Tauranga’s stevedoring contractors employ many female straddle drivers.

Perhaps the most notable appointment was Anna Willoughby as a tug hand – “You can’t imagine a more traditional male-dominated job,” says Mr Cairns.

Culture change

Ports of Auckland made gender diversity a major plank of its culture change when chief executive Tony Gibson took over in 2011. A new executive team was put in place, including Diane Edwards (now general manager People Systems and Technology) at a time when women were less than 5% of the workforce. None were in operational roles in stevedoring and marine or substantive roles that led to senior or executive management. 

Specific initiatives saw the numbers of women working in port management increase from 7% to 33% of Auckland’s management between 2011 and 2015. By 2015 women made up 10% of stevedores.

A number of “firsts” include the first female finance manager, head of business improvement, marine manager and general manager, and in 2015, the first female board chair, Liz Coutts.

Women have helped significantly change the culture and performance of the port. “In 2011, Port of Auckland had the lowest productivity of any port in Australasia, was failing to meet cost of capital and had arguably the most toxic culture of any company in New Zealand with annual strikes, bullying and frequent dissent.

“By 2014 improvements through people, processes and technology enabled POAL to make a record profit, not just covering cost of capital but coming close to providing a 12% return on equity to its shareholder. By early 2015, POAL had increased productivity so much it was recognised as having the highest productivity in Australasia,” says Ms Edwards. 

Women instantly made an impact at the front line. They started to outdo men in productivity figures, sometimes as much as 14%. They were more committed, safer and faster.

“As more women joined the workforce it was proved that this was not a fluke. It was not because they had more skill – the difference was down to attitude. Reluctant to be ‘beaten by a woman’ we then saw productivity figures also begin to rise among the men, with a consequent rise in overall productivity. Now, as relations have normalised, the desire to achieve high productivity has now become the norm.”


For ports looking for a gender diversity model to follow, Ports of Auckland won the Gender Diversity in Leadership Category of the New Zealand Women in Governance Awards in 2016. Initiatives include:

1)  Upgrading recruitment, selection and progression processes, including revising skill requirements and using this to change recruitment and selection practices; rethinking career progression models to tackle unconscious bias inherent in the old system; and introducing aptitude testing for operational roles.

2)  Actively supporting women in the workplace, including establishing internal support networks; supporting membership to external support networks; and addressing unconscious bias in the workplace.

3)  Introducing flexible contracts, including options for part-time work; the ability to work from home; flexibility of hours; and hours specified over long periods of time, enabling flexibility for several months.

This range of initiatives has opened up career opportunities for many women who now comprise 65% of Auckland’s identified high-potential staff (i.e. showing the ability to rise to general manager level). At stevedoring level, women initially achieve on average 1.28 extra moves per hour than their young male colleagues.

Looking forward, Auckland’s approach has moved to educating people about the ability of women to bring new and different perspectives. This includes highlighting some of the achievements of women to demonstrate the value they have added to the organisation and showing the different line of thinking that they brought to problem-solving; emphasising the importance of diversity of thought to encourage high-potential women to participate more in strategic initiatives that will develop their profile for high roles; and continuing to identify and address unconscious bias.


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