with Caroline Cassandra Lee, President, Women’s International Shipping and Trading Association (WISTA) – Singapore
WISTA has been established in 1974 in the UK, a time when Singapore was just starting to place itself on the international scene as an independent country. Why did it take until 1998 to form the Singaporean chapter of WISTA?
The global spread of the association was very much related to the other forces of globalization. The increased use and availability of communication technology and corporate travel facilitated the internationalization process of our own association. This resulted in more and more branches of WISTA in other countries, including Singapore in 1998. There were no female shipbrokers here in Singapore upto 15 to 20 years ago. South Korea for example did not have any female shipbrokers until 5 years ago. I even think that Indonesia does not have any female stockbrokers today. Despite the Asian financial crisis when we were founding the branch in Singapore, it was just time to start the association here.
WISTA is well-known within the shipping industry worldwide, but what is the situation in Singapore? How has WISTA translated its international success into local recognition?
We do and co-organize a lot of seminars, lunches, etc. Recently we have also organized quite a few conferences. We further also provide a platform for networking that allows the international success to be spilled over from one country to another.
Why should more women consider the shipping industry and what is WISTA Singapore doing to increase their awareness on careers they can pursue?
Our main argument for women is to become part of the board of a company. If you look at what percentage of company boards have women in them, and to what extent, you easily recognize inequality. A natural question which then follows is: “are we given the chance or are we not good enough?”. We may lack the experience as women very rarely sail on ships, but it is not that clear what is currently blocking women. It is possible that the traditional role pattern still plays a role as women tend to give up their jobs easier for the purpose of the family. Nevertheless, many cases from abroad show that it is possible for women to combine a family role with a demanding job. Often however, this requires flexible arrangements with the company such as working part-time. Not many companies can offer this flexibility.
How do you see the role of women in the shipping industry changing over the years? What societal framework do you believe needs to be in place to make this change happen?
We can see improvements but it is a very slow process we hope to speed up. We hope that the market can see the potential of this pool of women ready to work in the industry. I further believe that women are more loyal and love their job. However, building this credibility and proving this is the case takes a long time. At a societal level, we can take the example of maternity leave. Policies like in Denmark where you have several months of leave for both men and women can generate more equality. Here we only have maternity leave for women. Having certain aspects of such framework in place can be a good idea, but in the end it all comes down to what extent the government is willing to be involved. For Singapore however, I feel that the women are more outspoken compared to other countries in the region such as South Korea. It is our culture to speak up. The government here also strongly supports our purpose. In the same way as Sweden is an example for Europe, Singapore can become a frontrunner for the Asian region in increasing the role of women in the shipping industry in order to increase their numbers on company boards. However, in order to do so we need to retain funding as our members need to pay the membership from their own pocket. We do not get any support from companies at a financial level.
Do you think the shipping industry can become an example for other industries to have greater involvement of women?
I think it could. Other sectors such as engineering, the medical sector, etc. could also organize similar initiatives. At WISTA of course the members only talk about the shipping industry as they are networking. There are no hidden agendas. A considerable amount of deals are closed as a result of this networking platform, an example for many other industries. We try to organize some joint events with other associations as well.
Do you believe that the glass ceiling for women can encourage female workers to pursue entrepreneurial initiatives more?
If that is the case, it usually happens at a very low profile basis. A they may perceive it very hard to become a board member, they can become more tempted to start their own businesses.
Do you believe there will be a time that an association as WISTA will not be needed anymore, i.e. when there is sufficient equality?
I do not believe this will soon happen and think that WISTA will stick around for a long time. As a growing association, it is here to stay. Our last annual conference had members from 22 different countries, gathered here in Singapore. We are also expanding into new nations such as Turkey, Uruguay, Panama, Israel etc. We are also trying to have a branch started in the United Arab Emirates, Taiwan and China in the coming months. Our goal is to have women enjoying higher academic education and subsequently gaining relevant practical experience in order to be present as board members in greater numbers in the future.
Why did you initially choose for the shipping industry?
Twenty years ago, I asked myself what industries Singapore had to offer which would not go out of business easily. At that time I found two industries: shipping and aviation. I ended up pursuing a career in shipping.