Once considered bad luck on board a ship, a new generation of women are challenging superstition and prejudice and asserting themselves in senior positions in the fishing sector.

While it’s true that globally nearly half the industry’s workforce is female, most work is in production, processing and distribution rather than at sea and even less so in leadership positions.

But this is changing. A case in point is Sandisiwe Binda, a young second navigational officer on board Oceana’s Desert Diamond, Southern Africa’s largest fishing vessel.

Ironically and contradictorily, although superstition held that women were bad luck to have on board, sailors believed them to be excellent navigators, which is why female figureheads with their eyes wide open were often seen on the prows of ships.

While Sandi, as she’s known to friends and colleagues, is currently the only woman on the Desert Diamond bridge, she was fortunate that after graduating her cadet course, she served under a female chief officer on the Old Agulhas.

“Sailing under a female chief officer taught me so much – just about being a female at sea and growing as a female.”

Sandi isn’t the exception. She follows in the footsteps of Thembela Taboshe, whose career is a case study on what can be achieved when talent, determination, opportunity, and training combine. She is, to date, only the third black woman to obtain a Master Mariner qualification, which means she is licenced to command any vessel of any size, anywhere in the world.

She has now transitioned from the bridge to the boardroom and is the Safety, Health and Environmental Executive at Blue Continent Products, a subsidiary of the Oceana Group.

According to Zodwa Velleman, Group Executive for Corporate and Regulatory Affairs, Sandi and Thembela’s achievements are no accident, but part of a deliberate, unremitting approach that’s not just about challenging convention, but also makes good business sense.

“Organisations that prioritise gender parity are more successful. They outperform their competitors on nearly every metric, from innovation to revenue growth to customer and employee satisfaction.”

But, she says, challenging long-held beliefs and institutional bias to implement change requires more than just good intentions and handy catch phrases. Actions speak louder.

It’s something she learnt as a graduate on a visiting lawyer programme working for New York lawyer Ellen O’ Doner. Ellen didn’t talk about empowerment and upliftment but was ready to lose a billion-dollar deal, if the young South African lawyer wasn’t included in the core team.

“Change requires proactivity. It entails seeking talent, recognising ambition and commitment, and then coupling these with skills development and experiential training. That’s the way to open doors.”

This is why two years ago, Oceana invested R40 million in a bespoke Maritime Academy in Hout Bay. It focuses specifically on training people for the fishing industry.

The skills and training programmes are designed to provide career opportunities for Oceana employees, 43% of whom are female, with a similar proportion in leadership roles.

The Academy also offers courses aimed at addressing skills shortages in the small-scale fisheries sector, to assist new entrants to the industry as well as providing first-aid and related training for the local community.

The company is investing a further R35 million a year in sector-specific courses and training. As the Academy grows the intention is to offer more specialist courses and forge international alliances to provide global-best-practice exchange opportunities.

“One of the challenges for determined women in fishing is opportunity as the industry is very sector-specific, so people tend to stay in positions for a long time,” explains Zodwa. “As with any transition it’s a journey and we know there’s some way to go – but recognising and nurturing talent and providing training to ensure women are able to achieve their career ambitions is a start.”

Issued by Meropa Communications