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Elpi Petraki: Progress for all

Leadership Insights newsletter story

President of WISTA International and Chartering & Business Development Manager at ENEA Management, Elpi Petraki talks about the maritime industry’s advances in diversity and the need for continued improvement.

24 April 2024
Elpi Petraki, President of WISTA International and Chartering & Business Development Manager at ENEA Management. Credit: WISTA

As WISTA president for nearly two years, what progress have you made on your core goals, and what have been some of your biggest challenges and achievements so far?

Diversity is now high on the agenda in the maritime industry and so our goal has been to make sure our voice is heard at every discussion in our industry. It’s important to make sure that women are not left out of the conversation as the transformation towards digitalisation and decarbonisation continues. 

One achievement is our Maritime Speakers Bureau. We have seen the way it has affected conferences as organisers have become more aware of it. Women are not just on panels about diversity anymore, women are on professional panels talking on behalf of our businesses; we are helping women in shipping use their voice and evolve in their career. 

Another important area of progress is the conversation on safe environments for seafarers and ending bullying and harassment. We are helping the industry to understand that whatever we do to create a safer environment for women aboard the vessel is good for everybody. We have a problem as an industry of attracting new talent, particularly at sea, so it is important to create an environment that is really safe so we can advertise that.

We face the challenge of diversity being so high on the agenda that people start to draw attention away from it, as if since there has been a lot of work and progress, we don’t need to discuss it anymore. This is not the case. We still see that women are underpaid, we still see that women are not moving so fast to the top positions, so something is still not working.

WISTA is celebrating 50 years in 2024. What do you hope the next 50 years will bring for the sector as a whole and specifically for women maritime workers?

Empowering women more; I want to see an industry that makes women feel sure of themselves and the knowledge they have, a place where women are not afraid to ask for their rightful place and do not have to constantly prove themselves.

WISTA is present in 59 countries and conditions are not the same everywhere. In some locations the basics are in place, and we can focus on specific issues and targeted campaigns to build on our successes, in others we still have to work at a basic level. For me, WISTA will be a success once we have achieved our mission and goals globally.

What barriers do women face on the pathway to leadership roles and what more should companies and organisations be doing to ensure talented women remain in the industry and can rise through the ranks? 

For an organisation, and as leaders, it takes effort to empower people and help them past their difficulties and insecurities. Sometimes this help can be giving women the freedom to travel, as we see companies that do not allow women the same travel opportunities as they allow men. Being in those international networking environments can be important places to observe, learn and demonstrate leadership qualities.

For myself, at WISTA, I try to involve as many people as I can. It would be easy for me or those immediately around me to always jump into important meetings and conversations, but I want to engage more and more people. It can take training, but just taking someone along with you to observe the environment is enough to start the journey.

At ENEA Management I try to give people freedom, ensure they are not afraid to speak up, and give them a chance. It’s a tough environment with long work hours, but we help employees to learn over time. I’m also trying to hire women for roles that are not historically taken by women, like technical positions. I want to see women break the barriers in technical management teams and as seafarers.

For decades the number of women working at sea has remained consistently low, at around the 2% mark, though higher onshore. What progress has been made to make shipping a more welcoming place?  

I’ve been in this industry for 26 years and I don’t see many seafarers who are women, but much more than when I started, whether on deck or in the engine room. I see them being more welcomed by their peers, and I see people now considering pregnancy and working onboard vessels. We made big steps at Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) in 2021 with the first mention of working equipment for women. It took us some time, but now it’s open to more improvement. 

Initiatives in Northern Europe are also being joined by efforts in India to promote diversity in shipping at their academies, which I think is very important.

Two years ago, when I asked some female seafarers what would ease their life onboard, they said it would be better with more women. In ones and twos it is not easy, but the more we are, the more balanced the environment becomes.

What are the challenges you hear about from female seafarers that are leading them to leave roles at sea to go ashore?

I think this is a misconception. Men are also leaving the seafaring community, especially in the younger generations, but because women make up such a small percentage, it gets noticed more when they leave. It’s a common thing for men and women to leave the seafaring environment and we need to adapt to retain people.

To be attractive to younger people, connectivity is very important, they need to know what is happening outside the vessel. But then we need to help them to make a connection with the small environment and family of the vessel too. Of course food is a priority, entertainment is good, and maybe we as an industry need to fundamentally rethink our working models and adapt to shorter embarkation periods.