Port diversity initiative breaks down barriers

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Having to be able to regularly lift metal bars weighing between 18 and 30kg in order to start a stevedoring career at Ports of Auckland meant most women were instantly counted out.

Stevedores were traditionally required to work as lashers before moving on to other roles, which involved using the metal bars to secure containers on to ships.

“Lashing involves carrying a lot of heavy metal and when we test people out for that kind of role, it was very difficult for women to pass that. Not many even tried. Not many men were able to do it either,” Diane Edwards, general manager people and processes at Ports of Auckland, told HRM.

“Since the rise of technology, a lot of that has changed now and we realised that there isn’t any reason why someone couldn’t be recruited straight into straddle driving or straight into crane driving.”

Straddles are vehicles used at port terminals for moving and stacking shipping containers.

Edwards said the organisation had been going through a period of massive transformational change in the past year and part of that was around culture change and getting more diversity of thought into the business.

That involved looking at the kind of workers and skills required at the port and what the barriers were to women interested in joining the organisation.

“We had more than 300 stevedores and at one stage, we didn’t have any women at all and we thought, ‘What are some of the reasons people might not want to work at the port?’”

Edwards, who is also the chair of the Women’s Forum for the International Association of Ports and Harbours, has a particular interest in women in the shipping industry which began when she discovered that she was the first female executive at Ports of Auckland.  

“I thought, there was no reason why we can’t get more female managers in if they fit the criteria. We had a look at what we were looking for in our leaders, which in the past was very much around traditional measures – how long had they been in the organisation, how long had they been in the operational area – and because we didn’t have many women in the operational area, we weren’t getting many through into management either.

“So we started asking questions like, ‘Do they have to have worked in operations?’ and for some roles, answer was definitely yes, so we thought bringing women stevedores into the port begins the pipeline. It may not solve the problem now, but in a few years’ time when those women are ready for promotion, they’re available within that talent pool for it.”

For other roles, an operational background wasn’t deemed necessary as long as the candidate understood how the logistics supply chain area of the business operated, which meant more women were able to be recruited into those jobs.

The port started out with three female stevedores following the criteria changes and it now has 16, including Johanna Hofmann, 21, who Edwards said was the world’s youngest woman portainer crane operator.

“We don’t have trouble attracting staff to the port, it’s quite a popular place to work so we have a lot of men applying as well and we deliberately don’t have positive discrimination. It isn’t about trying to recruit women over men, they still have to meet the same standards as everyone else, but we find that the women more than hold their own in that respect. Their health and safety record is better than their male colleagues’ as well.”
Tips for reducing entry barriers for women in male-dominated areas
  • Be clear about the skills needed for specific jobs. Sometimes skills and attributes that have been traditionally important may have diminished in importance through  technological advancements. Are you still insisting on physical strength based skills that might deter or exclude a woman even when they no longer apply?
  • Look for the unconscious messages sent when you advertise for a job. You may not mean to discriminate, but women will often deselect themselves from applying for a job if all the images around that job signal it is a male dominated area. Even though you may be happy to employ either a man or a woman, you need to ensure that a woman would be comfortable applying or you will find you may not have any to choose from.
  • Challenge the assumptions you have about whether flexibility is possible. Both men and women will appreciate the opportunity for flexibility and provided your operational requirements are met, why not offer it?
  • When female numbers are very low in the workplace, ensure that you provide induction support systems while they find their feet.  This might be from other women in the organisation who are already established, who can give them some pointers on how to fit in while ensuring that they feel respected and safe.  This way you don’t find your new female recruits disappearing before they have had time to finish their training.
  • Consider setting up a women’s support group to enable common issue to be shared.
  • Ensure that you maintain the same performance standards for both men and women. Generally women don’t want to feel they are receiving special treatment and it doesn’t usually go down with with the men either.
  • Ensure that the men also feel safe. Some may feel threatened by the “intrusion” of women into a traditionally male dominated area, so a little bit of reassurance that they are still valued goes a long way.

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