CASTINE, Maine — Working in the maritime industry is not easy.
For the women who first broke through the glass ceiling in the 1970s to work on ships, it especially was not easy. And many challenges of discrimination they faced have not gone away, attendees at an annual maritime conference were told Friday.
The three-day Women on the Water conference got under way Thursday evening at Maine Maritime Academy. It is the third year the conference has been held, the first time it has been at MMA.
The first speaker at the annual conference was MMA’s first female graduate, Deborah Dempsey. Capt. Dempsey, a 1976 MMA grad, for the past 15 years has worked piloting vessels for Columbia River Bar Pilots in Astoria, Ore.
Dempsey recalled on Friday how in 1973 she was interviewed for admission to MMA.
She had been captaining a boat south along the East Coast, she said, but left for the chance to become the school’s first female student.
“I was scared to death,” Dempsey told several dozen people who gathered Friday morning in MMA’s Delano Auditorium.
She was accepted and, after starting the next January, tried to fit in by being “one of the boys,” she said. She endured two black eyes after getting hit in the face with a racquet while playing racquetball with some upperclassmen, got “cleaned out” of money when she gambled playing cards, was the butt of jokes suggesting the college was going to start up a cheerleading squad for its athletic teams and had rocks thrown through her window.
“Was it easy being the first and only [female student]? Nope,” said Dempsey. “We can’t just be one of the boys. We’re not meant to be.”
The conference, which runs through today, has about 100 registrants, many of whom are female students at the six other maritime colleges in the country, according to MMA spokeswoman Janice Zenter. California, Massachusetts, Michigan and Texas each have a maritime college while two are located in New York, she said. The conference is open to preregistered men and women.
Dempsey, and members of a panel of women maritime professionals who spoke after her, shared stories Friday with the audience, about experiences they had as women trying to make it in a male-dominated industry and about some of the nongender-related rigors of their jobs. Some of the experiences Demspey recounted included being dropped off by helicopter on moving ships and rescuing a ship that had broken loose from its tether while being towed in heavy seas.
Dempsey said she once painted an unlabeled bathroom on board a ship pink and another time replaced a centerfold of a naked woman on a ship with a centerfold of a naked man. She still sometimes gets reactions of surprise from captains who realize their ship is about to be piloted by a woman.
Her desire to work on the water proved to be stronger than the sexism she has faced over the years, Dempsey said. Knowing what you want and working hard toward that goal can overcome obstacles other women may face, she said.
“Once you’ve found what your niche is, there is no stopping you,” Dempsey said.
Other speakers shared similar stories. Sheri Hickman, an MMA grad and pilot in Houston, said a foreign ship captain once assumed she was a prostitute when she boarded his vessel to steer it out of port. Carol Curtiss, another ship captain, said the first 10 years of her maritime career were “brutal” but eventually she learned not to always expect sexual discrimination on the job.
Joy Manthey, a tugboat captain on the Mississippi River, said she knew from age 10 that she wanted to work in the maritime industry. But when she was in the fifth grade and wrote “boat captain” on a standardized test as her future occupation, she said, her teacher erased it and told her to write in something else.
“You can’t be a river pilot,” Manthey said the teacher told her. “You can be a teacher or a nurse.”
That kind of active discrimination and discouragement, she said, only made her desire for a maritime career stronger.
“She told me I couldn’t do it, and that made me strive harder to get there,” Manthey said. According to Zenter, the conference is a good way for students at MMA and other maritime schools to network with one another and with industry professionals. The nationwide maritime industry is relatively small, Zenter said, so the chances are good the people who attend the conference someday will interact again through their jobs.
“It’s a wonderful growth and learning tool for those students,” Zenter said.
Zenter said MMA’s most recent undergraduate enrollment count, which changes frequently, is 923 students, including 154 women. She said these totals include all MMA students, not just those interested in pursuing maritime transportation careers.
Other speakers Friday at the conference included women who have maritime jobs with the U.S. Army, Coast Guard, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Military Sealift Command, Exxon Mobil Corp., Maersk and other employers. Much of the information presented Friday not only focused on practical advice on how to overcome sexism on the job, but also included professional advice such as what kinds of technical certifications to pursue and what types of maritime-related jobs are out there.