As Canada’s first female Minister of Transport, Lisa Raitt would like to see more women in the transportation industry and she plans to help that happen. “I have 438 appointments to make in this country and one third to two thirds will be women,” she told a networking luncheon during the Oct. 2-4 conference in Montreal of the Women’s International Shipping and Trading Association (WISTA).

“You have to get in the door. This can be a long haul for some, but we are progressing in the transportation industry,” said Ms. Raitt in recounting how she took a risk by applying for and becoming the President and CEO of Toronto Port Authority. “The port was dead. It lost $12 million in one year. I got the job because they figured I couldn’t break it more than it was. It gave me the profile to run for public office. It’s not in our DNA to take risks, but three ports in Canada (Halifax, Montreal and Oshawa) are headed by women.”

Canada is a trading nation where goods need to move efficiently, and those goods don’t know or care if they’re being moved by a male or female, Ms. Raitt noted. Referring to a McKinsey & Company study, she said companies that have gender diversity on their Boards are a lot more profitable than boards that are largely male dominated.

With some 1,800 members from 31 national chapters, WISTA is dedicated to supporting and promoting women in the marine industry. Under the theme “Navigating the Seas of Change,” it was the first time the conference was held in Canada. While women have made great inroads in the marine industry, WISTA still has an important role to play, Andrea Sterling, President of WISTA Canada and a marine lawyer at Robinson Sheppard Shapiro in Montreal said after the conference. “It’s changed a lot, especially in North America, but in the old days there was nowhere for women to go,” said Ms. Sterling who recounted that WISTA was founded in London by a group of women in the tanker market in 1974 following a Christmas lunch which created a camaraderie in an industry dominated by men. “The connections you make, particularly international connections, are phenomenal. And the women you meet are dynamic and inspiring. And I just think you don’t always have an opportunity to meet these people on an international level.”

WISTA Canada was created in 1998 and floundered after a few years before being revived in 2008. The recent success of WISTA Canada can be seen in the growth of membership which has tripled in the last year from 37 members to over 100 today in four chapters, namely Atlantic, Eastern, Central and Western Canada. Ottawa, which is part of the Central chapter, has expressed an interest in forming its own chapter.

Ms. Sterling attributes the growth in membership to fact this year’s conference was held in Montreal which attracted some 200 delegates from Canada, the United States, Europe, Africa (particularly Nigeria with 25 delegates), the Middle East, New Zealand, Latin America, India and Asia. “By hosting the conference in Montreal, we had to teach people what WISTA is and what it does, as nobody knows what it is in Canada. So we decided to take on the challenge of hosting an international conference and we were optimistic that we would be able to spread the word and proof is in the pudding as our membership has tripled.”

With a lot of men in the marine industry close to retiring, Ms. Sterling sees a lot of opportunities for women to replace them. “Statistics show more women rising to senior level positions and many women are there already. We predict that in five years, we’ll see middle managers rise to senior managers. And in 10 years, we’ll see significant changes, because that’s enough time to see a major (retirement) shift occur.” Rod Jones, President and CEO, CSL Group, agreed, adding that the shipping industry is a better place to have a career for women now, as baby boomers that are mostly male are retiring.

“When I entered the shipping industry (40 years ago), there were very few women. Today, 40 per cent of shore-based employees are women. At the mid-management level, 21 per cent of employees are women, but only 10 per cent at the executive and Board level.” Mr. Jones noted that 50 per cent of shipping managers are 50-plus years old and the bulk of them are male and he expects many WISTA members will replace them. “Incoming leaders need better overall thinking,” he added, alluding to boom-bust cycles that typically occur in the shipping industry every few years.

“If rates go up, the industry quickly over-builds, and rates decline. It’s a herd mentality. It’s not healthy and it’s male dominated.” There needs to be more accountability since management gets huge bonuses if they bet right, but face no consequences if they bet the wrong way, said Mr. Jones. “Poor decision making should be as heavily punished as good decision making is rewarded.”

Most private shipping companies, including CSL, are faring better than public ones with healthier balance sheets as they don’t act like they’re playing with other people’s money, Mr. Jones added. One of the major challenges facing the shipping industry is competition from countries like China and Cuba that own their own ships and even some mining companies that operate their own vessels, said Paul Pathy, President and co-CEO, Fednav Group. Other challenges include escalating and uncertain fuel prices, an increased regulatory environment, an oversupply of vessels and competition from people who shouldn’t really be in the shipping business, he added. Looking ahead, Mr. Pathy sees “great uncertainty” over the next three years with lots of companies going out of business, especially public companies. “The good news is there will be lots of opportunities for well operated companies. There are great career opportunities …, and I encourage you to continue working in the shipping industry.”

More encouraging news came from Terrence Bowles, President and CEO, The St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation, who noted 50 per cent of all new hires at his organization last year were female, while three out of eight current senior executives are women. The recently signed Free Trade Agreement with the European Union should generate new business for the Seaway which invested $265 mil lion in upgrades between 2008-13 and plans to spend another $400 million by 2018. Mr. Bowles outlined some innovations on the Seaway, including a GPS Draft Information System that charts the channel ahead to allow vessels to adjust their speed to negotiate high spots. This can give a vessel up to three more inches of draft, allowing it to carry 400 more tonnes of cargo per transit.

Other Canadian presenters included Sylvie Vachon, President and CEO, Port of Montreal; David Bolduc, Executive Director, Green Marine; Suzanne Paquin, President and CEO, Nunavut Eastern Arctic Shipping; Wendy Zatylny, President, Association of Canadian Port Authorities; Magali Amiel, Project Manager, CargoM and Peter Pamel, Partner, Maritime Law Group, Borden Ladner Gervais.