We live in a diverse world, why shouldn't we work in one?

We live in a diverse world, why shouldn't we work in one?

Over the last 15 years, Magda Kopczyńska has occupied a series of increasingly influential policy-making positions in the Brussels landscape, culminating in her present role as Director General of the Directorate-General for Mobility and Transport (DG MOVE). She spoke to Generations about the importance, or inevitability, of diversity and inclusion in a fast-changing world – not only in maritime, but the entire transport sector.

You are clearly motivated to empower women working in the transport sector and particularly in maritime. What would you like to see happen?
As a professional, the moment you start getting into higher management positions, you immediately look around and question if your working environment reflects everyday reality. What works for women, what doesn't, and what can we do about it?

If we want balanced, well-functioning workplaces across all transport sectors, inclusiveness needs to be understood and applied much more widely. By that I mean not just men and women, but all shades of gender awareness and identity, nationality and culture, age and types of experience. We should celebrate diversity.

Transport is traditionally very male-dominated, and empowering women to find their space and perform is still a work in progress. Women now represent around 1.2 percent of the global seafarer workforce, which is a huge increase since 2015, but only because we started at such a low level. The objective explanation is simply that the nature of seafaring requires spending a lot of time away from home.

With the right corporate, national and EU policies, it's perfectly possible to have a more balanced proportion of women and other groups. It will take additional steps to encourage women to take up jobs both at sea and ashore, but I believe most decision-makers support it.

Magda Kopczyńska, Director General of the Directorate- General for Mobility and Transport (DG MOVE) says 'not having diverse representation is simply outdated and means you give up on the parts of society that can bring both skills and positive ways of thinking'.
(Photo: DG MOVE)
Magda Kopczyńska, Director General of the Directorate- General for Mobility and Transport (DG MOVE) says 'not having diverse representation is simply outdated and means you give up on the parts of society that can bring both skills and positive ways of thinking'. (Photo: DG MOVE)
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Do you think greater diversity can help the industry become more sustainable?
Most people immediately think of sustainability in terms of the environment, but to my mind it means much more. The transport sector is facing all sorts of challenges related to talent shortage, technology development, and the need for new business models. Maritime in particular has gone through some real adversity, starting with the 2008 financial crisis, then COVID and not least geopolitical instability. We need to be agile to meet such challenges, and as various economics studies clearly show, the more diverse your team, the better prepared you are.

On the talent issue, Europe fares better than the global average, with women accounting for 20% of its seafarers. This figure includes onshore employees, which is important because we know that in the future, onshore and onboard work will be more integrated as automation and digitalization increase.

The availability of more onshore jobs will likely encourage more women who want to work in shipping but not necessarily at sea. The same is also true for people from different backgrounds and those with reduced mobility.

What can politicians and industry do to encourage more diversity?
One small victory is that very few people now question that diversity has to happen. Everyone I talk to on both the industry and workers side acknowledges we need to do more to promote and assure female participation. The European Commission has made a conscious decision to make money available for inclusion projects.

For example, the WESS project (Contributing to an Attractive, Smart and Sustainable Working Environment in the Shipping Sector) implemented by the European Community Shipowners Association (ECSA) and the European Transport Federation (ETF) suggested six core best practices that companies should align on, including a minimum target for women in management positions and – it may sound trivial, but certainly isn't – ensuring equipment is ergonomically suitable for women. It's better if social partners from either side formulate these measures together before we start looking at legislation.

The younger generation especially really knows what they want. If we want them to commit to transport, we need to offer an attractive workplace, also in terms of career progression, reskilling and upskilling.

In addition, in 2017 we put in place the Women in Transport platform that brings together 30 employer and worker organizations from across the transport sector to share experiences, good practices, and knowledge on these issues.

The outcomes include the EU-funded Fair Winds collaboration between Swedish shipping organizations to ensure zero harassment and discrimination in the workplace. Harassment is unfortunately an issue in every sector that lacks balance in terms of gender and minorities. You can't hope for an inclusive working environment if there are members who don't feel safe. Although it's now more prevalent in the media, simply talking about these issues isn't enough. We need to see commitment and determination on the part of industry, supported by regulators, to make sure it doesn't happen.

The Women in Transport platform also supports the Honours for Diversity & Inclusion in Maritime, which was launched by the Belgian chapter of WISTA (Women's International Shipping and Trading Association) together with other stakeholders. An important award ceremony took place during the Brussels Conference on Wellbeing of Seafarers on International Women's Day on 8 March. I really applaud the Belgian presidency of the Council of Europe for putting this topic in the spotlight.

We also have the Diversity Ambassadors Network launched in 2022 that now includes some 80 ambassadors who appeal directly to transport industry leaders to explore what needs doing. Their next conference will be in June. So, all in all, there's quite a lot going on.

What is the key to overcoming lingering prejudices?
There's no easy way. It requires a change in mindset, and years before people enter the working environment. It boils down to education and the overall perception of the transport sector. Working in transport isn't perhaps a dream job for many young people these days. Obviously as a seafarer you're away from home. But even driving a long-distance train or flying planes involves being on the move a lot. The sector as a whole still doesn't project the right image. This needs long-term planning because if you don't have a positive image, you won't get positive people wanting to work for you.

Interestingly, we did a study several years ago where we looked at the attractiveness of transport modes among young people from 18 to 35. Maritime came last, after truck driving and train driving. The only one that was perceived as okay was aviation, which I think was largely due to the glamourous image of pilots. But the fact that transport isn't seen as an attractive, fun workplace is something we have to change.

Gustavo Abdiel Aguilar-Miranda, founder of the 'I exist too' global forum on improving LGBTIQ+ rights in the maritime industry, launched in Panama last year. The forum won an Honour for Diversity and Inclusion in Maritime as best new initiative, alongside Costa Cruises for best improvement of diversity and inclusion in the workplace, and the 'Women Offshore' for best initiative against harassment. The awards were presented during the Brussels Conference on the Wellbeing of Seafarers, hosted by the Belgian Presidency of the Council of the European Union on International Womens Day on 8 March.
(Photo: Belgian Presidency of the Council of the European Union/Vlad Vanderkelen)
Gustavo Abdiel Aguilar-Miranda, founder of the 'I exist too' global forum on improving LGBTIQ+ rights in the maritime industry, launched in Panama last year. The forum won an Honour for Diversity and Inclusion in Maritime as best new initiative, alongside Costa Cruises for best improvement of diversity and inclusion in the workplace, and the 'Women Offshore' for best initiative against harassment. The awards were presented during the Brussels Conference on the Wellbeing of Seafarers, hosted by the Belgian Presidency of the Council of the European Union on International Womens Day on 8 March. (Photo: Belgian Presidency of the Council of the European Union/Vlad Vanderkelen)
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The younger generation especially really knows what they want. If we want them to commit to transport, we need to offer an attractive workplace, also in terms of career progression, reskilling and upskilling. Now with the focus on decarbonization, companies realize they will need a wider set of competencies. And in order to recruit the right talent, they will have to be attractive as an employer and root out those lingering negative attitudes.

Ideally there should be more female officers, but that will take time.

How can the maritime sector improve its perception?
The poor perception of maritime is also because it's less known by the average citizen than the other transport modes. Unless you go on a cruise or take a ferry, you'll probably never set foot on a ship or even in a port. We really need to show how important transport and especially shipping is for our daily lives and the economy. It's also a question of promoting best cases and best practices. In maritime we need healthy competition when it comes to working conditions. As a global sector, it is regulated through the MLC convention, but as is often the case with international frameworks, it only offers minimum standards. The shipping industry knows my stance; when it comes to people, reducing budgets won't work. I'm not talking about top-down regulation here, but the industry has to be aware that if you want to attract different types of people, you need to ensure the right conditions are in place – not least at sea.

One company with which I have talked extensively about what needs to be put in place said something very interesting. They realize that for a woman to feel safe onboard vessels, she needs at least another woman present, to provide support and to confide in. Ideally there should be more female officers, but that will take time. This type of approach sends the right signal to young women considering seafaring as a career.

How can shipping in particular increase its visibility among the wider society?
Firstly, positive stories don't make for gripping news, which is why you mostly hear about shipping in the mainstream media when bad things happen. Secondly, there have been a few examples of dubious employment and environmental practices worldwide, and the approach of some shipping companies to the war in Ukraine, have not been helpful. We have to acknowledge that.

For some in the shipping industry, it is convenient to be invisible. Visibility, on other hand, brings responsibility. Happily, many of my interlocutors are ready to front that responsibility, but they tend to complain that few people really care, because ships are out at sea most of the time. Out of sight, out of mind. But I actually think people do care. Many stories, both good and bad, do get attention now on social media.

Shipping has to be ready to embrace the outcome of more visibility, which can put both in the spotlight.

Will digitalization and automation encourage greater diversity?
Digitalization is a positive thing, full stop, in my view. In terms of improving diversity, there will be more onshore jobs, making it easier to accommodate diversity, for example by employing mothers. But technology doesn't create the workplace, decision-makers do. Automation and new digital technologies like AI aren't a magic pill, but they do present an opportunity for change.

Job requirements will shift; those who are ready to adapt will come out better, and the transition is already happening. For example, the ETF wants to make sure that workers are offered opportunities to up-skill so they can continue to thrive alongside new technologies. I am optimistic because there is added value in keeping people who know your business, but offering them new skills.

And when it comes to adapting, one thing I'd like to stress is that women generally are pretty capable. Any mother – or stay-at-home dad for that matter – will tell you that running a company pales in comparison to running a household!

Automation and new digital technologies like AI aren't a magic pill, but they do present an opportunity for change.

Research indicates that diversity is good for the bottom line. Do you see it as an economic imperative?
We like to talk a lot about resilience these days. Resilience for private-sector companies means you're prepared for and can withstand whatever comes your way. I like to think that in the 21st century, not having diverse representation is simply outdated and means you give up on the parts of society that can bring both skills and positive ways of thinking. Simply put, we live in a diverse world, why shouldn't we work in one too?

Are there organizations you'd like to applaud for their contribution to promoting diversity?
WISTA for one deserves huge credit for moving from the margins to center stage over the last 10 years. They're great at getting the right people to represent their cause. The ETF and ECSA are doing a great job, and I will be pushing them to do even more. I'd also like to flag up the World Maritime University in Malmö, Sweden, who've done very well promoting strong women at their conferences and events, also from countries you don't normally associate with women in maritime, in Africa, the Caribbean, South America. Then there are all the business leaders who are committed to diversity in their own backyards – too many to mention, but their combined efforts deserve recognition. Generally, things are going in the right direction, maybe not as fast as we'd like, but it's just a matter of time.

What's your personal motivation being in a position of authority in Brussels?
I've been privileged to work in an international environment here at the EC, developing transport policy, for almost 15 years. Diversity is a natural part of the fabric, and indeed my own fabric, which makes it easier to cover all the ground, take all points of view into consideration.

EU policies address a diverse society of 450 million people – nationalities, gender, age, everything. But they also impact many other people worldwide. The more inclusive we are, the better our policymaking. We can't preach anything that we don't do ourselves, especially in our international development cooperation. Credibility matters!

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