Sylvia Boer: Passionately committed to increasing visibility of women in the “beautiful” maritime industry

Beautiful is not a word most of us associate with ships and shipping but it’s how Sylvia Boer describes the industry that she has worked in for the last decade. “So many people do not know that this beautiful industry is out there; that 90 percent of what we consume first arrives by ship,” Boer says. And if this passionate advocate for the maritime industry has anything to do with it, it will be an industry that will attract increasing numbers of young women into its ranks in the coming years. As chair of the Women’s International Shipping and Trading Association (WISTA) Nederland, Boer is enhancing the visibility of women in the industry as a way of providing role-models for those contemplating their future careers. In keeping with WISTA’s global vision, she is also playing a role in strengthening the connections between women in the maritime industry and boosting their knowledge and networks.



Boer’s own career is itself inspirational: after earning a Master in Marketing Management from RSM, she entered the maritime industry by taking a job as an Export Manager at Holland Marine Equipment, and, after three years, she switched to become a Policy Advisor with Holland Shipbuilding Association. She joined Damen Shipyards in 2012 as Marketing Manager, working her way up to Head of Communications just four years later. In February 2020 Boer left Damen to take up the position of director of Amsterdam IJmuiden Offshore Ports (AYOP) where her role is as the linchpin between members of the association for companies, government bodies and knowledge institutions active in offshore energy in the North Sea Canal region. We spoke to this dynamic leader about gender equality in the maritime industry, WISTA’s relationship with ECWO and how to make women more visible in this “beautiful” industry.

What role does WISTA play in the industry – both globally and locally?

WISTA’s primary aim is to connect women decisionmakers and executives globally. We are a networking organisation that aims to attract and support women throughout their careers. We do this by developing meaningful business relationships and increasing professional experience and skills by sharing best practices and providing training. One of the most impactful achievements we have made globally was gaining consultative status from the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) governing body, the IMO Council, in 2018. This means we are able to promote our aim of gender equality and the empowerment of women in the broader international industry. This is one of the things that really drew me to WISTA: I am an intrinsically action-orientated person, and I am always looking for ways to move from ideas, dreams and thoughts into action and impact.

The maritime industry lacks gender equality – and, as you’ve mentioned, achieving it is one of WISTA’s goals in the broader industry. Can you expand on the reasons for this?

One of the fundamental issues is that it is an industry that remains too unknown in society to attract sufficient women into it. You either have to have been raised in the industry, or know someone who works in it to be able to have a real sense of how wonderful it is. My sister and I were lucky enough to have a father who worked his entire career in the maritime industry, so we got to know it quite well while growing up.

There’s also a societal element to this that starts with the way that we raise children – girls are given dolls to play with and boys are given cars and ships and other more “technical” toys. I also think that most high schools don’t actively guide young women towards this kind of career. My sister, Marjolein, is Innovation Manager at the Port of Rotterdam and we feel a responsibility to help make women in the maritime industry more visible. For this reason we have united under the name, “Maritime Sisters”. Together we aim to inspire young women to follow a career in this industry by providing visibility and role-modelling. We strongly feel a diversified workforce – in every way – is crucial to be fit for the future. Therefore we mostly want to openly discuss the benefits of having a more diversified workforce with maritime companies and help them to achieve this goal.

You are the President of WISTA, The Netherlands, and have been a board member since 2013. What have been the most striking changes that you’ve seen in the maritime industry with regards to the role and leadership of women during that time?

I definitely see more women in high level positions than when I first joined the industry. The list of women in leadership positions is impressive. You have women like Thecla Bodewes, Femke Brenninkmeijer, Roos Damen, Vivienne de Leeuw, Mai Elmar en Jacoba Bolderheij, and I could go on! One of the most important changes is that, from 2020 onwards, we will have data to support us in our aim of gender equality in the industry. This is because Maritime by Holland Maritime Monitor will include a gender dimension for the first time this year. At WISTA we know how important data is in providing an accurate picture of the industry – and to make the case that gender diversity is key to providing a sustainable future for the shipping industry internationally. We were not the only voice asking the hard questions about why gender was missing from the annual research, but it helped that I raised the question on several occasions. WISTA International and IMO are also working on a larger gender survey for the international maritime industry.

How can WISTA make women more visible in the maritime industry?

We need to create content and platforms that reflect women in different roles and showcase the diversity that is currently part of the industry. We are currently in talks with the Maritime Museum in Rotterdam about the possibilities of a photographic exhibition to reflect this. We can also appoint role models to inspire other (young) women to join the industry. Women in the industry must share their stories as a way of gaining visibility and we must advocate to be included as speakers at conferences and seminars. It’s important for women to amplify each other – and to ask questions of the people we meet in different companies. I often ask, “Where are the women?’ or “What is the reason there are so few women in your company?”. It starts an important discussion, and it keeps the issue of gender equality itself visible.

What does the industry need to do to recruit more women?

It starts with awareness. I know that some men in our industry just do not even think about it, as it has been like this for so long. Increasing awareness of the need for gender equality, and backing it with research showing that diverse teams perform better, is an important first step. Part of my work at WISTA is recruiting others to join me in being an advocate for gender diversity. I also make clear that this is not a women’s issue, but a shared responsibility. My message is that, in order to secure a sustainable future for both men and women, we all need to play a role. And because I am action-orientated, I am always pushing for something that can happen quickly - like just hiring more women. I never thought I would say this but maybe we do need a quota – one that can break barriers and force change otherwise it will simply take too long. There are other simple steps that can help. For instance, recruitment adverts are generally written in a very masculine way, it’s no wonder they don’t attract female applicants. This is something that can be changed immediately.

How important are role-models for young women entering, or wanting to enter, the maritime industry?

Role-models are absolutely key. They communicate perspectives and possibilities. And just by showing the faces of the great women who work in our industry, doors open up. It is no longer an idea or a wish, it becomes tangible.

Can you elaborate a little on WISTA’s relationship with ECWO?

After our 2017 international conference we were lucky enough to have some extra budget that we wanted to reinvest in our members. We looked for training that would really make a difference and found the ECWO leadership programme. In discussions with ECWO, we created a programme with a WISTA twist and it was a huge success. Since then, our shared ambition of equality for women has kept us connected and, just recently, we did our first online training session with Professor Dianne Bevelander and Dorothy Grandia, and the next one is already scheduled. It was really great. I love the powerful networks that are stimulated by our work with ECWO.

You also did our Women in Leadership programme. What impact did it have on you personally - and on your career?

It was definitely an eye opener – and it was very different from other trainings I have done, none of which spent time on the fact that things are different if you are a woman. There were some very personal exercises in the ECWO programme that led me to really think about my core values. Looking back I can see that these played a significant role in my decision to move on from Damen, where I had enjoyed a wonderful eight years. The programme gave me time to reflect on my values, on myself and what I wanted from my life.

WISTA NL has identified “sustainability, new technologies, smart ports, big data, health & safety, cyber security, block chain, developing cultural sensitivity and, last but not least, clean oceans” as important topics. How does WISTA bring these to its members?

We organise gatherings for our members so they are able to form their own opinions on these very important issues for our industry. For example, at our Christmas event last year we invited The Ocean Cleanup to do a presentation and provide our members with information on how we can all play a role in clearing the oceans of plastic. We organised an interactive lunch lecture during the Europort Maritime exhibition where we had Isabel Welten from GoodFuels to explain what they are doing on the field of biofuels, so 'clean' energy. Or we visit the training centre of Holland America line to learn more about the new innovations they apply to become more sustainable. We will also start publishing online articles that we will share via social media. And we try to have fun! We did a basic offshore training at STC-KNRM in Rotterdam where all the ladies dove into the training pool and completed the training. These initiatives are ongoing.

Your own career is inspirational. Can you reflect on your personal journey for our readers?

It’s hard to see your own career as inspirational. But I do know that I am very passionate about what I do and that I am action orientated. I just followed my passion and guess that allows you to do your work with lots of energy. These have driven me forward. From the beginning, I knew that to succeed in the maritime industry I had to understand all aspects of it, which is why I took my first job in a trade association. In just a few years, I got to know the different players and I built a wide network. During that time I encountered Damen Shipyards and I fell in love with the company, which is still a family-owned business. My network helped me get a job at Damen and I made sure that, once I was there, I articulated my goal to grow inside the company. To do that I found two people – both men as there were even less women in the industry then – who were willing to act as my sponsors. They helped guide me. Sometimes the feedback they gave me was challenging but I always took their advice to heart. I love building things and I was able to do that at Damen. But once that “house” or in this case “ship” was completed, I started looking around for a new challenge. I was lucky enough that the AYOP position became available and it was a really good fit for both of us.

Where did your passion for the maritime industry originally come from?

My father. He worked his entire life in the industry, and he was always positive about his job. He would take me and my sister to trade shows and exhibitions where we encountered this great big international world, filled with fascinating people and innovations. Towards the end of my studies, we had presentations from all the major companies in the Netherlands but I knew that I wanted to go into the maritime industry – which is, if you think about it, typically Dutch. I understood that I was choosing a male dominated industry, but I knew that I wanted to be part of changing that picture. And I love the water. During non-COVID times I work in an office that looks out over the IJ and I live on a house boat with my husband in North Amsterdam which I just love.

More information

The Erasmus Centre for Women and Organisations (ECWO) is committed to women’s continued advancement into leadership positions across multiple sectors – from multinationals and start-ups to not-for-profit organisations. ECWO supports gender-balanced leadership through its management educationresearch and events about gender equality, and by coaching female business leaders. Its strong network leads to women empowerment and gender equality to the benefit of business and society.

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EC for women and organisations , ECWO Storytelling