Interview with Sanjam Sahi Gupta - Director Sitara Shipping & Founder WISTA India
Image Courtesy: Sanjam Sahi Gupta
Q: The maritime industry has had the reputation of being both traditional and male dominant. What has been your experience as a woman in the changing maritime scenario?Do you think there has been a significant change in the way women are perceived in the maritime sector from when you began your career upto now?
Ans: While traditionally the maritime industry [like many other industries] is considered a male domain, gradually there are women making their mark - be it at sea or ashore. I have been brought up in a family that believes in egalitarian values and grew up with a belief of equal opportunities for both girls and boys. Therefore, it was a bit of a shock when along with my sister, I began working as a trainee in my family business in 2001. We found that a lot of the managers found it difficult to accept us - had we been sons it would have been easier to accept. People repeatedly questioned our seriousness to work, asked us repeatedly if we went to work everyday and even assumed we would work just to pass time till we got married. Their resistance to our presence made us even more determined to learn and we work hard.
At industry gatherings we were very often the lone women in the room, overlooked as probably "wives or secretaries" and slotted into those roles. There was one particular event I remember very clearly, when the speaker merely addressed the gathering as gentlemen, as though the women didn't exist or didn't count. After one such frustrating event I actually came back fuming to the office and googled "women in shipping" and viola - there it was - the WISTA website!
While over the last 17 years there has been a marked improvement, today women are not only larger in numbers, but no longer shying away and making their presence felt at conferences and events. However, we still have a very long way to go, to get rid of stereotypes - the mindset has to change & that's no easy task.
Q: What are your views on the technological paradigm shift the industry is undergoing?
Ans: These are exciting times for the maritime industry - the industry known as being conservative and and slow to adapt to new technologies is now being forced to embrace modern technology or risk being redundant. Technology has changed the way business is done - led to new competitors and new business models.
Many technologies used in other sectors can be adapted and applied to shipping thereby opening up huge opportunities. Already, internet is available on board vessels and brings advances in terms of real-time data exchange, integrating the fleet directly into all processes and enabling operators to gain a 360 ° overview of all events that are happening within their fleet. The technological revolution within the shipping industry is already underway.
Q: What challenges did you face while setting up WISTA in India? How has the scenario changed?
Ans: In 2002, when my sister, Sumi, and I first attempted to set up WISTA in India, we didn't get the kind of support required, many ladies were not keen to be part of the same. Despite approaching several ladies and companies, we were unsuccessful.
Fast forward to 2012, we were successful in our second attempt - this time the time was right & the response was phenomenal! There were of course a lot of critical people who said there was no need to segregate the women and have a separate association - they said there was ample room and opportunity for women in the present associations. However, it's to be noted that most industry associations till date have none or maybe 1-2 women on their boards. It is difficult to believe that in the present scenario there are no capable women to fill these posts and unfortunately the "old boys clubs" way of working still exist.
But for them, there is an equal number of industry gentlemen who support the cause and have been pillars of support like our band ambassador, Mr. Anil Singh. I want to mention especially that without the support of the gentlemen in the industry this wouldn't have happened. Our first and biggest supporter has been my Dad, who sponsored the initial start up costs at a time when nobody else was willing to step up. He gave us his time and guidance for the registration and I'm always taking him for granted!
Q: Why do you think a woman’s perspective is essential to the maritime scenario? And more so, maritime technology? How so?
Ans: Women bring different skill sets to the table and have a different perspective to offer. In traditional shipping roles women were thought incapable of physical work, however, in new opportunities in technology, women are talented, focused and up to the challenge.
If we don’t have women participation, straightaway 50% of the available talent pool is unavailable.
I see tremendous opportunities for women in this sector. Currently there is a lack of awareness of the career opportunities for women in this sector. If we can tackle this problem of awareness, then not only will there be a new window of opportunities for women but this sector will also benefit by this untapped talent. The industry needs to elevate its image to be able to attract more talent and we need to appeal to the youth in order for them to be aware and be attracted to make a career in this sector.
There is no barrier for women per se but the main hurdle is the mindset, people stereotype others.
Q: What are your expectations for the future of women in the maritime scenario? What do you think needs to be done?
Ans: World Maritime Day theme 2019: "Empowering Women in the Maritime Community" is an indication of the acceptance of the industry of the importance of gender diversity. While I believe it will take time to eliminate gender biases completely, we are very much on the right path. Creating awareness is key to tackle such issues of managing unconscious biases.
Q: Do you have any advice for women entering the maritime sector?
Ans: Ladies-you are the Captain of our own ship, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!