Today, we’re celebrating International Women’s Day and exploring this year’s theme “breaking the bias”. Speaking up against gender inequality, female naval leader Sam Kinsey-Briggs, and leading maritime journalist Abby Williams, talk about bias, role models and allies.

Sam Kinsey-Briggs is a Commander in the Royal Navy working at Defence HQ. She was awarded an MBE in 2016 for her contribution to diversity and inclusion and is a keen contributor to women’s representation in the maritime and defence sectors. Sam is the diversity and inclusion advisor at Human Rights at Sea.

Abby Williams is an emerging leading writer in the maritime space and media lead at Human Rights at Sea. She previously worked as a manager on a humanitarian ship and is now a journalist at Daily Cargo News in Australia.

Abby: So Sam, tell me a little about your background as a female leader in what is a fairly male-dominated sector.

Sam: I’m in the British Navy as a Commander, but I’ve been working in the military for the last 22 years. I initially joined the British Army as a young soldier and did my basic training. After that, I went to the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and did my officer training.

You’re right about the maritime sector being male-dominated. In my early days, I felt I was in a very male-dominated, masculine environment. That has shifted a lot in some respects in countries like the UK and Australia in particular. Things aren’t perfect, but there is progress. Some of the glass ceilings we face are being shattered. But when we look at our sector from a global perspective, it’s clear we have a long way to go. I’ve spent a lot of time working internationally, and the progress we’ve seen in terms of female representation isn’t there in most parts of the world. Do you agree?

Abby: Absolutely. I’m a maritime journalist, and so I spend a lot of my time interviewing and getting to know the main players in the sector, and there are women emerging now, but it’s still very male-dominated, and this is even more so when I cover international matters.

Sam: So the theme this year is breaking the bias. Do you have examples of experiencing bias?

Abby: Absolutely. I was the cargo manager on a humanitarian vessel. I was the only female working in a team of big, very well-built men. I have to say the men that I led were very respectful, inclusive, and friendly. I didn’t feel like an outsider at all. But you would often see when we docked, the people boarding the ship to assist with cargo drops would almost always talk to my male staff members rather than me, even though my uniform made it clear that I was the person in charge. The assumption was that the man must be in charge. The men that worked for me would always say, ‘she’s in charge, she’s the leader’.

Sam: I can relate to that. I was the military assistant to a very senior general in the Royal Marines a number of years ago, and a visiting general came to the office and asked to speak to my General’s military assistant, so I stood up and said welcome and asked how I could help. The visiting General turned to my male staff member and said, ‘where is the real military assistant’. He didn’t believe that I was the person in that position. The junior male staff member then went out of his way to emphasise my position to the general. This was over 10 years ago, but I remember it really clearly as an example of my gender being an issue for some people.

Abby: It’s shocking, really. Another example of bias that I experienced a lot whilst I was training to be a journalist is that whenever a textbook or journal article is written, and the reference is just a surname, there is nearly always an assumption that the writer is male. I used to see this time and time again at university.

Sam: I know what you mean. I was recently in a pub with my wife, my brother and his wife. And it just so happens that I had an alcoholic drink whilst my brother had a soft drink. The barkeeper saw that there was an empty beer glass on the table and asked my brother, the only man at the table if he wanted another beer. It’s a small thing, but there is certainly a bias at play there.

Abby: So, how do we tackle those biases?

Sam: That’s the killer question! We live in a patriarchal society, and so change is going to be slow to a certain extent. But I think there are things we can do to increase the pace of change.

I think two things, really. Firstly, we need role models. Women need to see themselves represented in senior positions and in junior positions as well. The women engineers who are building ships and submarines, who are working in nuclear, who are scientists. The more visibility they have, the more other women will feel that the maritime space is a place for them. It’s true on a tactical level, so I work with Inspiring the Future, where I go into schools so that the young people can see a woman in uniform in a senior position. But also on a strategic level. So take Human Rights at Sea, for example; so many of the academics, advisors, and board members that surround us are women. And there is a fantastic campaign called ‘this little girl is me’ founded by Miriam Gonzalez Durantez, which connects girls with female role models and mentors.

And secondly, we need allies. In both of our examples about bias, we had male allies to support us.

Abby: I agree with both of those methods. Allies, in particular, are important. Until we have true equality, we do need those with privilege and power to step up and be allies to women, but also to other groups who may be marginalised or disadvantaged as well. And I really like what you say about Human Rights at Sea. Many of the leading academics in this space are women, and I really like that Human Rights at Sea amplifies those voices. The Geneva Declaration, for example, I know, was drafted by a team of world-leading international law experts, and most of the team were women.

So lastly, what advice would you give to women in our sector?

Sam: Be competent, be confident, and be comfortable. By being so, you’ll inspire other women.

Abby: That’s wonderful advice. Thank you so much.

Sam: Thank you to you.