Paving the Way for Future Generations

Keynote speaker at Breakbulk Middle East Thelma Williams Speaks to Breakbulk in advance of International Women’s Day

Wednesday 8 March will mark the 112th anniversary of International Women’s Day, a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. At Breakbulk Events & Media, we have a proud history of supporting female professionals in a male-dominated sector. Our Women in Breakbulk networking platform brings together women from across the supply chain to share their experiences and talk about the challenges they have faced while building a successful career in the breakbulk, project cargo and maritime industries. In the following interview, Thelma Williams, auditor and marine surveyor for Bureau Veritas, speaks to Breakbulk about her experiences working in the sector. 

By Liesl Venter

Women are increasingly taking up leadership roles in the breakbulk and project cargo logistics industry, as the value of their contribution and particular skill sets are being recognised.

Economic empowerment and the reduction of gender inequities in the workplace, however, must remain the priority of every woman in the industry as they pave the way for future generations, said Thelma Williams, Dubai-based auditor and marine surveyor for Bureau Veritas.

Williams, the only woman to occupy such a position in the UAE, said women continue to demonstrate how their involvement in business leads to higher levels of productivity, safety and improved financial returns.

“Women represent an enormous untapped resource in the overall breakbulk talent pool,” Williams said. “Not everyone is made for everything. We all have strengths and weaknesses, but if you are passionate about working in the breakbulk sector then there is no reason to shy away from it just because you are a woman. The sector has proven that there is room for women to show what they are capable of.”

Women, she said, bring particular skills to the table, including patience and pragmatism. While there is no denying that breakbulk and project cargo remains an industry still dominated by men, for Williams, change is happening as more women enter the profession adding value with the skills and characteristics they bring to the job.

“For me, it is not about doing a man’s job like a man, but what I can do as a woman. That goes one step further – doing my job as me. I am my biggest cheerleader.”

A Former Seafarer

Born in Johannesburg and raised in Cape Town, South Africa, Williams is not new to the concept of inequality. As the first South African woman of colour to get her captain’s ticket, she spent years at sea often in challenging situations.

“As a seafarer, I realised that women do not need to shy away from roles perceived to be those of men. As women in maritime, and women in breakbulk, we need to remember that we have a place and that before we expect other people to validate us, we need to validate ourselves. I joined the maritime industry about 20 years ago completely clueless about what the future held, but I knew this: I could do whatever was asked of me.”

It is a personal oath that Williams has held dear her entire career.

“I cannot control what men do in this industry. For that matter, it is not about me being comfortable with men or even trying to emulate what they do or fit into their world. I am, first and foremost, a woman working in the maritime sector and doing a job well. As women, we need to be true to our gender. I have never had to change who I am to do my work.”

Williams says women are increasingly being recognised in the breakbulk sector for their contributions. “There are still not enough women in the breakbulk and project cargo logistics sector. As women in the industry, we hold positions of privilege. We need to stand tall as we are paving the way for generations of women still to come.”

The Collective Voice

According to Williams, women also need to share their stories and experiences no matter how small or insignificant they think they might be.

“It is only through the collective voice that we will be able to affect long-term change. The shipping industry has been around for years, as has women’s involvement in it. We are now starting to step up and move forward as we are capable mariners who add value to the workplace. We must add our voice to the multitude of women’s voices advocating for more women in maritime.”

For Williams, the outlook for women in the breakbulk sector is extremely positive. “Women’s voices are getting louder and the industry can no longer ignore it. Yes, we are still far from reaching a balance, but we are heading in the right direction.”

Bureau Veritas was sponsor of the Women in Breakbulk Breakfast at this year’s Breakbulk Middle East in Dubai.