| People | Women in shipping

The underestimated asset

The testosterone-driven atmosphere in the traditionally male dominated shipping industry is now shaken up by the occasional female colleague. aroundtheglobe talked to one of them to find out about pros and cons both for women and companies.

Shipping can be rough. Stormy weather and troubled sea don’t exactly allow for soft voices when things get hectic and instructions are bellowed. Maybe this is why negotiations between shipyards and shipping companies tend to get rough as well. What will a woman working in this environment be like?

The first impression: What you see is not what you get. After hearing about her from her supervisor, you would expect a much more dominant appearance. When Thorsten Odefey, Senior Vice President Drydock and Repair at Rickmers Shipmanagement Singapore, speaks about his two female drydock controllers, he paints a picture of tough, strong women who stand their ground in male dominated surroundings. For a person who is said to have no problem with pushing her own agenda through, no matter how rough or tedious negotiations get, Glevy Ymbong looks petite.

“In negotiations, it is not a bad thing to be underestimated. I can work this to my advantage.”

She enters the room almost timid, a delicate woman wearing a pretty business dress and a pleasant smile. When talking about her job, though, it gets clear pretty fast that this charming lady must be able to switch to different gears in her behavior. As a controller in drydock and repair, she checks the invoices that shipyards send Rickmers. Vessels have to be docked at a shipyard every five years to make class renewal, which means to send the vessel for repairs, check for class requirement and comply with safety rules for safe seafaring of the ships. This is where Ymbong gets involved: As much as it is in the interest of ship managers to reduce the resulting costs, shipyards will strive to increase them. A phenomenon every car driver knows who ever had to take their car to the shop.

The invoicing is thus a delicate subject, which hasn’t gotten any easier in the wake of the ongoing shipping crisis that has hit the entire industry hard. Ymbong checks every single item that is supposed to be invoiced and negotiates prices as well as what work actually needs to be done. Naturally shipyard accountants have opposite interests, so negotiations are common. And usually an all-male affair.

How does delicate, charming Ymbong stand her ground?

Smiling, she explains that men tend to underestimate her. Ymbong started her career in the Philippines as a naval architect and then moved on to a shipyard where she worked as a commercial executive in commercial department, doing the invoices which she now fights over from the other perspective – she knows what she’s talking about. Prior to joining Rickmers she worked in an offshore company as cost controller for conversion projects. Her architectural and technical background in particular allow her to discuss technical details which her counterparts often don’t suspect her to know. With sparkling eyes, Ymbong admits to enjoy the moment when a man realises to have an equal counterparty in her: “I have found that when men find out how much I know, they respect that and I can convince them that way. Also I take pleasure in the moment when they realise they have to take me seriously. I like to watch it dawning on them that I know the business as well as they do.”

“In negotiations, it is not a bad thing to be underestimated. I can work this to my advantage”, she explains. “Also, what I heard about these negotiations, people yelling, throwing things and slamming doors, doesn’t happen to me. I think men only deal with each other that way, not with women present. And when negotiations take a long time, I endure that just like any man would.” According to Ymbong, it is not a bad idea at all to put a female in her position. And apparently her adversaries in negotiations agree: “In Singapore, I negotiated with a male counterpart for the first two vessels that we drydocked. I often find that this situation is advantageous for me. But then the shipyard switched to a woman negotiator. However, of course I can deal with that, too.”

“But this is a woman”

Studies show that mixed teams of female and male employees produce better results than homogenous teams. Still, Thorsten Odefey got surprised looks when he chose Glevy Ymbong and her colleague, Yolanda Montalbo Suarez. More than once he heard others say “but these are women”, to which he only replied that yes, he knew. Now he is proud of his two female controllers. And Ymbong? Would she recommend other women a position like hers? “Oh yes, it’s a great job. I would like to work for Rickmers until I retire perhaps?”, she says. “My goal is not to be better than anyone else, but to be better than I used to be. I would tell women to be strong, in this job, but I have never experienced discrimination.”

Also, she says she loves the travel involved in her job. When a vessel is docked at a shipyard, she usually goes there at least five days before the vessel departure to prepare the invoice negotiations. Mostly this leads her to China. Other shipyards she went to were in Dubai, Turkey, Spain, and Portugal. The most exciting event in her job was about travel, too: “Only five days after I had started my job at Rickmers, I already had to go to Turkey on business for a week. I had just started working here, was already representing Rickmers abroad and it was the first time I had ever traveled long distance. It was a great experience and I still find this traveling a very exciting aspect of my job. For example, last year four of our ships were docked in the same region, so I got to stay in China for a whole month”, she says happily.

Evidently, it takes a strong personality to stand your ground in the tough shipping industry. Ymbong prove right away that she can do that, doing her first long distance trip in her second week at Rickmers. Whether the person doing the job is female or male seems to be less important. But as long as everyone expects to deal with men, women can actually have an advantage in negotiations, though they have to make an effort to convince their counterparts to take them seriously. Rickmers Shipmanagement, at any rate, is glad to have two talented female drydock controllers among them. Looking at Ymbong, and the twinkle in her eyes as she talks about men and her job, it seems to be a worthwhile effort for the women, too.