The One

Lately I’m troubled by the way we glorify “the first woman to become/do/reach [insert title/profession/achievement here]” as if it were the exception, some sort of unlikely phenomenon. Will the women who come after be valued less, have they achieved less than the one who got there first? I know that in some cases others will be inspired when they see that it can be done. But not always, and I say this because I feel that placing value on being “one of the boys” implicitly discourages subsequent candidates to aspire to the same goal because they fear their achievement will mean less and they will threaten the first woman’s “only” status. “I won’t be the only one, I won’t be special, it’s not worth the struggle”. Additionally, being compared side-by-side with another woman often turns into a competition for likability; being liked translates into social popularity, which can directly affect our performance at work. I fight off this fear from time to time myself. The cycle is self-perpetuating. It also encourages more of that Queen Bee mentality. I’m competitive, but I don’t like being forced to compete with others when I don’t have to. Why compete for that one spot if you won’t be valued for being the only one, when you lose out to someone else in that race to be “the first” and “the only”?

I think it takes away from the individual to put so much emphasis on her gender, which is why it makes me uncomfortable the way people are always distinguishing “female mates” and “female captains”. To me, inserting the word “female” takes away from the value of the moment, even if this is not the intention. In focusing on the first woman to become a captain at a company or in a region where there has never been a female captain, I would go so far as to say that this connotation subtly points out the difference and suggests she’s inferior to a “male captain” (i.e. a captain who need not be preceded by some sort of qualifier) and that she falls short in spite of all her demonstrated capability. People sometimes meet this distinction with skepticism and unease. Or if it really is meant in earnest, the enthusiasm is misplaced. Women are not special for doing a man’s job (which is moot anyway because this would be giving credence to the outmoded idea that any job is a “man’s job” or a “woman’s job”; no job is solely reserved for only men or only women). I feel that at this point there are already enough women in this industry that it shouldn’t seem so weird when one makes it all the way to the top. There should be so many more than just one making it to the top. Maybe this is on the horizon and I’m speaking too soon… I can only hope so.

Yes, the first woman to make it in any field has undeniably broken through a barrier, I have no desire to deny this. She is a hero to women and young girls everywhere. First woman in space? Yes, badass. First woman president? Still working on that…. I can’t believe how far behind we are on that one.

There were women working on tugs and ships 40 years ago, and they had a tough lot; because of their determination, women like myself don’t come up against a fraction of the barriers in male-dominated industries as we once did. I’m grateful to them. But it’s not the seventies anymore, and this shouldn’t be such a big deal.

Since not much has changed, save the acceptance without question of women on ships and workboats by most of their male counterparts, I suppose we have no choice but to celebrate the few women who stick it out and make it to the top. However, there’s a caveat: when a woman gets there, she needs to use her voice to call on others to follow, and not everyone has that voice. Outreach is a tremendous challenge. The attention makes us self-conscious. Some of us would rather just do our job and be left alone; some of us don’t want to be criticized or perceived as bitter or combative for starting this conversation; some would rather remain the lone female and keep other women out of the equation; some may not be comfortable promoting this cause, don’t have the time or energy, or don’t really know how to go about doing it. It’s a task in marketing oneself and promoting each other. And let’s face the fact that there aren’t many women out there who are stoked at the idea of working as a deck hand on an oceangoing tug; I was, but I’m weird. With few starting at the bottom, it’s no surprise that there are even fewer at the top (add pressure to have children and raise families to that equation). So an argument for having more than just one at the top lies in the need for a variety of personalities in the group so there’s a better chance of finding the person who is interested in marketing the opportunity and encouraging those on deck or in the academy to excel and make their own way to the top as well: there’s room for everyone.

This discussion takes me back to a recent interaction which has been in the back of my mind for months. The one and only woman to be commissioned as a San Francisco Bar Pilot, who also happens to have been the first female maritime pilot in the United States, just retired late last year. Around that time a mutual friend of ours said she needed an “heiress” – as in, there’s just one spot for a lady and someone needs to fill it? This is bogus.

There shouldn’t be an “only woman”; there should be scores of women. What would be wrong with this? Whether it’s the “only woman” on the ship, or on the boat, or on the board in question, placing value on this status is highly detrimental to the growth of the industry and to individual companies, and we all do it, whether consciously or subconsciously. I feel that other industries have had some success in moving past this but the maritime industry is lagging. Merchant Mariners of both genders need to abandon the reflexive instinct to value the “one woman” in favor of valuing gender diversity. In a perfect world every industry would employ men and women in equal numbers, and not just because they have to, but because there would be a pool of excellent candidates to select from. I don’t think I’m being radical when I say this. And there shouldn’t be a double standard placed on women where they’re forced to compete with each other, but expected not to interfere with the male side by being equally competitive with men as well. I refuse to hear about how women are taking jobs from men; we all deserve a chance to do the job if we’re qualified.

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