When Jenny Matthews passed her Officer of the Watch oral exam at 29 years old, she received some surprising feedback. “I was told that there were less than ten women in the world who had this ticket,” says Matthews, who currently serves as First Officer on board M/Y S. “In some ways, it was shocking, but in another way, it wasn’t because I had been working on yachts for ten years and had never worked with another woman on deck.”
Matthews decided to do her own research. She posted a message to the Facebook group, Girls on Deck: Connecting Female Deck & Engineering Superyacht Crew, and was floored by the answers that came rolling in. “I got two hundred responses from greenies to masters — I was so excited, I decided to build a website and I didn’t sleep for a week.” Matthews’s creation was SheoftheSea.com, a portal that is “raising awareness, visibility, support, and opportunity for women in maritime sectors.” The website is a place for women to connect and champion each other, but it goes well beyond networking.
She of the Sea strives to increase visibility and change the narrative of women in yachting. Part of this is challenging the visual representation of women in yachting. Matthews notes how even in crew clothing catalogues, women are portrayed as smiling stewardesses and never shown in a boiler suit or with a captain’s epaulet. “We are past Champagne and short skirts; we can go further than that now. And in the media, why not show female officers driving the boats?” says Matthews. “We need to see ourselves represented differently to change the conversation.”
Matthews is quick to point out that She of the Sea is intent on pushing competence-based placement over gender-based hiring. “It’s not about placing women over men — it’s giving them an equal shot to have the opportunity to get in front of the people they need to.” Unfortunately, many women who want to sign on for deckhand jobs are still told by crew agents that they should be stewardesses instead. “Someone was looking for a female bosun, and the crew agencies said there weren’t any, but I knew of at least eight,” says Matthews.
The stigma in hiring women in “non-traditional” roles on board runs deep. A woman’s advancement in their career in on-deck roles — and working their way up to captain — can be roadblocked by the owners themselves. “I’ve heard heartbreaking comments, like ‘I don’t feel safe when my wife drives the car, so I can’t hire [a woman] to drive my boat,” says Matthews. There are, however, crew agents who have proven over the years that they will go to bat for a woman who wants to break out beyond the stewardess typecasting. “Often, it’s [male crew agents] who are being helpful and saying ‘this woman knows their stuff and you’d be a fool not to hire her,’” says Matthews. Part of She of the Sea’s mission is to identify these advocates and help streamline the process for women. Working with other shoreside yachting businesses and organizations is part of She of the Sea’s larger mission. “We want to bring in shoreside industry as well, because we recognize if there’s going to be change it needs to come from all parts,” says Matthews.
She of the Sea is in the process of expanding its website to accommodate its growth (the current website is up and running in the meantime) and is also developing an app, which will serve as a community for both women and men to connect and learn. The app hasn’t launched to the public yet but is currently being beta-tested by Matthews’s inner circle of 20 officers and captains. When it’s launched, the She of the Sea app will be a platform for mentorship and information sharing. Mentorship is vital, as is simply increasing awareness to young women that these jobs are even possible. Matthews credits her childhood neighbor, a yacht captain, for telling her that she could be a captain one day. “He gave me a clear view there would be a lot of challenges, but there wasn’t a doubt in my mind I could do that if I wanted to do it,” she says.
Well beyond the digital realm, Matthews is taking her inspiring message to the real world with speaking engagements, going everywhere from her former high school in New Zealand to Young Professionals in Yachting in London. Next up, Matthews will be speaking at the TEDx Barcelona stage in September 2019.
“The main goal when I started was visibility and awareness, getting in front of people and opening their minds to different ways of thinking and looking at diversity,” says Matthews. “She of the Sea has changed my perspective on the industry, and I’m so inspired by the women and men in yachting. This movement is about celebrating diversity in the industry — it’s not about who does the job better, it’s how we do it better together.”
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