Women in shipping: Elisabeth Heggelund Tørstad - DNV

Elisabeth Heggelund Tørstad.

Elisabeth Heggelund Tørstad. Credit: DNV GL

Having worked in areas as diverse as oil and gas, clean energy and utilities, construction, civil engineering, materials, and deepwater technology, plus an academic career before that, Elisabeth Heggelund Tørstad has 30 years’ of experience within industries that are often perceived as male-dominated.

And while she does feel that being a woman pushed her to work harder, especially at the start of her career, she is very careful to consider how workplace discrimination has changed and why many industries have remained male-dominated.

“Most men in the industry have the same goals as women in terms of diversity, and on a conscious level the majority are doing the right thing,” she told Fairplay, “so things have certainly got better over time.”

Yet while she feels that differences in the treatment of men and women may have become less obvious, on the subconscious level most people hold biases that they – regardless of their gender – may struggle with.

“It goes for all of us,” she said, “I have had occasions myself when I’ve met a woman when I’m not expecting it and assumed she was the secretary and not the boss. These biases are very strong.”

In the same vein, unconscious biases goes some way to explaining why industries such as shipping can remain so male-dominated, without many of the participants wanting it, or perhaps even noticing.

“I think there’s an element - and I think it’s generic across the world - that it is easy to see talent in people who look like and talk like ourselves,” she explained.

“When we recognise talent or ambition or eagerness, and see someone we’d like to support and give a challenging task, and see if he or she succeeds, this frequently happens with people that we see ourselves in.”

It is through greater recognition of the issue that Tørstad believes these unconscious biases can be tackled. In particular, industry leaders, and especially other women, should be sure to provide the same opportunities to talented women as talented men, which often means focusing on those women at the lower levels of a company who are only just embarking on their careers. “Often when you look at leadership roles, it is the result of being given an opportunity at some point,” she said. “We can do so much better in actually looking for talented women.”

Although a progress has been made over the course of her career, Tørstad is clear that often women do still face overt challenges in the workplace. Unlike men, women who are direct can often be labelled ‘aggressive’ or ‘pushy,’ she notes, yet they face being seen as meek and not to be taken seriously if they do not speak out.

“As a woman you’re more visible, as there is an underrepresentation of women, so there’s an element of having to work harder to demonstrate success,” she said. “At the same time, when you demonstrate success or an achievement, we benefit from the higher visibility this brings. So as a woman you stand out from the crowd in a way, for good and bad.”

Does she feel that a young woman starting out in her career will still face the pressure to work harder than her male colleagues? “I hope not. I don’t think that it’s still an issue,” she says carefully. “I think that things clearly have moved on over the past 30 years.”

Could her experience say more about working in Norway, one of the best countries in the world for gender equality and one of the few to have quotas for women on corporate boards?

“It’s difficult for any of us to make general statements. I have worked with extraordinary, respectful, talented, collaborative, wonderful men in all parts of the world. I have also worked with both men and women who are not supportive of others,” she said, noting that in her experience it is not men per se who do not support others, but “people who are less confident in themselves.”