Women in shipping – Lisa Teo, executive director of corporate development, Pacific International Lines

Lisa Teo

Lisa Teo. Credit: SSA

As a woman in the shipping industry, Lisa Teo’s greatest challenge is splitting her time between work and family, a demand on working mothers everywhere, she said.

“We continue to wear many hats at home and at work, but there are only 24 hours in a day,” she said.

To describe Teo as one who wears many hats is an understatement.

First, she is the executive director of corporate development at Pacific International Lines (PIL). A familiar face on Singapore’s shipping scene, she is vice-president and honorary secretary of the Singapore Shipping Association (SSA), as well as a board member of the Singapore Maritime Foundation (SMF). 

Teo said companies are increasingly becoming employee-friendly. PIL, for example, allows flexible working hours.

“Shipping has historically been a male-dominated industry, normally associated with plenty of boozing and smoking in the boys’ club. If you don’t do any of those, it is probably harder to get into the circle than it already is.

“Luckily for us, shipping has really progressed and the rules of the old days do not come into play anymore,” she said.

Teo does not shy away from the fact that she is part of a family-run business – PIL was founded by her father, Teo Woon Tiong, in 1967 – but stated that the organisation is professionally run.

“I still remember my father’s advice when I first joined PIL. He emphasised that as a family member, I had to work even harder than other staff to prove my worth in the organisation,” she said.

She credited her father and brothers as among her many excellent mentors. “They often walk the talk and are not afraid to get their hands dirty to do the work needed. I was not spared the hard work just because I was a family member,” she said. Likewise, senior colleagues at PIL also trained and guided her professionally over the years.

Shipping is more than just a profession to Teo. “Growing up, family holidays were often combined with business trips; family and business have always been inseparable to me since I was young,” she said.

But Teo was not always keen to join the family business and originally wanted to be an accountant. Despite that, in 1997 she came on board at PIL as a management trainee, a role in which she worked hard and was regularly rotated among departments to gain an understanding of the company’s major divisions.

“It doesn’t matter how long I have been working in the industry, there is always something new for me to learn about shipping,” she told Fairplay.

Although gender imbalance is still an issue in shipping, the industry is also becoming more inclusive, thanks to the likes of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the Women’s International Shipping & Trading Association (WISTA), which try to level the playing field for women.

“We are living [in an] age where capability and possessing a strong network is increasingly important. As shipping professionals, we value relationships, performance, and individual capability. If women in the industry perform equally or better than men, they will not be subjected to different barriers or expectation from the men,” Teo explained.

Still, women remain under-represented at the senior management levels and Teo believes a lot more can be done to rectify this imbalance.

To encourage women to join shipping, she suggested putting in place policies that safeguard women’s rights so that employees do not feel that gender is an impediment to workplace performance.

“It is necessary to be open and receptive and accept that women are equally capable of handling a fast-paced and dynamic environment, just like men,” she said.

Outside the workplace, having a strong support network among women in the maritime industry could encourage others to join, as barriers to entry could be a lack of understanding from family, friends, or even maritime companies.

Companies can also try to make provisions or incorporate facilities that will benefit working mothers, such as flexible working hours and the provision of a nursing room.

“The more we talk about women in shipping, the more normal this is, the more the barriers start to come down for women to enter the industry,” she said.

While men traditionally had an advantage over women in more physically demanding seafaring roles, technological advancements have created jobs skewed towards brain power and soft skills, and this opens up opportunities for women.

“With technology and trust, you don’t need to be at your desk to do your work. A laptop and being accountable for your work is all there is,” she noted.

Beyond the gender divide, Teo hopes to see more young people join the shipping industry.

“The world is changing rapidly and it is the same as in shipping. The more young talent we have joining the industry, the healthier the industry will be.

“The maritime industry offers a broad range of jobs and brings together people from different backgrounds and disciplines. This is what makes shipping such a diverse and dynamic industry,” said Teo.

“There is a job for everyone, and I encourage young people to join the industry. There are opportunities to travel and see the world and immerse yourself in different cultures. Shipping can be a very fulfilling career.”