Women in shipping - Kathy Metcalf, president, Chamber of Shipping of America

Kathy Metcalf

Kathy Metcalf. Credit: SCA

Kathy Metcalf has lived and breathed maritime her entire professional career.

The daughter of a US Air Force flight engineer, Metcalf wanted to go to the US military academy at West Point upon graduating high school in 1972. The problem: it was not yet legal for women to enroll in the service academies.

“My parents raised me to try the impossible” Metcalf told Fairplay, so she applied to West Point anyway, as well as to the military academies for the US Navy and US Air Force. “All three had easy answers for me, which was, ‘sorry, we’re not accepting women’.”

While studying at the University of Delaware, Metcalf received a phone call. It was Joe Biden, who was in his first term as a US senator and would later go on to become Vice President under Barack Obama.

Biden, who had heard Metcalf had attempted to break down service academy gender barriers, informed her that the US Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) in Kings Point, New York, was going to start accepting women in 1974.

“I didn’t know what the Merchant Marine Academy was, but after driving up and seeing it I said I think I’d like to give it a go,” Metcalf recalled.

After graduating from USMMA in 1978, Metcalf worked as a deck officer for five years on crude oil and products tankers with Gulf Oil and Sun Company, sailing on coastwise assignments that took her to ports between the Panama Canal and Portland, Maine.

She earned a law degree while serving in various shoreside positions at Sun, and was eventually promoted to lead the company’s Midwest government affairs operations. Experience gained by designing communications strategies with state governments and regulatory agencies was perfect training for the Chamber of Shipping of America (CSA), which represents US-based vessel operators, and which she joined in 1997. She became CSA president in 2015.

Even after moving on-shore, the military continued to influence Metcalf’s vocational philosophy.

“If I were to pick one person from my government relations career that steered me in the direction I’m on, it would be Jim Trammell,” Sun Company’s former head of state government relations. Trammell, an ex-Marine, “was very much like a father figure in the business world for me” she said.

“‘All you have in this job is your integrity’, he used to tell me. ‘If you lose that, you’ve lost it.’ What he was telling me was to be transparent, be honest, be open, be ethical. My parents taught me that too, but never put it quite that bluntly. It’s something I take with me every day.”

Her experiences in dealing with men – sometimes relying on them for her very safety, and they on her for theirs - galvanised a perspective that may not be as common among women who have found success exclusively in shipping’s corporate arenas.

“I’ve never been a person that says, ‘let’s do this for the women,’ Metcalf said. “I don’t believe in preferential treatment, because I think that tends to develop a person who may not have had the challenges that men in this position have had, and we all need to have those challenges. In this industry, women have to succeed on the same level and with the same skill sets as men.”

But Metcalf also stressed that employers, whether military or civilian, have their own responsibilities when confronting bias, on deck or in the office.

“If someone is hassling you because of your gender, race, or another reason, there must be an organisational structure to deal with that, led by those who can handle it correctly.”