Women in shipping - Captain Jennifer Williams, director of inspections and compliance, US Coast Guard

Captain Jennifer Williams

Captain Jennifer Williams. Credit: US Coast Guard

Since April 2017, Captain Jennifer Williams has directed the US Coast Guard’s (USCG’s) inspections and compliance division, where she develops and maintains policies and standards for everything associated with safe vessel and port operations for operators trading in the United States.

A 1990 graduate of the US Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, New York, with a degree in marine transportation, Williams’ career has taken her from conducting ship inspections in Singapore and Taiwan to overseeing a major oil spill response effort off the coast of California.

In her 27-year rise from ensign to one level below flag officer, Williams has witnessed first-hand how the number of women in the upper ranks of the United States’ top maritime regulator has grown.

“When I first came in there were no female admirals, and there may not have been female captains at the time either,” Williams told Fairplay. “Now we’ve got a handful of women admirals - not many, but a few, and we also have quite a few female captains. When I look behind me at the junior staff, there are a lot more women in the USCG than when I came in. I think when you put women in these jobs and you learn more about them, we become less scary.”

Williams said she has benefitted from other female trailblazers within her agency, including Rear Admiral Mary Landry, now retired, who became one of her mentors. Earlier in her own career, Landry occasionally had to put up with immature behaviour from some of her male colleagues – something Williams witnessed first-hand while starting out as a junior officer.

“‘Everything comes out in the wash,’ she told me at the time,” Williams said, “and she was right. I watched her advance from lieutenant to admiral, while those that I recall giving her a hard time never made it past commander.”

It was women like Landry, who later served as the federal on-scene co-ordinator in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, who took the heat earlier on until change within the USCG meant women would not have to “just take it” anymore.

“She had been kind of a cheerleader for me,” Williams recalls. “Really good leaders like that try to teach their junior members how to do the job – they don’t do the job for you, but sort of push you in the right direction, and then send you off to let you go do it. When you work for people like that, it makes you a better person.”

Married with three sons – the oldest of which is a midshipman at Kings Point – Williams is reciprocating with some mentoring herself.

“I’m at the stage where I have friends with teenage daughters, and I tell them they should consider the USCG or attending the Coast Guard Academy, as well as encourage women to go to my alma mater, the Merchant Marine Academy. Some have ended up doing that,” she told Fairplay.

Williams pointed out that while there is progress to be made in terms of women in senior-level positions, the numbers are much better than when she entered the force.

“I think the USCG has been better at diversity than the other armed services, and right now, no job is off limits.”