Women in Maritime with Heidi Heseltine

After a great start to our Women in Maritime series in December 2020, we continue now in 2021 with our first of many more interviews to come. INFORM’s Matthew Wittemeier caught up with Heidi Heseltine, CEO of Halcyon Recruitment and co-founder of the Diversity Study Group, to get a better understanding of how a single mother has the time to be the CEO of a company while also co-founding a not-for-profit organization. 

An Introduction

MW: Do you mind introducing yourself? 

HH: My pleasure. Thanks, Matthew. 

My name is Heidi Heseltine. I am a co-founder of the Diversity Study Group, where we undertake benchmarking and best-practice solutions for diversity and inclusion within the shore-based shipping and maritime sectors. I am also CEO of Halcyon Recruitment, a global search and selection firm for the shipping industry, again shore-based. 

I’ve been in the industry for about 30 years. I started in vessel operations and quality assurance, working in both the tanker and dry bulk markets. I also spent some time in the maritime technology sector before moving to recruitment in 2002. More recently, I began working with diversity and inclusion in the shipping and maritime industry.  

MW: How did you find your way into maritime? 

HH: I fell into it. My first job was as a receptionist with Euronav Tankers as they had wanted a fluent French speaker, which I was at the time. 

I don’t think I was necessarily the best receptionist, but fortunately they saw something in me and finally told me, “Right, come on into operations. You can operate the ships,” so I moved into operations straightaway. There’s also a slight family history in the industry. My grandfather was a director at Clarksons. He passed away long before I began my career, so he didn’t influence me, but it has always been a lovely feeling that I ended up in shipping too. 

MW: What has caused you to stay? 

HH: I love the industry, and early in my career, I loved the fact that I was moving cargoes around the world. When I first started, quite a few of the ships I operated were going to West Africa, and I was dealing with a lot of multicultural factors to which I had to adapt to get the best results. It was fascinating and really drew me into the industry. Since then, I have always appreciated how there is always more to learn and how vast the maritime and shipping world is, yet at the same time how closely it all connects.  

Industry Challenges and Opportunities

MW: Interesting. What were some of the biggest challenges you faced as a woman when you joined the industry? 

HH: I was really lucky when I first joined because I had a brilliant manager, Lynn Chapman. She was phenomenal. She had worked at Shell before and was an exceptional operations manager and mentor. I didn’t really become aware of challenges until a little bit further on in my career. I was not aware at the start that there was a significant lack of females on the commercial side. I spent about 10 years in operations, and then the challenges began growing. Since I wanted to progress in my career, I looked for a chance to move into the commercial side, but the options at that time were really restricted.  

I knew a career in operations for the rest of my life wasn’t for me. I didn’t want to be on call 24/7, and up until that point, I had spent a long time literally on call 24/7. From a family perspective, too, it was a challenge, and I had to think long-term. It wasn’t practical. It was one of the biggest challenges that I had to work my way through and see how to overcome it, and it still is today for a lot of people.  

MW: You mentioned that the operations-focused roles weren’t really suitable from a family perspective. At what point did you start a family in your career, and what impact did that have? 

HH: I had been in recruitment for about three years but was still in the shipping sector. I’ve never worked in another sector, so I was essentially raised in the workplace that taught me to be available for work 24/7. I didn’t have a problem with that, not that I’m saying that attitude should be expected. Far from it. For me, it was about balancing the two. In recruitment, I can balance the two a little better. I have been able to integrate my family life with my work. There’s more flexibility to my work and having a family doesn’t impact me getting the job done at all. If anything, my team members and I can work exceptionally long hours, but we do it with a work-life balance that suits our family needs and offers flexibility when needed. 

As we know, in shipping, that is a really big challenge from a female perspective. There is now a considerable amount of work being done and promoted in this area, and work-life balance needs to be a part of it. I took it into my own hands and built what I needed to build in order to still be an effective mum. I’m a full-time, working single mother and built my job and my company around that. This has allowed me to be a “present” mum and also be able to head a successful business entity and continue to develop professionally. 

MW: It is interesting that you said you’ve had to build that. In some of the other conversations we have had with women in the industry, that is still something that is being built. There is a lot of progress being made there, but it’s very much at the start. 

HH: It is. Diversity and inclusion, as a whole in shipping, are at a very immature stage. We always need to think about inclusion and diversity together because if you don’t have inclusion in the working environment, you can’t get diversity. You might be able to hire diverse candidates if you’re lucky, but you won’t retain them. We don’t have that working culture across most entities at this juncture.  

Particularly in the DSG (Diversity Study Group), we see positive action with lots of our members doing a lot of work focusing on attracting and retaining staff and putting what they need in place to do it successfully. 

Women in Maritime

MW: So, let’s talk a bit then about what you do in your role as a recruiter. Do you find it challenging to find women to place in shipping roles? 

HH: It depends on what you are looking for. The results we see aren’t unexpected but need to change. Professional services is often where you find women, but they are almost always in a support role. If you look at your admin/finance/HR teams, they are very heavily populated with females – overwhelmingly so. In a survey we undertook within the Diversity Study Group, we found that 74% of support/professional service roles are held by women. Still, if you look at the commercial, operational, technical, and senior management roles, women are in very short supply. In the same survey, we also looked at heads of departments and director-level statistics and found that females hold only 17% of these.  

It’s a challenge finding women working in the industry in the first place because not enough women are in shipping to achieve the balance that we would like. It’s also a challenge bringing them into the sector. We need to work on the talent-attraction piece without a doubt, and that is happening increasingly across the industry. I’m involved with projects within the Diversity Study Group, the Global Maritime Forum, and Women in Shipping that will help this, with other projects in the background.  

We’ve got to attract people early in their career trajectory as well, and then we will see results. If you look at the junior levels or trainees, the number of females coming in is a lot bigger because of the current focus. Our survey found 52% of junior/trainee roles are occupied by females, which is encouraging. But the question now is, how do we keep them? A lot of women don’t stay in their roles to see if they can make a family work with their existing job because they can’t imagine it is feasible. One company looked at their data and found that not one person had gone on maternity leave in six years, and this was because they were leaving before starting a family. They have now introduced flexible working and an action plan to target this, which has yielded immediate results. These are the types of challenges we have at the moment. 

MW: From the retention perspective, what are some of the things that shippers are doing to retain women? 

HH: It’s about our working practices across shipping and maritime. We’ve spoken about that a bit already. There’s a need for flexible working and making sure that there are strong maternity and paternity measures in place. One of our members within the DSG offers employees who return from maternity leave to work 80% while being paid 100% salary. Of course, that is not economically viable for everybody, but it’s an example of the changes taking place. Plus, there’s more flexibility in allowing people to work from home more, as well as flexible working hours. We are also looking in more detail at how recruitment and hiring campaigns are being undertaken. There have been some really interesting case studies on this, yielding some very positive results with improved attraction for both male and female employees. In a way, COVID-19 came along at a really good time. Not that I wish it on anybody, but it’s forced the industry to really look at the way it’s running in a way that’s never happened before. If you look at the shore-based side, we see the potential for change, and it’s phenomenal. This could be a groundbreaking time for us. 

MW: Absolutely. It’s not even limited to shipping. We hear very similar stories across maritime. I love the way you put it, that there is the potential for us to learn something from this. 

You’re the co-founder of the Diversity Study Group. Why did you co-found it? 

HH: We talked in the industry a lot about the need for greater gender diversity in shipping, but for me, it wasn’t right just to focus on gender if we wanted to promote real change. Diversity is about the whole. It was essential to understand the big picture and, until the DSG, there was no global data for the shore-based shipping and maritime industry. There are snippets of data, a report here and there about gender or nationality, but they didn’t span the global shipping sector or, in my opinion, true diversity. That’s not to criticize what they were doing, but for us, we said, “Great, let’s draw a line in the sand. Let’s get an accurate picture of where we are now because how can any entity be known as a truly progressive organization without a benchmark? How do we know where the real challenges are and where we want to improve?” 

Essentially, that’s where it came from. We want to encourage more diversity and inclusion, provide practical solutions, and provide services for organizations that, perhaps, can’t have their own diversity and inclusion expert but want to improve. Since we established the DSG, we’ve seen a real sense of collaboration in the community about the subject, which is a very positive start. People want to participate for their own corporate objective, but they also see the benefit to shipping as a whole and are really engaged. Our members are varied and include Maersk, AET, GasLog, Ardmore, and Peninsula Petroleum, among others, all of whom are incredibly committed to driving this issue forward. 

It’s important to be aware that diversity and inclusion is not something you can just give lip service to, and it needs to be driven from the top down. If the CEOs don’t have a proactive hand in this and aren’t making people accountable throughout the organization, it’s not going to work. We want to use data, highlight the issues, and get people to commit to this being on the agenda to promote positive change rather than having it be just a nice headline for the press with little action.  

MW: You talked about there being no data globally. How far have you progressed on creating sort of a data pool that can be assessed? 

HH: We are in the early stage still. We started setting this up two years ago, and we’ve had to wait for data to come from the organizations as they survey their employees. Some of the data we can get directly from an organization, while some of it is opinion data. That comes directly from the employees because we want demographic data, which is essential. Still, we also like to have the opinion data to ascertain if diversity and inclusion communication are also working. For example, if people are in roles where they don’t feel safe, they won’t speak up. If they don’t have a supportive peer group, we’re not doing what we need to do as an industry. 

At the moment, the data is growing exponentially and showing some very interesting results. I’ve already mentioned some of the gender statistics. Some other areas of interest include gender pay gap analysis, including potential challenges with discretionary bonuses. We are also looking at ethnic and nationality data, which has shown a stark lack of those identifying as Black. Furthermore, when investigating those who feel it is safe for them to speak up at work, males are more confident than females. Those identifying as White are considerably more confident than any other group. White males also dominate the senior leadership space. Given that shipping is only just starting to look at this, the results are not altogether surprising, and the data shows that change is critical. Our members are working proactively and collaboratively to address this. 

MW: What’s the plan for the coming year for the Diversity Study Group? 

HH: At the moment, our focus is on education, increased data, and collaboration. It’s making sure we are educating the industry so that people understand the benefits of diversity and inclusion. It’s also about getting more data. Data is key, as it’s only through the data we acquire through our growing membership that we can accurately identify the picture and subsequently can collaborate on what works and doesn’t work to achieve the necessary change. 

We are also looking at the services we provide to ensure we’re making our work and our data available to other entities and organizations within shipping that want to drive this initiative. Our work is going at a very rapid pace, and we believe we are well positioned to be able to help the shipping and maritime industry achieve the necessary change through our services, different types of membership, and what we’re able to provide in terms of data and practical solutions.  

MW: What do you think are some of the biggest opportunities for the maritime industries over the next five years? 

HH: The biggest opportunity is that we have a generation of people entering employment who have been raised on technology more than those of us who are more advanced in our careers could probably begin to understand. And, I think, they’re not scared by the changing technology; they’re used to it. They use the data to drive information and decisions, and the landscape is changing dramatically. 

We’ve seen a really big shift in the type of roles in maritime and shipping, and in terms of data usage as well. That is key, along with the advancing technology. I also think the shift in the industry and changing technology gives us a phenomenal opportunity to attract the talent we’ll need in the future. We’re an attractive industry, which is key, even though we don’t position ourselves that way. If we take the shroud of secrecy off and position ourselves differently, we can get some first-class and diverse talent coming in. But we have to make sure to capitalize on, and embrace, the changing landscape. 

MW: What do you think is the first step to getting into the right place to capitalize on it? What do we need to be doing today? 

HH: It gets back to what I was saying before. We have to get the working culture right and get the working environment right, which sounds so basic, but it’s an accurate reflection of where a lot of organizations are at the moment. We also need CEOs to commit the time to diversity inclusion and make it a part of company culture. We don’t have that working environment and culture element in many organizations right now. 

An impact can also be made by individuals as well as corporations. We have members within the DSG who refuse to participate in conferences, panel discussions, and the like unless the speaker and participant profiles are diverse. This is a great way for individuals to help raise awareness of the issue and to promote change. 

We also need to make people aware of the breadth of roles available in shipping to ensure we are attracting a broad variety of talent into the industry. We need to promote our work in government to gain their support and inform those in early education at schools and colleges. No one person can do that, but if you look at what came out of the Global Maritime Forum a few weeks ago, there was very much a consensus that this is what we have to be doing. There’s a lot to be doing now, and some of that is big-picture work; some of it is people making small changes here and there.  

Maritime and shipping touches every aspect of our lives, and that’s what we need to be getting out there, in our sector, and beyond.  

MW: If you could do one thing to inspire young women to join the industry, what would it be? 

HH: If I could do one thing, it would be to be encouraging. That probably sounds very boring, but it’s about communicating all the messages that we have been talking about today and making people understand the breadth of opportunity. It is a dynamic, interesting global sector to work in. There are amazing people, and now is a really good time for a change and capitalizing on it. 

If young women are looking for a piece of specific advice, I would suggest they make sure they are working with organizations and individuals who share their values. If the value proposition is aligned, then there is a strong likelihood you can develop and progress. For women, we need to believe in ourselves and our ability to deliver, and stop doubting ourselves and our ability to look after others if we proactively pursue our career goals. I’m a firm believer that we can make anything work through open communication, aligned objectives, and clearly defined goals. I feel that now more than ever, we can progress and see a positive change in a long-overdue way for the shipping and maritime sector.  

MW: I appreciate your advice. Heidi, thank you very much for your time. 

HH: You’re welcome. 

Who is Heidi Heseltine? 

Heidi Heseltine, CEO – Halcyon Recruitment and Co-Founder – Diversity Study Group 

Heidi has worked in the shipping, maritime, and energy markets since 1992, spending her early career in vessel operations and quality assurance with ship owning and broking companies, as well as in the maritime technology sector. 
Heidi moved into recruitment within these same sectors in 2002. Since 2008, Heidi has been at the helm of Halcyon Recruitment, specialist recruiters within the shore-based maritime and shipping markets, where she leads Executive Search and SearchLite recruitment activities as well as bespoke projects (including diversity, inclusion, and employee engagement; remuneration and benefits benchmarking; feasibility studies and employee planning) while ensuring the sustained growth of Halcyon and its global industry representation. 
Seeking to further build on her passion for the industry and to support much-needed change, Heidi co-founded the Diversity Study Group (DSG) in 2018, it being the first organization dedicated to championing diversity and inclusion in all its forms in the shore-based shipping and maritime sectors. The DSG measures and benchmarks diversity and its associated progress, shares best practices, and helps member organizations to improve their policies and practices in order to enjoy the benefits of a diverse, inclusive workplace. 

What is Women in Maritime? 

The Women in Maritime initiative is a combination of a series of interviews and conference sessions brought to you by INFORM as part of its broader diversity program. The first step in increasing the scope of diversity in any industry is highlighting the diversity that exists and creating opportunities for conversations about diversity. While it is often men we think of when we consider the mental image of most logistics roles, women contribute to the industry in all its facets and at all levels of seniority. The initial aim of Women in Maritime is to show that diversity and to bring the conversation around it to life. 

You May Also Like