I suppose, traditionally, the ports industry wasn’t seen as a natural destination of choice for career women.
The popular images of working docks have always been regarded as a male preserve but, in the same way square riggers no longer ply our trade routes, men-only ports and harbours – if they ever existed – are certainly not a fact of life today. For an island nation, it is hardly surprising that we are reliant on ships. Around 95 percent of everything we import and export moves on the sea.
Kent has always been a major operator in this regard. Gravesend, Medway, Ramsgate and Folkestone all have a long and proud tradition of seafaring. But the jewel in the county’s crown has to be my port – Dover. When the first bronze-age people hauled their boats onto the beaches beneath the White Cliffs they would have been unable to comprehend what this stretch of the Kent shoreline would eventually become. Just 21 miles from the coast of France, today we are the fastest growing sea route in Britain.
We handle around 17 per cent of all the UK’s trade in goods – worth £119bn to the economy.
Dover is Europe’s busiest ferry port and the second most popular cruise ship destination in England.
We also have a successful cargo-handling facility, dealing mainly with fresh fruit – in fact, a quarter of all bananas imported into the UK come through Dover.
We have a 400-berth marina set in a harbour that sees 120 ferry movements a day, and in excess of 100 cruise ship, 160 cargo vessel and 3,750 leisure boat movements a year.
We see 2.6million lorry journeys passing through the port annually. To get an idea of the volumes we handle, the daily queue of lorries, if we parked them single file, would stretch back through Kent, over the Dartford Crossing, up the M11 and end at Stansted Airport.
Our 12 million passengers each year put us in the same league as the UK’s fifth busiest airport – Luton.
My organisation, Dover Harbour Board, employs around 300 local people, Port of Dover Cargo Ltd employs a further 100, and an additional 22,000 jobs are supported by the Port of Dover’s work.
We are crucial to Europe, to the UK and to Kent. But running and maintaining an operation of this scale, complexity and importance is no easy task, and women are vital to our operations.
Our female traffic controllers oversee the mammoth marshalling and contingency work needed for the efficient handling of ever growing vehicle volumes.
Our policing and security, environment and safety, human resources, and cruise line teams all have women at the helm.
Women are also well represented in finance, maintenance, public relations, procurement, marina and berthing, and Corporate Social Responsibility.
In fact, the Port of Dover has achieved such a level of gender diversity that I’d never really thought of the workforce in male and female terms prior to this interview. We are a team, defined by who we are and what we do rather than our gender. Certainly, being a woman is not a block to achieving success at the Port of Dover.
That said, in gender terms, there are areas we are still working on. Women are underrepresented in engineering, for instance. This is, of course, a national and international phenomenon. Around eight per cent of UK engineers are women, 20 per cent in Europe, and 14 per cent in the United States. It is not that there is a bar to becoming a female Port of Dover engineer, there just doesn’t seem to be the same volume of women looking for this type of employment compared to men.
While we can try to mitigate these trends through involvement in jobs fairs, working with schools, offering civil engineering apprenticeships and bursaries, there also needs to be a wider national cultural shift in attitudes to subjects like engineering – including greater drives to encourage girls to pursue the sciences through education, for instance.
I do think that one of the biggest obstacles we, as a port, have to overcome is the lack of understanding of what we and the shipping industry actually do. The careers available, as I’ve already outlined, go way beyond piloting and berthing ships.
I, for one, had not set out to work in the ports industry – my education and degree were following a very different course. But, through opportunity and career choices, I’ve found myself in an incredibly vibrant and fascinating workplace, an environment with great opportunities to develop and learn, and an industry which is crucial to the wellbeing of the nation.
No two days are the same – working at the Port is the polar opposite of the traditional nine to five job. One day you could be meeting a Royal or Government ministers, the next you could be working with film makers or travelling overseas to promote ferry operations in Europe or cruise line opportunities in the States. Sometimes you just simply stand on a quayside in the middle of the night, soaking wet, watching the delivery of one of the electricity transformers crucial for Kent’s energy supply. This is what I personally love about this job – the buzz of our busy operations and all the nitty gritty of a working terminal.
The ports industry is far from a male preserve, and its diversity of job opportunities and continued growth to meet the needs of the UK will, I hope, encourage many more women to forge long and satisfying careers in this nationally-critical industry.
Barbara Buczek Director, Corporate Development an d Operational Businesses, Port of Dover