Helene Peter-Davies is the first British female Master Mariner to become Partner in a law firm. Her fascinating career has spanned almost three decades, with twelve years at sea. Spinnaker Global’s Managing Director, Teresa Peacock, finds out how Helene got into law, her thoughts on diversity in shipping, and why the industry needs better PR.
TP: Firstly congratulations on being the first British female Master Mariner who has gone on to become Partner in a law firm! I’m keen to hear all about your career, but let’s start at the beginning.
What made you go to sea?
My mother was a WREN in the Royal Navy, my father was in the Royal Navy and then Merchant Navy, as was his brother, father and uncles. My father went to sea school at age 11 and my uncle followed a year after. There are a lot of ‘seafarers’ within the family and I was taken on visits around many ports as a child!
TP: Did your parents encourage you towards the sea?
I wanted to be an accountant; numbers were my thing. However, my parents were not in a suitable financial position to support my attending university. In my last year of GCSEs, aged 16, my father came home with an advert for cadet training with Shell. I had a look, and thought it sounded interesting – you were able to obtain an academic qualification, practical experience and were provided with a small bursary. I thought it sounded like a positive thing, rather than looking at the standard 2 years for A levels, 3 years at university, all without the guarantee of work (and with a student loan).
I applied to both Shell and Cunard and received an offer from Shell for a dual cadetship (Deck and Engineer) – even then I liked a challenge. I joined Shell, aged 17, in September 1991.
TP: At what point did you think about coming ashore?
The knowledge you have when at sea of shore-based roles is very limited. There was little or no advertising – most opportunities were roles you heard of through word of mouth or people you interreacted with onboard; superintendents, pilots, surveyors.
When I was first at sea, people were not moving to shore-based roles until they were in their 40s. Those who came ashore earlier generally did not stay in the shipping industry. In essence you simply didn’t come ashore until you had a Master’s ticket or Chief Engineer’s ticket with significant senior experience, otherwise you were not looked at as a credible employee for shore-based roles.
It has fortunately changed for the better since then. There is now a wealth of roles that are open for persons with more junior qualifications and experience. The industry appears to be recognising the true value of practical shipping experience even where a person has not sailed for decades.
TP: How many women were on your course?
There were 4 female cadets in a class of 32. Retention on the dual cadet course was not ideal with just 16 cadets qualifying; I was the only female cadet to complete the course from that class.
At the nautical college it was usual for the number of female cadets to be fairly low in each class. This did however mean that all of the female cadets got to know each other and support each other through our journey.
I am very happy to say that some of the people I met during my cadetship, some 20 plus years ago, continue to be some of my closest friends.
TP: And how did you get into Law?
My interest was first drawn to Law while taking the law modules of the Mates/Master course at Liverpool John Moore’s University.
I started to research how I could study law. I spoke to a number of local universities and was told I would need to complete a full undergraduate degree. At that time, I was not in a position to walk away from my job to study full-time.
Ever determined, I eventually found out from the Law Society that you could apply for a waiver from an undergraduate degree if you had management qualifications and experience (non-degree) (this is now known as “Equivalent Means – Mature Student”). I applied and was accepted for this waiver and commenced the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL).
I was successful in finding a role ashore around the time that I commenced the GDL. I will admit that it was a challenge to secure my first role ashore. As a professional person who had spent 12 years at sea, I did not expect to experience the discrimination that I faced.
I remember discussing with my male cohort how they found recruitment for shore-based roles. Pretty much without exception they had all walked into the first role they sought. I took somewhat longer than that and the only identifiable difference on our CVs was that I was female.
While studying for my GDL, I first had a role as a deputy-project manager for an Oil Major vetting company. From there I moved to a role in Glasgow lecturing at Glasgow Nautical College. I taught on the law modules as well as the bridge simulators and orals prep. I taught all levels; cadets through to Mates and Masters. I was also given the opportunity to teach on a Marine Law and Insurance module of a Masters degree at Strathclyde University.
I completed my GDL followed by a top-up legal research Masters degree and co-incidentally found a job advert for a boutique law firm in London. They were looking for a Master Mariner wanting to become a solicitor. I submitted my CV, had 2 interviews and received my offer just after a trip to India with the college in 2008.
I moved to London and started working at MFB in February 2009. I really hoped I would enjoy the work. I am happy to say that the job has not disappointed. There is a different challenge within my work every day – I haven’t got bored yet, it’s very diverse.
TP: Do you think you have come up against any further prejudice when you’re out dealing with clients?
As a lawyer and within my earlier roles ashore, the skills, knowledge and experience that I gained while at sea have underpinned all that I do. My clients appear to appreciate this additional aspect being bought to their work.
I feel that I am viewed first and foremost as a professional and therefore am fortunate to have not experienced any real prejudice since I began working in the City.
TP: What would you say to young female lawyers who experience discrimination?
Shipping and shipping law continues to be male dominated, but that should not mean that any woman should feel apologetic for being part of this industry.
You have to have a resolve and believe that you have a place in this industry. After all, shipping is a very rewarding and interesting business to be in. And seek a mentor, someone you trust and that inspires you, to help you plan and navigate your career path. My mentors have supported me tremendously on my journey so far.
There are some exceptional women (and seafarers) working within shipping law and I would like to see more of them rising in the ranks within the city (and of course see more seafarers taking on the challenge to become lawyers too!).
TP: How about diversity in the industry in general?
The continued success of all sectors of shipping in the UK depends on the talent that is bought in and fostered. We have an obligation to lead from the front and inspire the current and next generations in shipping.
The present lack of positive PR translates directly into the dire lack of diversity in all areas of the shipping industry in the UK that we see today. Looking just at the Merchant Navy, the intake of women stands at 7% for deck and engine cadets in the UK. The intake of BAME cadets is much poorer.
Let’s put forward a message that going to sea can be just one step towards a fulfilling career in shipping.
If my class of 1991 are anything to go by, the opportunities for any person joining the Merchant Navy appear to be limitless. For example, we have a Solicitor, a Captain, an HSQA Superintendent, an Operations Manager, Fleet Manager, Shipbroker, Managing Director, Rig Manager, Professor, Technical Superintendent and Yacht Manager.
And this is just from that one year!
MFB, formerly known as More Fisher Brown, is a specialist shipping law firm, established in 1988. MFB has a wealth of legal knowledge and experience in shipping, insurance and international trade. Spinnaker Global is the leading specialist in shore-based shipping recruitment, executive search and HR consulting, globally benchmarking shipping salaries from shore-based pay to seafarer wage costs. Find out more at http://www.m-f-b.co.uk and www.spinnaker-global.com.