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Stella Marks on founding WISTA

Spinnaker’s Teresa Peacock meets Stella Marks, Managing Director of Star Broking Services Ltd, one of the founders of WISTA (The Women’s International Shipping & Trading Association), to talk about the organisation’s growth, what it’s like for women in the shipping industry, and the changing attitudes of the world of work. 

Teresa Peacock: I started in shipping 11 years ago, and somebody said to me if I was new to the industry, I should join WISTA because it would really accelerate my learning of the sector. I joined straight away, they were right, I met lots of people from all across the shipping world and I’ve been a member ever since.  I’m now Membership Secretary for WISTA UK. It’s such a great organisation to be involved in as we are all learning from each other. I’ve always wondered though: 

How did WISTA come to be?

Stella Marks: It didn’t originally start as WISTA, we were the ‘Ladies in Shipping’ – there were 5 or 6 of us who met for lunch one Christmas in London, over 40 years ago. We continued to meet and our numbers grew. We knew some female brokers in Germany and invited them to the Christmas lunch and the following year they reciprocated by organising the first WISTA international meeting in Hamburg, effectively our first conference!   At that time women were struggling to be taken seriously by our male counterparts, so a name change was appropriate, it was then that ‘Women’s International Shipping & Trading Association’ replaced ‘Ladies in Shipping’.

Further conferences followed in different locations: Hamburg, Oslo, Lisbon, Madrid, Athens, gathering momentum on the way.  Exxon employed Gina Fyffe; Shell, Sheila Lawrence and Mobil, Heather Barker in their chartering and trading departments and thanks to the support and sponsorship of two wonderful men,  Dick Delaforce of Shell and my boss, Ted Ainsworth of Cambridge Gas, we returned to London for the tenth anniversary.  By this time our numbers had grown to over a hundred and we were on our way!  After this meeting, the London committee felt it was time to pass the reins onto the next generation who started organising the structure, with presidents and so on. 

So was WISTA a happy accident?

No, we were actively trying to get shipping and trading women working in London together – oil, dry cargo and LPG – trying to build our presence and our own network. There were several industry conferences but our bosses would always send one of the guys.  

Margaret Llewellyn from British Waterways, Pat Hewson and Janet Eadie of Plowright’s, Pat Butler of Traffic Services, Diana Rivers of Such and Schooley and myself from Cambridge Gas were the original London ‘team’.  Helge Zinke and  Erica Grambow were the original German ‘team’.  After the meeting in Hamburg we were being taking more seriously and our membership numbers were increasing so we couldn’t be ignored any longer.

Was it originally set up for as a support network?

Yes. In those days it was all men, and we were tired of listening to them talking about women in derogatory terms. I was fortunate in that I had a great boss, even if he did vote against women going on the Baltic Exchange floor and say he employed me because I looked like Farrah Fawcett-Majors! – but he gave me my first break.  If nobody was going to properly listen to us, or allow us to break through the prejudice, then we had to help ourselves.  My three boys laugh now when I tell them what it was like to be a female broker and a working mum in shipping, but it really was like that.

Do you think that women have it easier now?

The gender pay gap is definitely an issue, although I do believe it’s better in the oil majors and trading houses as they have well organised HR departments.  It is better in some geographical locations so we have seen some positive changes, other locations though are still lagging behind. 

When I had my first baby, a male colleague told me that taking maternity leave would be very inconvenient and a client said that I should stay at home and bring up the kids! Over the years I have known women who fought, some succeeded but some failed and left the industry.  When I started my own company I made new rules for male and female brokers.  If it was your kid’s Sports Day – go; if you child was graduating – go.  It didn’t count as annual leave and no one abused it.  We all have mobile phones now, so you’re always contactable.

Does WISTA still have an important part to play?

Now WISTA is a recognised entity; I hear it mentioned during events around the world, I am pleased and proud of what we achieved.  It’s amazing that there are over 3,000 members in 46 countries. I can’t believe it.  

NGO status at the IMO is long overdue for WISTA, but again it is amazing that WISTA is there now.   The new generation of brokers, traders and owners have no understanding of the work that has gone into WISTA over the years. It didn’t happen overnight, it’s taken a lot of very hard work!

How would you like to see WISTA evolve?

There’s no reason why WISTA shouldn’t be more involved in education. I did try to do that years ago but back then we just weren’t taken seriously. Education, gaining academic qualifications and experience is incredibly important.   Maybe forging links with colleges and universities is the next step?

(Teresa: In June 2017, the Women’s International Shipping and Trading Association (WISTA International) and the Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers(ICS) partnered to increase the professional competence and enhance educational opportunities for women in the maritime industry. The two organisations signed an MOU,  offering seven scholarships annually (five offered by the ICS and two by WISTA) over the next 10 years to individuals nominated by WISTA International. The scholarship covers the Foundation Diploma programme at The Institute. The goal of the scholarship programme is to provide individuals with deeper knowledge of the maritime industry– the Foundation Diploma is ideal for individuals with maritime experience who are interested in gaining additional practical and commercial skills and knowledge. In addition to a general shipping component, the diploma allows an individual to select a specialized subject area. These are dry cargo chartering, ship operations and management, ship sale and purchase, tanker chartering, liner trades, port agency, logistics and multimodal transport, port and terminal management, offshore support industry, shipping law, maritime insurance, and shipping finance. The scholarship programme is available to all WISTA members worldwide. Individuals must be nominated by their National WISTA Association by and selection is being made by a specially appointed WISTA HR Committee. For more info on the Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers please visit:

What advice would you give to women coming up through the industry now?

Unfortunately sexism is not a thing of the past.  Sometimes it is an unconscious bias, but it is still there.  There are still lads’ clubs in all walks of life.  

I think it’s still difficult for women in shipping in some countries but I do think things are changing slowly but surely. Today’s young men have a different view towards equality and diversity and therefore the future looks much more positive.

My ultimate advice is: DON’T give up!


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