Searching for Safe Spaces: Navigating Gender Equality in a Maritime Organization

In 1760, Londoner Edward Lloyd unknowingly founded an organization that would last more than 260 years. At the time, ships were the world’s only reliable transportation option, and Lloyd created a register to record vessel quality for merchants and underwriters.

Today, Lloyd’s Register Group and the Lloyd’s Register Foundation work together to ensure a safe, sustainable, thriving ocean economy, driven by their mission to work together for a safer world.

Their vision for global safety is also reflected internally at Lloyd’s Register (LR), through initiatives from the diversity and inclusion team. While the homogenous white male maritime industry of the late 18th century has evolved, Lloyd’s Register continues to pursue gender equality for their globally dispersed workforce consisting of 70% men and 30% women.

Through a partnership with Circles, LR recently created and implemented Safe Harbor Circles to help bridge the gender gap. By providing psychologically safe spaces for colleagues to connect, share stories, and grow, the sessions have encouraged gender equality innovation and strengthened their global Gender Equality Network. 

The Rising Tide of Gender Equality

The Gender Equality Network (GEN) is one of four LR Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). GEN consists of women and their male allies, and efforts include everything from ensuring women have properly fitting PPE equipment designed for them, to access to basic facilities, such as restrooms and changing rooms onboard ships and in shipyards. The choice to mix genders in the ERG was intentional, stemming from the belief that gender equality isn’t merely a women’s issue. LR’s Diversity and Inclusion manager and supporter of GEN Camila Ramos Vilches explains: “Gender stereotypes affect men as well as women, and everyone’s wellbeing matters to us. We can’t do it alone.”

Ginger Garte stepped in to co-lead the GEN ERG in 2021. After working for years onboard ships, ensuring maritime health & safety as a NOAA officer and then transferring this experience to cruise ships, she’s spent the last twelve years as Lloyd’s Environmental & Sustainability Director for the Americas. The safety she brought to the environment during the first decades of her career lends itself to creating safe spaces for gender equality advocacy through GEN. “Women make up only 1.25% of seafaring roles, which is why co-leading GEN is some of the most important work of my career.”

When LR created a Diversity and Inclusion Team in October 2021, the team was tasked with rejuvenating LR’s Colleagues’ Networks. Initially, that meant supporting three ERGs: GEN (formerly women and allies), ethnically diverse colleagues, and LGBTIQ+ Community and allies. It was while partnering with GEN that Camila realized the challenge of virtually connecting LR’s global community. When Circles Community Growth Manager Jami York reached out to invite Cami to a Women in Leadership circle, Cami attended and was fascinated by the experience. Intrigued by the platform’s inclusive design, she invited Ginger to experience a Circle too.

What resulted was a partnership between GEN and Circles, to co-create the tailored Safe Harbor Circles experience.

Safer Seas and Psychologically Safe Circles

The Safe Harbor Circles initiative creates psychologically safe spaces reflecting LR’s value of safety for the oceans and the world. Participants engage questions like “If you could change one thing about our organization to make it more inclusive, what would you choose?” The design team organically develops each session along the way, tailored to what’s happening in the organization. Cami shared: “I can never tell what topic will come up as a result of these sessions–I’m always surprised!”

In an effort to develop their own in-house facilitative leaders, Cami asked LR’s employees to volunteer to lead the Safe Harbor Circles. Many facilitators remarked on how deep the conversations were after even two sessions. Cami watched them grow from unsure in their facilitation skills to empowered guides, reflecting: “We now have a group of people that feel comfortable facilitating conversations and creating safe spaces.”

Cami also noticed how the Circles platform supported her team of developing facilitators along the way. The room features are intuitive and intentionally designed to empower even the novice facilitator, and Circles provides an orientation & resources to equip the LR volunteers. Cami came away convinced that the platform design made all the difference. “I don’t know if I would feel comfortable with this team facilitating on another platform. Clearly other platforms are way more daunting than this one–Circles makes it easy.”

Safe Harbor Stories

Safe Harbor reached people who don’t always feel comfortable sharing in other spaces, and they often reported feeling less lonely. For example: two female naval architects who had both been with LR for over ten years never crossed paths until they met in a Safe Harbor Circle. One reflected, “It would have been so helpful to know each other when we were starting our careers at LR.”

One story that stood out to Ginger involved a session where only one woman was able to attend. The facilitator proceeded with the agenda anyway; as a result of that session, that participant brainstormed an idea to give every LR woman the opportunity to visit onboard a ship. As Cami summarized it: “Circles gave her the space to voice what she thought would help her colleagues that have never stepped into a shipyard. Sometimes the measure of success isn’t the number of people in a circle, but the impact of the session on the attendees, no matter how small.”

Another participant appreciated Safe Harbor Circles as a space to reflect on her own leadership style and recognize commonalities with global colleagues. “I have never thought about some of these topics before, and never knew I could reflect like this with someone across the world. It’s so impressive that I am in Japan, and I can discuss shared struggles with someone in the UK.” The sessions raised her awareness of global gender gap realities while providing a community with a shared sense of purpose.

Participants are halfway through Safe Harbor Circles, and Cami sees the pilot as just the beginning. She has the patience you’d expect from someone with years of experience pioneering diversity and inclusion efforts. As LR is finding new ways of working in a global structure to respond better to their clients, Cami’s sense is that Safe Harbor Circles will be a part of the solution going forward. “For me, it’s a pilot, bringing a sense of community into our organization for the moment we’re going through. Though this initiative is a humble beginning, I’m a friend of the idea that small is beautiful.”