The Puget Sound Pilots have "captured what other businesses have done: create a comprehensive dedicated maternity plan that can be a model for others."
It is 3:00 AM near Port Angeles, Washington, a freezing night. A woman climbs a 30-foot rope ladder down the wet metal side of a ship over a rough ocean, ready to drop onto a small boat tossing in the waves. She is seven months pregnant and can’t even see her feet. Her fingers are numb and the baby inside is kicking. Her doctor wanted her to stop working. But even though she knows falls are the greatest risk and are often fatal, she jumps. It’s her job.
This hypothetical may never happen now thanks to the new maternity policy in Washington State that allows pregnant pilots to keep their job and stay safe while carrying their babies. It’s the first of its kind in the nation.
Puget Sound Pilots (PSP) is a group regulated by the State of Washington’s Board of Pilotage Commission to provide professional guidance for ships going in and out of Washington’s waterways. Container ships, tanker ships, cruise ships, foreign-flagged, and any ship of a certain size are required to hire a pilot, or guide, to get in and out of the state safely. It takes years of shipping experience and training to become a ship pilot.
This has been a challenging topic for PSP and other pilot groups for years. The profession is dominated by men and most pilotage groups around the world don’t have many, if any, female pilots. Until four years ago, Puget Sound pilots never had a female in their ranks. In 2011, PSP and the State of Washington were sued for gender discrimination after an aspiring female pilot failed the training process. While PSP was excused from the case, the jury awarded $3.5 million to the plaintiff. That verdict was a serious wake-up call for PSP and other maritime groups to recognize the harsh realities facing women in the industry.
“Puget Sound pilots are the lowest paid pilots on the West Coast,” former PSP President Eric Von Brandenfels points out, “until that is fixed, it’s hard to get women or anyone attracted to come here.”
For many years, PSP and other pilotage groups have struggled against the perception of being a “good ol’ boys network”. The lawsuit highlighted those perceptions and put PSP and the State Board of Pilotage Commissioners under heightened scrutiny.
In 2018, Captain Sandra Bendixen finished the rigorous testing and training, emerging as the first female state-licensed pilot in Washington State. Two years into her career, she became pregnant and an already challenging job became something even more. Like all pilots, Capt. Bendixen's watch-standing duties require her to work for two weeks straight at all hours of the day and night, so she had to figure out a way to keep her job, stay safe, get enough sleep, climb up and down long rope ladders and protect her pregnancy at the same time. And it was the first year of the Covid pandemic. It was a careful and stressful balancing act. First, she didn’t broadcast her pregnancy but kept working, quietly, and efficiently. She made it work, using time off and exchanging some off-days with some of her fellow pilots.
PSP’s Executive Director, Charles Costanzo, was adamant about supporting diversity and equity. “This was a crucial step in breaking down barriers. But we still needed a policy on maternity to back it up. We are attempting to buck that practice of who-you-know and nepotism and institutional contacts that have existed for decades and even centuries that make the industry predominantly male.”
Captain Bendixen agrees, "I think being a mother, having a child while sailing, is near impossible but super-hard as a pilot and this policy makes it easier to balance motherhood with achieving your career goals.”
The chief executive of the national organization, American Pilot Association, Clay Diamond, says while other districts have cobbled together help for the mother during pregnancies, the PSP “has captured what other businesses have done: create a comprehensive dedicated maternity plan that can be a model for others."
Chief Mate Alysia Johnson’s father was a Columbia River Bar Pilot and is, herself, an award-winning graduate of Kings Point Merchant Marine Academy. She said, “If this became policy in other pilot groups around the country, I believe it would cause a significant number of the women who are currently dropping out to have families. to reconsider and set their sights on becoming pilots.”
Captain Deb Dempsey, retired Columbia River Bar Pilot, decided not to have children precisely because she felt her career would be sacrificed. “There was no policy in place. It wasn’t easy to go to sea and have a family so I chose career over children.” She welcomes this new move, “It’s about time. I’m really impressed with PSP stepping up. I hope all other pilot associations, companies, and unions will follow suit.”
Back in the '80s, Lynn Korwatch had yearned to captain a ship. The call finally came when she was 8 months pregnant and she took it. Without a doctor on board, Captain Korwatch sailed off to Hawaii on a commercial vessel and back again before the healthy delivery of her son, who is now 34 years old. “I think it makes sense, absolutely, encouraging women to join PSP.”
One sailor, Coronado Hickman, changed her career path when she got pregnant because her shipping company had no policy. She now works on equity and gender issues and hopes other pilot groups and shipping companies will step up and create protection for pregnant mariners. She adds, “Women are even afraid to ask about whether there are maternity policies because it might set them back in getting hired.” She prefers open and clear policies so women can feel comfortable talking about family plans.
“We were very happy they adopted it. We had been working with them regarding diversity issues for several years. This is really positive for recruiting a wider, more diverse, base of mariners. Anything we can do to get under-represented populations to join us is a good step.”
State legislators are already looking forward to changes in the industry.
State Senator Marko Liias, Chair of the Transportation Committee that oversees Marine Pilots, agrees. “This is a critical step toward gender equity. No one should have to choose between who they are and what they want to do for work. We want to include women, people of color, and LGBTQ, in our pilotage and create conditions where they feel welcome and thrive. This is one good way to do it.
Besides the morality of the issue, Liias also ties this policy to the larger economic picture, “In Washington, where we depend on shipping for our economy and there is a worker shortage, we cannot afford to be exclusive or discriminatory.”
Costanzo says they will try everything to help diversify their ranks. “We want 50% of outreach money spent on diversity and equity issues. If we can create scholarships and sponsorships and partner organizations in the maritime industry, we will.” (The balance of their outreach budget goes to marine environmental protection and general industry support.) Captain Von Brandenfels and others have been working with young people of color who have been deprived, historically, of water-based activities, to guide them to maritime careers.
“I’m happy to be part of an organization that is turning over every rock to try to help support and promote maritime career paths for underrepresented populations.”
Meanwhile, Captain Bendixen and her husband are enjoying their 2-year-old daughter, Samantha. And if they decide to have another child someday, the journey will be less stressful.