Rising Through the Ranks: Odfjell Promotes First Female Captain
In July 2023, Lise Henriksen embarks on the next leg of her extraordinary seafaring journey as she boards Bow Sky as Captain. By that, she is writing history in the 109-year-old Norwegian chemical tanker company.
"On behalf of Odfjell, I congratulate Lise on her well-deserved promotion and thank her for paving the way for women in the maritime industry. Her expertise and leadership abilities have led her to this prestigious role – a historic appointment at Odfjell and in an international maritime field currently dominated by men. We are thrilled that we have arrived at a goal we have been systematically pursuing to reach for a long time: To appoint the first female Captain,” stated CEO Harald Fotland.
From she first boarded an Odfjell ship, Lise Henriksen has had a trailblazing career path at sea. She joined Odfjell as a Deck Cadet at Bow Chain in 2010, one year after completing her studies in nautical engineering at the University of Tromsø.
Since then, her career has taken her onboard ten different Odfjell vessels, including the Bow Mekka, Bow Sky, Bow Summer, Bow Hercules, Bow Explorer, and others, as she has risen through the ranks. From Third Officer to Second Officer, and then Chief Officer in 2019, Lise's dedication to her profession has led her to the prestigious role of Captain.
Born with sea legs
Her journey began in the most northern part of Norway in the tiny village Nuvsvåg. Here, she grew up as the only girl among four siblings.
“I have three brothers, and we all find it a bit funny that I, the only female, was the one who ended up choosing a seafaring profession. But I’ve always been motivated; I was the one who accompanied my father on all his fishing excursions. I’ve always known that I would spend my life at sea.”
Nuvsvåg is a small village in Finnmark, home to about 70 people. It has a long history of fishing and farming, which were once the area’s primary activities. Fishing is a shared passion in Lise’s family, and although Lise’s father is now 70 years old, he still goes fishing whenever he gets the chance. When she’s at home, Lise accompanies him – as she has done since she was a youngster. “I grew up on a fishing boat and still do it now and again while I’m at home with my father. I’ve said from the beginning that I’ll go fishing with him as long as he wants me to.”
From domestic to the deep seas
When asked why she chose Odfjell, Lise explains that her decision was somewhat fortuitous. After finishing her nautical studies at the University of Tromsø, she had no intention of working outside of Norway, so she gave Odfjell little thought.
After working on a fishing boat for a year, though, the adventurous side entered and her desire for new challenges prompted her in 2010 to contact Odfjell. She knew about Odfjell from school visits and from several of her former classmates who had their cadetship with the company. Since embarking on the Norwegian-built stainless steel chemical tanker Bow Chain as deck cadet, Lise has remained with Odfjell.
In the marine sector, deep-sea shipping is quite unique. Odfjell’s chemical tankers crisscross the oceans, traversing vast distances and navigating various challenging conditions. At sea, our 69 sophisticated chemical tankers transport around 15 million tonnes a year, make more than 2 500 port calls, and sail a distance equal to 208 times around the equator.
Typically, seafarers from North-West Europe work nine-week shifts, before returning home for nine weeks of leisure time in-between stints.
“Onboard, seafarers face the demands of long shifts to ensure the smooth operation of the vessel. However, the combination of work weeks, leisure time - and the rewards of seeing the world and making lifelong experiences with fellow seafarers make the hard work worthwhile”, Lise says.
Fostering the team culture on board
When asked about what she values the most about her job, she doesn’t hesitate: “I appreciate the ships and the camaraderie with my fellow seafarers’, the work’s dynamic character, continual challenges, and opportunities for personal growth.”
Working on board a deep-sea chemical tanker presents a variety of experiences. Lise appreciates the ever-changing nature of her work, from the occasional calm morning in port, when she can enjoy a cup of coffee in peace before the busy day of port calls and loading/unloading begins, to the pleasant days sailing in good weather. She emphasizes the importance of fostering social connections among the crew members, which promotes unity and a sense of belonging. “Engaging in activities like deck golf and organizing events that cater to the diverse interests of the crew contributes to a happier and more cohesive team. A happy ship is one where people can have fun together.”
It might be difficult to maintain the same level of motivation when working at sea for a long time, as many seafarers discovered during Covid. During rough patches like these, Lise underlines the importance of addressing and accepting that colleagues can have a bad day, seeing each other, keeping each other going, and giving each other space.
“I have a theory: there’s no point moping about; instead, make an effort to smile and be happy, and your day will become brighter – and it will positively affect the people around you.”
Shaping the future of shipping
In a male-dominated industry, Lise Henriksen stands out as a trailblazer. There is still considerable work to be done to achieve true gender equality in the shipping industry. A member survey from the Norwegian Shipowners’ Association from 2020 revealed that only 15% of leaders in the maritime industry are women. Among seafarers the number is even lower: A mere 7%, which is less than one in ten.
Looking abroad, the numbers decrease further: In the international shipping segment, women account for only 3% of the whole workforce at sea. Fortunately, being a woman in the minority has never stopped Lise.
Reflecting on her journey, she acknowledges the historic nature of her appointment as the first female captain at Odfjell. “I think my appointment demonstrates that the business is on the right track, so it’s a good thing and I’m very excited. On a personal level however, I have to confess that I could do without all the fuss and attention.”
Choosing a career at sea is a unique life that may not be suitable for everyone. For those who are triggered by the opportunity, though, Lise recognizes the importance of role models for future generations of women entering the industry. She believes that increasing awareness about the numerous opportunities available within the shipping industry is crucial for attracting more people, including women, to pursue maritime careers.
Putting her words into action, Lise teaches nautical engineering and chemical tanker shipping at her former University during her time off. And she notices that the gender balance is improving among the students.
Lise’s expertise in chemical tankers and international deep-sea shipping has made her an invaluable asset to the university, as she brings updated insights and a fresh perspective from the industry. Lise, on the other hand, gets to keep up with the latest academic developments while also brushing up on the fundamentals as she prepares for class – a win-win deal.
Shattering glass ceilings
Odfjell has long been recognized for our commitment to talent recruitment and equality within the maritime sector. In 2021, we were honored by the Foundation for Norwegian Maritime Competence, with the then Norwegian Prime Minister, Erna Solberg, praising Odfjell’s efforts in recruiting and training young maritime talents.
A significant milestone was reached in 2021 when one-third of the enrolled students in Odfjell’s trainee program were women — a testament to our dedication to promoting gender diversity and inclusivity within the industry.
“We have continued this positive recruitment trend and have hired a record number of female deck cadets and trainees in recent years, but we must not stop there. We will continue to actively recruit and promote women, provide equal opportunities for professional growth, and create a supportive network where all employees can thrive and excel. By embracing diversity, the industry can tap into a vast pool of talent and innovation, fostering a stronger and more dynamic future for the shipping industry as a whole,” CEO Harald Fotland states.
Today, Odfjell has 27 female seafarers working at various levels and positions, including two Chief Officers, two Third Engineers, and an Electrical trainee, to name a few. The upcoming round of trainees and cadets includes 25 new up-and-coming talents, including 11 women. Another record-breaking year for us in terms of gender diversity promotion.
“Lise’s journey in the shipping industry is a testament to her commitment, persistence, and love for the sea. From Deck Cadet to becoming the first female Captain in Odfjell’s history – Lise’s story is an inspiration to us all, but perhaps especially to women in the maritime industry”
”We look forward to welcoming more women on board in various roles in the coming years. Lise is the first of many to come,” Fotland concludes.
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