With more and more women taking the helm, the cruise industry is setting an example.
Kate McCue was walking along a beach on the Caribbean island of St. Maarten last June when an attendant asked if she was heading back to one of the cruise ships docked there for the day. Wearing a pair of mirrored aviator sunglasses and a sundress over a swimsuit, McCue certainly looked the part of the relaxed vacationer. She replied, however, that she worked onboard, then asked the attendant to guess her role on the ship. “I think you’re the captain’s wife, but if you’re not, then I think you’re the cruise director’s wife,” he said. McCue’s reply—”What do you think if I tell you I’m the captain?”—and the man’s shocked but enthusiastic reaction, was posted on her Instagram account, and the short exchange has racked up more than 16,000 views and a deluge of supportive comments from viewers. Some even vow to only cruise on whatever ship she’s captaining (currently the Celebrity Equinox).
McCue may be the first American woman to captain a cruise ship, an honor she earned in 2015, but her story is emblematic of a paradigm shift in the cruise industry, where, for the first time, more women are taking the helm. Women now constitute between 18 and 20 percent of the cruise industry workforce, and five to 22 percent of cruise ship officers are women, depending on the line. Compare this to the global airline pilot industry’s five percent female statistic, and it’s clear that cruising is making waves (pun intended).
Not that progress has been easy, of course. Having a woman on a ship’s bridge was once considered a major no-no, and centuries of folklore painted women as sirens, mermaids, or demons who distracted crew and angered the sea gods into stirring up stormy weather. During the 19th century, the only female presence found on many ships would have been the carved wooden figurehead of an open-eyed, bare-breasted woman affixed to its bow—a totem the sailors believed would bring navigational luck while shaming the seas into calm weather. Ship officers, meanwhile, traditionally came from countries like Greece, Italy, England, and Norway—cradles of seagoing tradition and home to a plethora of professional maritime academies, many of which did not admit women until the last quarter-century.
But nautical superstitions die hard. The growing availability to all of a professional maritime education, combined with seemingly common sense developments like sexual harassment prevention training and making marine workwear available for women at sea, opened the way to shipboard leadership and, in the last decade, cruise lines have been enthusiastically promoting women to the top ranks.
By: Conde Nast Traveler