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How one small Boat Building Academy is paving the way for Gender Equality in England’s Maritime Scene – An Article by Annie

How one small Boat Building Academy is paving the way for Gender Equality in England’s Maritime Scene –

An Article by Annie Means

The Lyme Regis Boat Building Academy and Furniture School. Photo by Annie Means.

Set alongside the jagged cliffs of the Dorset Coast lies the Lyme Regis Boat Building Academy and Furniture School (BBA). Its large teal warehouse doors are open to the public, and Will Reed, the Director and Co-Chair of Trustees of the academy, can frequently be found giving tours of the workshop to curious passersbys.

Founded in 1997 by naval commander Tim Gedge, The Boat Building Academy and Furniture School is a professional training institution that teaches both modern and traditional boat-building methods. A 2006 graduate of a 40-week boat-building course and avid furniture maker himself, Will Reed became the Director and Co-Chair of Trustees of the academy in 2019.  

One of his goals, amongst many, was to increase the enrollment and retention of female students at the BBA.

In the academy’s three most recent 40-week boat-building courses, there was zero female enrollment. This particular course is a staple of the academy. Students walk away from their instruction having built several boats from the ground up and likewise having earned a Level 3 Boatbuilding Diploma from the City & Guilds qualification.

In short, this 10-month experience serves as a direct pathway to becoming a qualified boat builder in the British marine industry. However, until the most recent course, not a single woman has participated in a 40-week build since March 2022.

“We just didn’t have people applying. It was a real challenge to think ‘What can we do about this problem,’” commented Reed.

The answer to that problem evolved through collaboration. 

At a Worshipful Shipwrights’ Lecture last October, Will Reed met Belinda Joslin, the Founder of Women in Boatbuilding. Women in Boatbuilding is a Community Interest Company and social media movement working to support and connect women boat builders across the United Kingdom.

Will shared his concerns about a lack of female applicants in the past 3 boat-building courses with Belinda.

“And I said, well, let’s have a chat and see what we can do. And, it sort of grew from there,” said Joslin.

Together, over a series of Zoom calls and meetings, the pair created a Diversity and Inclusion Strategy that the BBA has since incorporated into its brand mission. Through a variety of methods, the BBA has made a sustained effort to create a more approachable boat-building environment for potential women applicants.

Having achieved charity status in January 2020, the BBA has been able to relieve some financial barriers for students ever since. In February of 2023, the Boatbuilding Academy launched its first-ever bursary scheme that’s exclusively for women. This bursary is designed to facilitate access to high-level training as a means to create equal career development opportunities. 

“Becoming a charity essentially made it easier to raise funds for bursaries and to be able to support more people. It makes it less exclusive and more inclusive of people who couldn’t afford it,” said Reed.

The BBA likewise launched a “Girls’ Workshop” offering taster sessions for woodworking and boat building to local students. Amy Stringfellow, another Director at Women in Boat Building, teamed up with the BBA to launch “Women in Boat Building, a short introductory course to the craft.

Belinda, having come from both a boat-building and marketing background, was the ideal candidate when it came to crafting a compelling media campaign for the academy. Both events were well attended and well advertised on the BBA’s social media and the women in boatbuilding platform.

Commenting on the Diversity and Inclusion strategy, Joslin said: “The basics of it were that it shouldn’t be a one-hit-wonder. This has to be a whole strategy.”

And so far, it looks like that strategy is working.

The newest 40-week boat-building course, launched in August, now has 25 percent female enrollment. As a Thomas J. Watson fellow studying gender in the maritime industry, I had the opportunity to sit in on the first 3 weeks of the course.

I quickly integrated into the comradery of the workshop environment, and though I can’t speak for all women, as a participant in the course, I was struck by how enjoyable and social the academy is. As Will Reed stresses, “The philosophy here is respect and kindness across the board.” And I agree.  The course was more than welcoming.  In addition to fantastic instruction from tutors, students genuinely enjoyed each other’s company, regularly spending time together on the weekends and after class. 

Joslin, having attended courses there herself, said, “I think the BBA  did a brilliant job of ensuring that their environment is respectful and inclusive. The environment that they have there is second to none.”

The Lyme Regis Boat Building Academy Diversity and Inclusion Strategy serves as proof that effective marketing, paired with a welcoming environment is key to increasing gender diversity in the maritime industry. The question remains, however, how does one translate this success into working boatyards?

After all, the Boat Building Academy is an academic institution. Students invest both time and money to learn these skills and are genuinely excited to show up to the workshop every day. Look around most working boat yards in the U.K., however, and you’ll see little investment in gender diversity.

“They [the industry at large] need to acknowledge that there are women who want to work in their industry who are entirely capable and skilled, and it’s their responsibility to give them the opportunity. As a byproduct, it will make their businesses better,” says Will Reed.

Businesses with greater gender diversity tend to skew more successful than their homogenous counterparts. In 2019, The Harvard Business Review reported that in workplaces where gender diversity is valued and normatively accepted,  “gender diversity relates to more productive companies, as measured by market value and revenue.”

The marine industry can learn from the BBA by crafting effective hiring and marketing practices and implementing its own Diversity and Inclusion policies. “As we know, attracting women into the industry is one element. Keeping them is another,” said Joslin.

Built infrastructure and flexible working hours are likewise a necessity. Working mothers, tasked with often lopsided shares of parenting responsibilities, need flexible hours to care for their families. 

Restroom and washroom facilities need to accommodate workers of all genders, and just as the BBA upholds the values of respect and kindness, so too does the industry need to prioritize those values in their workplace.

The BBA is working to continue to improve its female enrollment. “The furniture course that starts in September has four men and four women. Let’s see if we can get there on the boat building, says Director Will Reed.

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