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Beyond Below Deck: Jenny Matthews on the yachting industry in 2022

By Georgia Tindale 

At the time of writing in May 2022, it is certainly a thought-provoking time to be part of the yachting industry. With attention-grabbing headlines hitting the media about yacht seizures, Ukrainian crew attempting to sink Russian-owned vessels and more, the industry is currently having its moment in the spotlight as it comes under scrutiny from the outside world. 

That said, however, this need to confront yachting’s public perception is not a new one, and the current moment can be seen as offering a valuable opportunity to do precisely this, and to offer a more nuanced perspective back. All we need is the people to offer this well-informed point of view. 

Step in our next interview subject, Jenny Matthews. Currently working as a chief officer, Jenny is also co-founder of the pioneering organisations, ‘She of the Sea’ and ‘Legasea’, which offer support to underrepresented groups within the industry by creating connections, offering mentoring and much more. 

Never afraid of tackling a thorny topic head-on, and with an admirable passion for digging down into the data of a subject, Jenny is the perfect candidate to give her take on the industry in 2022, and where it might be heading. 

How is the yachting industry for underrepresented groups, such as women, in 2022?

Compared to a decade ago, when you look at the make-up of yacht crew, there are now a lot more women working out on deck, not just in the interior, and a lot more women getting their tickets to become captains also. 

I think there is a generation of younger people which is coming through and saying, ‘of course, we can do it’, and you can’t hold back this tide for too long. But that does not mean that all of the traditional barriers have been removed: the system hasn’t entirely changed, even if the numbers have been looking better in recent years.

You have spent considerable time and effort encouraging others in the industry to send you their data on crew make-up, so that you can drill into the actual numbers, rather than relying on platitudes about diversity and inclusion. What have you learned? 

Coming to any firm conclusions about how the industry has changed over time in terms of representation by gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and so on, remains really challenging. We have discovered that it is not standard practice to collect GDPR-compliant data on yacht employees – there was no such thing as an industry-wide census – so we have had to very much start from scratch. 

That said, however, from the data we do have access to (equating to around 39,000 crewmembers) we can throw out the concept that the industry is 50/50 male/female. The assumption has always been there, that even though there might be separations by gender – more women working in the interior department and men in engineering  – that the industry is 50/50. This is not the case: women represent 30% of the whole industry. Of those employed, women represent less than 2% of captains and less than 1% of engineers, with men also massively underrepresented within interiors. 

What did you discover about career progression within yachting? 

What we have found so far is that it looks like an incredibly leaky talent pipeline, where minority demographics do fine in the entry-level positions, but progression into leadership roles is still severely impacted, say, for example, when people are moving up from deckhand to officer and then to captain. 

From the data we have collected from our partners in the industry, we can see that, for example, 15% of deckhands are women, but then this drops down to less than 2% when you get to captain level.

There are two possible options for where these statistics might go in the future. It might be that we see this 15% flow naturally into leadership roles over the next few years. Alternatively, the numbers could continue in the same trend and leave this huge gap remaining. We are continually monitoring this data, as it is a big potential red flag for the future of the industry.

Yachting has an image problem at the moment, thanks both to the war in Ukraine and Russian-owned yacht seizures, as well as a certain reality television programme. What are your thoughts on this public perception? 

Our industry has benefitted from privacy for a very, very long time, but the world has changed and we simply didn’t adapt in time. Thanks to social media and reality TV, people are much more connected and talk about everything, including yachting. Below Deck got there before anyone had thought about doing a public campaign about the amazing things in our industry. It was our complacency which left the door wide open for someone to write the story and shape the public perception of yachting for us. If it wasn’t Below Deck, it would have been something else. 

As an industry, we need to sit down and have a conversation about who we are, who we want to be, and make a plan about how we actively draw talent into the industry. How do we reach out and capture the bright minds and imaginations of the next generation, when they have the choice of all possible careers in front of them? 

This is something that I am working on in the background with my ‘She of the Sea’ co-founder Natasha Ambrose, but it will need to be a collaborative effort across the industry if we want to both bring in and retain the next generation of talent. 

To find out more about the exciting range of roles offered within the yachting industry, visit our Yotspot jobs listings here.