Pioneering women of the cruise industry | International Women’s Day [2020]

Pioneering women of the cruise industry | International Women’s Day [2020]

In honor of International Women’s Day, Travel Trends pays tribute to the pioneering women of the cruise industry

Women have been making waves in the cruise industry over the past decade and now account for around 20 percent of the workforce in the industry overall and some cruise liners are rocking the boat and sailing full speed ahead toward gender equality.

Celebrity Cruises leads the fleet with women making up 22 percent of bridge crew.

Celebrity Cruises recently announced that it would set sail with a historic all-female bridge and leadership crew to mark International Women’s Day, on March 8, 2020. Kate McCue, the first North American female cruise ship captain will be at the helm of the brand’s newest and award-winning ship, Celebrity Edge in charge of 26 other women from 17 countries to create an all-female bridge and officer leadership team. The team will be joined by Celebrity’s President and CEO Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, herself a pioneer, who in 2014 became the first woman to run one of the major cruise lines.

“We are all passionate about closing the gender gap,” said Lutoff-Perlo. “Over the last few years, we have worked hard to diversify the crew on board and bring more women than ever into our industry.

“We are fortunate to have many incredible, experienced and beyond-qualified women who have worked tirelessly to achieve these positions.”

In an interview with Condé Nast Traveler to honor International Women’s Day 2020, Lutoff-Perlo noted that when she got the position her phone rang non stop as the appointment of a woman was such a big deal. She recalled being very annoyed and saying to herself: “You know what? If this is such a big deal, I’m going to make it a big deal. And I am going to be the advocate for women that no one was for me in an industry that has very few women.”

In her five years at the helm of Celebrity Cruises, Lutoff-Perlo has overseen an increase from three percent to 22 percent in women in leadership positions at the company with notable appointments including the first American woman to captain a cruise ship and the first woman from Africa to work on the bridge of a cruise ship.

But it was back in 2007 that women started to come into their own in the cruise industry with the appointment of Karin Stahre-Janson of Sweden, who was named as captain of Royal Caribbean’s Monarch of the Seas to become the first woman to take the helm of a major cruise liner. She went on to command the Serenade of the Seas and the Majesty of the Seas.

Stahre-Janson noted in a 2007 interview with USA TODAY that the changing role of deck officers in the maritime industry had enabled women to take on top command posts.

‘When shipping was blooming, it was hard, muscular work, and (therefore) it was very male-dominated,’ she said. ‘These days it’s all about brains and knowledge.’

Since then, there have been many women to break the glass ceiling. In 2015,  Kate McCue, who will head the all-female leadership team on the Celebrity Edge, became the first American woman to captain a cruise ship, when she was appointed as commanding officer of the Celebrity Summit.

McCue recalls how when she started sailing, she had to buy her own uniform pants because women’s pants didn’t come with all the accessories needed for the job. Since then though things have changed a lot and Celebrity Cruises asked for her opinion on uniforms when she took up the position of Captain on the Celebrity Summit.

Like Stahre-Janson, McCue believes technology is creating more and more opportunities for women in the cruise industry.

“Times are changing and I believe there will be a much more visible presence of women in the maritime industry,” she told  “The increasing demand for qualified officers, men and women, is there. Also lending to the growth of the industry are technological advancements – they are eliminating some of the stereotypes previously associated with the seafaring trade. For example, 10 years ago, it was challenging to keep in constant contact with family and friends. Just the advancements in social media over the last decade have brought communication to the tips of our fingers. This only will continue to progress and make the transition from land to sea easier for everyone.”

Captain Serena Melani

The latest woman to make her maritime mark is Captain Serena Melani who recently became the first female to captain a newly built ocean cruise ship when she stood at the helm for the first voyage of the Seven Seas Splendor in February 2020.


Captain Serena Melani
Captain Serena Melani (Photo Celebrity Cruises)

The 45-year-old Italian joined Regent Seven Seas Cruises in 2010 as a Bridge Officer, then served as Navigation Officer, Safety Officer and Staff Captain on Seven Seas Voyager. She became the company’s first female Master Captain in 2016 and has led Seven Seas ExplorerSeven Seas Mariner and Seven Seas Navigator during her tenure.

Ahead of the inaugural voyage of the Seven Seas Splendor, Melani said that she started out prejudice was common, but that women can achieve any goal with perseverance and hard work.

“There is a growing number of very talented female captains emerging in our industry, and we’re proud to be pioneers for those women who aspire to lead the Bridge,” Captain Melani said.

When Virgin Voyages launches its cruise operations later this year with the Scarlet Lady, the first of four planned ‘Lady Ships,’ women are set to play a major role. As part of the launch, the company, led by the flamboyant British entrepreneur Richard Branson, initiated the ‘Scarlet Squad’ program “aimed at recruiting, supporting and mentoring female shipboard talent, and growing opportunities to access leadership roles in onboard areas such as marine, technical and hotel management, that statistically show low numbers of female leadership.”

“Across the maritime industry, we can do better in onboard recruiting and leadership representation for women,” said Virgin Voyages CEO Tom McAlpin. “I want all future crew to know that Virgin Voyages will create an onboard environment that is fair, inclusive and where everyone has an opportunity to reach their full potential.”

When Annie Lenox released her hit song “Sister are doin it for themselves” she wrote: “We got doctors, lawyers, politicians too. Everybody – take a look around. Can you see – can you see – can you see There’s a woman right next to you.”

Now she could add ship captains to that list.

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