The government should incentivise employers to allow women to have the option to take their children to work in a bid to retain female talent in the workforce and encourage more women to continue pursuing their career after having children, maritime lawyer Ann Fenech told Times of Malta.
Speaking a few months after being appointed the first female president of a hugely influential international maritime organisation, Fenech said that she could juggle her career and her family because of a strong support system around her.
However, many women still lack the organisational framework at work or the family support system to be a mother and still have a career, she added.
Fenech, herself a mother of two, said that larger organisations should have nursery settings integrated within their premises and run by professional carers, to allow women to bring their children to work.
“That is what we did at our law firm when a number of our lawyers got pregnant around the same time,” she said.
“Contrary to what many people might believe, it is not distracting and creates a happier and more productive workforce. The mothers were more relaxed to have their children with them and the workplace became more pleasant, homely and calming.”
It also retains young female talent which is invaluable to employers, she said. The government should help employers introduce these systems with financial incentives.
“This is really a no-brainer and we need to wake up to these realities. It’s a slap in the face to still be talking about gender equality in 2023, but there are still so many situations in which women are unable to pursue their dreams.”
Pursuing their dreams, however, does not mean forcing women to go out and work, Fenech believes. Empowerment does not necessarily mean pursuing a career.
“If their dream is to have a career, then they should be able to do it, but if it is to stay at home and focus on their family, then they should be able to do that as well,” she said, adding that she fears society is sending young girls a message that if they do not have a career, it means they failed.
“Becoming a mother is also extremely empowering. We are so fortunate to be able to give life and we should embrace that. I wanted to become a mother and that didn’t mean I have to give up my career.
“It never held me back, and out of everything that I experienced in my career, becoming a mother was one of the most special feelings I ever felt.”
First woman president
Fenech made history last October in Belgium when she became the first woman to be appointed president of the Comité Maritime International – the 125-year-old international organisation tasked with drafting international maritime laws affecting sea vessels that between them carry 90 per cent of world trade all around the globe.
The organisation was set up to unify international maritime law to facilitate trade.
It drafts conventions on collisions at sea, salvage, carriage of goods, pollution, limitation of liability, and even to combat modern piracy.
The Maltese maritime lawyer landed the top job within a few months after she was appointed the CMI’s coordinator at the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law, which worked on the adoption of a convention regulating the judicial sales of ships. And she has just made it to the Lloyd’s list of the top 100 influential people in shipping in the world, in the company of shipping giants like the Aponte family, which runs the MSC cruise ships.
“I never imagined I’d be president and I never planned for it,” she said.
“As a lawyer you read about it and study its conventions because it is such an influential organisation, and as a shipping lawyer you only hope to ever be a part of it. And I am so honoured to have been trusted with the role.”
Fenech was nominated for the role by the National Maritime Association of Australia and New Zealand and her nomination was supported by all maritime organisations in North and South America, Europe, Asia and Africa.
“I want to use this opportunity to tell women to go out there and give it their best shot and pursue their dream,” she said, “because everyone can be successful if they put their minds to it”.
On going into labour
Fenech said she is extremely career oriented, but she wanted to have a family and it never crossed her mind to give her family up to climb up the corporate ladder.
“Having said that, I have never stopped working,” she said.
“I have two sons – a 32-year-old doctor and a 28-year-old architect – and in both pregnancies I was still at work on the eve of the day I went into labour and returned to work within two weeks of giving birth.”
In fact, she worked on her biggest and most delicate case in 1995, when her first-born was just six months old. She received a telephone call in the middle of the night informing her that a Libyan tanker at the drydocks – the Um El Faroud – had exploded.
She had already spent years working in maritime law in the UK and the US by then, and she was tasked with going to the accident site to try and understand how the explosion had occurred. The tragedy had killed nine men.
“I landed in maritime law coincidentally and grew fond of it, but believe me, in the midst of all my passion, my husband and my children have always come first,” she said.
“I would be there for every parents’ day and every school event and overseas trip. I was always there. That is why I urge women to do it because it is possible, as long as you have a strong and stable support system of people who are understanding of your situation. I found that in my husband.”
‘Not a man’s world’
Fenech said that despite spending her entire professional career in a male-dominated industry, she does not feel it is a man’s world.
“I personally never felt disadvantaged as a woman, but I understand that many women have,” she said.
“I was lucky to have been raised in a family where we were told to pursue whatever dream we had, and it didn’t matter whether we were a boy or a girl.”
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