A woman’s aptitude for altitude

At 21 years of age Johanna Hofmann is thought to be the youngest female portainer crane operator in the world and is one of a growing number of women taking on new roles at Ports of Auckland (POAL) as part of a recent push to tap into previously hidden talent.

CURIOUS ABOUT WHY it had so few women in its operational area, POAL − an Auckland City council controlled organisation – had aptitude-tested all its staff for crane driving. Many were surprised when it found its female staff were far more suited to the job than most males.

Hoffmann tells us that she likes to push herself at work to learn new skills. “There’s always something you can do better and I like being better than my old self.”

The sunrises and and sunsets from the top of the crane ain’t bad either. “And it’s a beautiful view even when it’s raining.”

Hoffmann’s role is part of the reason why POAL was recently named as an Empowerment Award finalist at the ANZ Diversity Awards 2014, which is presented by the Equal Employment Opportunities Trust to recognise best workplace diversity initiatives.

POAL started rethinking how it rewards and advances its people back in 2011 when a new chief executive and executive team were tasked with turning the organisation’s future around.

At the heart of that change was leadership and renewed strategic direction; including recognising that diversity within the workforce is essential for growth and sustainability.

Port and marine operations have always been male dominated, not just here but around the globe. POAL believes injecting more female perspectives into its workplace will significantly impact culture to gain competitive advantage.

Traditionally, the very physical requirements of port work were male-dominated domains. Women tended to be in administrative and support roles rather than in operational or senior positions. When they did reach senior positions they were limited to corporate areas such as finance and communications. Before 2011 POAL had never employed a female executive.

E_P58_Nov_2014_1These days the need for physical strength at ports is reducing as technology advances. With this in mind, POAL identified a new set of core competencies for each job. Statistical, logistical and problem-solving skills, with innovative and customer-focused thinking are now the key skills required. By previously overlooking women in the recruitment process, POAL realised it was reducing its potential choice of skilled workers by 50 percent.

POAL addressed this skills gap by upgrading its recruitment, selection and progression processes, developing a new skills matrix and changing its career progression model to remove barriers to female roles such as straddle and crane driver.

The organisation also looked at leadership, appointing people to management roles based on competency. Moving away from the traditional “tap on the shoulder” promotional systems, staff members were invited to apply for the newly-defined roles. As a result, POAL appointed three women into key management positions.

POAL then set up a number of initiatives to support and nurture its new staff, inlcuding support groups for new female stevedores, co-working arrangements to provide mutual support in the initial stages of employment, and membership opportunities and links to external support groups. The company also addressed areas of unconscious bias and introduced flexible work contracts.

Women are now represented at every level of the organisation, accounting for almost a quarter of management positions and half of identified high-potential staff.

Twenty of them now work in POAL’s stevedoring area. While this is still a low percentage of the total stevedoring workforce, they have already made their presence felt and productivity has reportedly risen almost 50 percent over the past three years.

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