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'Being an engineer doesn't void us of femininity'

To raise awareness of the engine room and bridge as viable on-board departments where women can achieve their career goals,  we hear from Zehra Aksu,  who holds her captain and engineer's licenses.…

My name is Zehra Aksu.

I remember one day watching boys playing basketball near our summer house by the beach. I wanted to play with them but I was so scared because I was a short, tiny little girl, and they were all tall, strong boys. My dad said, "you can do it, you know how to play basketball, it is a game you mostly play with your brain." 

Since then I have learned that success is not about the strength of your body; it is mostly about being a smart, intelligent and emotionally strong person. 

I have studied architecture and mastered urban design in my country and worked as an architect and construction project manager – all male-dominated industries full of challenges and difficulties – not to mention my love of extreme sports such as mountain climbing, scuba diving, sailing, kite surfing, the list goes on…

In the seven years I have been in the yachting industry, I have worked both on deck and in the engineering department, as a licensed captain and marine engineer. It has been an adventure for sure, and there have been a lot of challenges along the way, but I have never tried to compete with ‘man’ at all. I have always challenged myself to improve my own skills, learn more and be successful at whatever I do. 

I respected all my captains, engineers and my crew mates, so got the respect back. At all the shipyards I worked with, including on big refit projects and hall outs, I worked with great contractors and learnt from them. I believe to survive in business requires good communication and management skills, and  a positive attitude. All my male engineer friends have been very helpful anytime I’ve ask any advice or questions – there was no ego to stop them sharing their knowledge.

In fact, I’ve found all the captains I have worked for loved to have a female first officer or engineer, because, without wishing to stereotype, they tend to be very organised and detail oriented.

Just because we work in male-dominated department, we don’t have to be void of any femininity.

I have, of course, had difficult experiences as well, but I choose to look forward, move on to next chapter and keep working. At the end of the day, if you’re good at your job, people admire and respect you no matter your gender, is and no matter which industry you are in.

When people find out what I do, I usually hear some form of the following: “What? First officer! You go girl”, or, “What do you mean you’re an engineer? You work on dirty, oily engines with those pretty hands?” It can be funny to hear it all and to see those shocked faces. But it’s worth remembering that no male engineers normally get that level of attention for simply having the job they do.

And finally, I think it’s also important to point out that just because we work in male-dominated department, we don’t have to be void of any femininity. After a long day in the engine room, after oil changes, sea strainer cleaning and being in overalls all day, I still love to dress up, put on my make up and go out in my high heels. That’s not saying female engineers and captains should feel the need to dress up, but more that your on-board department shouldn’t need to affect what you like to do outside of work.

Find more on women's stories of a career in the engine room, from Joe Hodgson of engineer-recruitment specialist J4Crew, in Issue 82 of The Crew Report. Sign up to receive your complimentary copy here.

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