“The Maritime Sector needs more women to thrive”

We interview COFCO International’s Aylin Coskun, one of Turkey’s first ever female captains

Based in Istanbul, Aylin Coskun carries responsibility for COFCO deliveries on cargo ships over 200 metres long and carrying up to 76,000 tonnes of grains or minerals. But the former shipping officer and one of Turkey’s first ever female captains says that, in a male-dominated industry she had to prove her skills over and over again.

Few reliable data exist on gender in the shipping sector, but one figure – sometimes used by the UN’s International Maritime Organization (IMO) - says women represent just two percent of the world’s 1.2 million seafarers. Of these women, some 94 percent are working in the cruise industry.

Asked about the early stages of her career onboard big cargo ships, Aylin, who is now COFCO’s Head of Supramax Freight Operations, says:

“It was hard, physically, mentally and in every possible way.”

“And as a woman you have to prove that you can actually do it,” she says from her office close to the Bosporus Strait, one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world.

“I am one of the first female captains in Turkey and I had to work harder than any man to earn my position.”

When they first met her, some people doubted her abilities, she says, but then changed their minds when they saw her at work.

“When you earn respect, it can take you far.”

Aylin Coskun, Head of Supramax Freight Operations at COFCO International. One of Turkey’s first ever female cargo ship captains.

“Can a company build a decent workforce when it is ignoring half of the world’s population? No way.”

What will happen, Chief?

One event tested her leadership skills beyond any doubt. Long before she joined COFCO, her ship had been impounded for over nine months in a South American port. As a senior officer on board, many people came to her for reassurance.

“They were asking me: Chief, what will happen, what should we do?” she recalls. “I told them not to panic and to do whatever needs to be done.”

Aylin has always loved the sea. She grew up in Marmaris, a small town on Turkey’s south-west Mediterranean coast. Popular with tourists, the town is surrounded by pine-forested hills and clear waters. Her grandfather was a captain, while her father was also involved with boats.

“I have loved the sea since I was a little girl - its energy, risk, and nature,” she says.

“Life at sea will be hard”

At first, her parents tried to dissuade her from a maritime career. “They told me that life at sea would be hard and that there are no women in this profession.”

But when she explained her passion for the sea was there to stay, they ended their opposition and supported her unconditionally.

After maritime studies at Istanbul Technical University, Aylin continued to build her qualifications and experience: passing exams, working for shipowners, and going to sea – including as a captain. Then, after gaining experience on bulk carriers, she stepped across to the commodity trading industry, first with Noble, and then with COFCO.

At COFCO, Aylin helps to ensure the safe and timely delivery of commodities, shipping them around the world. As well as in-house services, the Istanbul-based team also provides transport and expertise to independent clients. At any given moment, COFCO has some 200 vessels out at sea.

Being a woman has never been an issue at COFCO, Aylin says. In the freight operations team where she works, some 12 out of 20 people are women. And the only thing that counts is that you solve problems, not create them.

“I am one of the first female captains in Turkey and I had to work harder than any man to earn my position.” 

The role model

“I understand the maritime regulations and the technical details too,” she says. “And during my seven years at sea, I learned how to get out of any difficult situation.”

Looking to the future, Aylin says that the growth of shipping requires it to recruit more women. Twenty years ago, in Turkey, just one or two captains were women. The sector also needs more qualified captains. It makes sense to recruit women too.

“Can a company really build a decent workforce when it is ignoring half the population?” Aylin says. “No way.”

Women can also bring a different perspective, Aylin says, a different way to solve old problems. Despite this, women are still under-represented in maritime leadership. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal on gender equality aims to increase the number of women in managerial positions, a target that Aylin supports.

“I will continue to raise awareness of the importance of gender equality and continue to give support to my colleagues,” she says, acknowledging that she sees herself as a role model. “It’s my duty.”