Women of the Sea-Suite

Ever wonder why ships are called “she”?* Perhaps the answer can be found at Celebrity Cruises, the trailblazer in bringing on females to helm its cruise ships.

by Jackie Krentzman

When Celebrity Cruises’ Captain Kate McCue was 12 years old, her parents took her and her brother on a four-day cruise to the Bahamas. As they disembarked, McCue told her father, “Someday I want to be a cruise director and plan all the fun events on board.” Her father responded, “You can do anything you want, including driving the thing.”

Today, McCue is driving the thing, specifically Celebrity’s flagship, Celebrity Edge. She is one of many women at Celebrity Cruises who are thriving in the traditionally male-dominated “on the bridge” roles—the highest leadership level on an active ship, essentially a ship’s C-suite.

In the 200-year-old cruise ship industry, fewer than 2 percent of mariner roles are held by women. At Celebrity, 32 percent of officers on the bridge are women, an increase from 3 percent in 2014. This astounding figure is largely the doing of Celebrity’s president and CEO, Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, who took the helm of Celebrity Cruises that year. She appointed the first-ever female American cruise ship captain (McCue), and the first West African woman to work on the bridge. Celebrity also boasts the first ship sailing with an all-female bridge and officer team.

“The brand and its leaders are trailblazers in the industry. They are leading the way, and they encourage others to do the same,” says Jason Liberty, the CEO of the Royal Caribbean Group, which owns Celebrity Cruises. “Lisa is a champion of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the truest form. She leads by example, and her passion is unmatched when it comes to shattering the glass ceiling, being an ally to the LGBTQ+ community, and leading DEI initiatives so all may thrive. She is a tremendous inspiration.”

Celebrity is so committed to equity and inclusion, it has launched a new initiative to diversify the travel industry. The All-Inclusive Photo Project provides royalty-free photos to travel organizations. Historically and to this day, the vast majority of photos in travel-marketing materials and ads have catered to white travelers, showing largely white faces. “For far too long, ‘all-inclusive’ in the travel industry has meant everything on your vacation is included in one price,” says Lutoff-Perlo. “We set out to challenge this conventional thinking by imagining the phrase through the lens of others.” The photos in this new project represent the full spectrum of travelers, including a broad range of ethnicities, sexual and gender identities, and physical and mental abilities. “What Annie Leibovitz and all of the talented artists involved in this project have captured so beautifully is that for vacations to really live up to the marketing moniker ‘all-inclusive,’ they [need to] start by using images that are inclusive of all, not just a few.”

Come aboard to meet several of the Celebrity women in leadership roles!

Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, CEO

Lisa Lutoff-Perlo’s own experiences shaped how she has led as president and CEO of Celebrity Cruises. For starters, her career in this industry almost never pushed off from shore.

“I joined the cruise industry [Royal Caribbean, Celebrity’s holding company] before I ever took a cruise,” Lutoff-Perlo says. “And when I did, it was on the QE2. And I didn’t love it. But I realized that we have to work hard to make consumers understand that while the idea of vacationing via the ocean is amazing, not all cruises are created equal. I saw we had a great opportunity to differentiate cruise brands in a much better way.”

When a sales position at Royal Caribbean became available in 1985, she made the move. Little did she know she had found her home for the next 35-plus years. At Celebrity, Lutoff-Perlo was frequently promoted and took on increasingly higher-level marketing and sales leadership positions. She says she did not encounter any discrimination until 2005, when she moved into leadership in the commonly male-dominated operations department, running the day-to-day operations of the ships, on shore or sea.

“At the time, there were very few—maybe even no—women in a leadership role on ship or shore.
I realized that the organization and industry needed to do a lot of work around gender equality and creating opportunity. But first, I needed to overcome what I was experiencing, which was a lack of acceptance and an isolation.”

The men she worked with didn’t think she belonged there, nor did they believe she would last or be successful. So she just put her head down, worked hard, and proved them wrong (and then some!). And along the way, she found allies who helped her succeed.

Lutoff-Perlo remembers the rocky beginning to this day. She uses it as a reminder of the challenges that not only she faced but that other women also experienced, along with members of the team who did not represent groups and identities traditionally populating the cruise industry.

When she was tapped as president and CEO of Celebrity Cruises in 2014, she immediately established a welcoming and inclusive culture while widening the pipeline for women to serve in leadership positions throughout the company, including aboard the ships. She says that her proudest moment came on March 8, 2020, when, on an International Women’s Day cruise on the Celebrity Edge, the entire bridge was “manned” by females. “That was the first time in the entire cruise industry, and Celebrity was the first and probably still the only brand that could do that because we had made such significant advancements,” she says. “It was a proud achievement for me personally, but it was even more wonderful to see how proud the women on the ship were.”

“Determination. Persistence. Patience. Dream big. And don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t. Turn any ‘no’ into a ‘yes.’ Not easy, but nothing worth fighting forever is.”

Captain Kate McCue

Captain Kate McCue is the first American woman to helm a cruise ship. She has captained Celebrity Equinox, Celebrity Summit, Celebrity Edge, and now Celebrity Beyond. The San Francisco native and graduate of California State University’s California Maritime Academy is fondly known as “Captain Kate.” She has used her unique status and her platform to garner more than 3 million social media followers, where she serves as a role model for young women as well as a spokesperson for Celebrity. With her motto “If you can Sea it, you can Be it,” she encourages young women to pursue their dreams whatever they may be.

When asked about obstacles, the perennially upbeat McCue says, “I love this question, because I don’t have a stereotypical answer that comes to mind. I have been blessed to work for a company that values diversity and inclusion. On board our ships, our crew comes from 60 to 75 different nationalities. Everyone is a minority of some sort, be it race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, etcetera. Because of this, I’ve found that we don’t pick on each other’s differences, but rather we are in a unique environment that celebrates those differences. Therefore, being a female on board isn’t what defines me.”

“I would encourage anyone who wanted to pursue a life at sea to jump in whole-heartedly. However, I prefer that rather than following in my footsteps, you forge your own path by bringing your unique personality and perspectives to each job you do.”

Captain Nathaly Alban

Seventeen years ago, Celebrity Cruises’ Captain Nathaly Alban, a native of Ecuador, was a cadet on a six-month training stint aboard the Celebrity Xpedition, the newest and largest ship sailing the Galápagos at the time. She fell in love with the ship and the cruise industry and decided that she wanted to work only on cruise ships. It took a while to realize her dream, as she worked on a tanker ship before being able to return to her beloved Galápagos while employed by another company. Then in 2017, she came full circle, returning to Celebrity, where she was given the command of its small luxury ship, the Celebrity Xploration, which carries awestruck passengers around the Galápagos.

Alban says she loves the technical challenges that come with captaining a ship through such a remote and undeveloped area. “A challenge of sailing in the Galápagos Islands is to take the ship to a safe anchorage allowed by the Galápagos National Park for the disembarkation of our guests,” she says. “In many places, the anchoring sites are very close to the coast, and the currents and winds of the Galápagos are very strong in certain seasons. That is where the expertise of the captain and her team comes into play, to perform a safe maneuver.”

Alban feels fortunate to have landed at Celebrity, where her gender is a nonissue. She thanks the leadership of Lutoff-Perlo for her groundbreaking advances in hiring and in establishing such a welcoming culture. “Celebrity bets a lot on the development of its internal talent and cares about the well-being of all, not only women.”

“To all the women who aspire to have leadership [roles] in any industry, I would tell them to visualize their goals and imagine themselves already in that desired position. Imagining them already achieved helps to strengthen our self-confidence. You have to believe and be positive, go step by step, always focused on giving the best of yourself.”

Staff Captain Maria Gotor

Captain Maria Gotor’s first position on a cruise ship came with Celebrity, as it was the only company that gave her a chance when she decided to make the move from captaining ferries to cruise ships in 2009.

Gotor was raised in landlocked Seville, Spain, but spent most of her early years near the ocean. When she was 14, her family moved to Bilbao (near the Bay of Biscay and, beyond, the Atlantic) due to her father’s job as a naval architect. They next moved to Cádiz (on the southern tip of the country, near the Strait of Gibraltar), where Gotor currently lives. She began her career transporting ships across the Strait, at a time and place in which the industry was essentially all male. But at Celebrity, she has never encountered the sexism so endemic in her previous jobs.

“In my 13 years at Celebrity Cruises, my gender has never been an issue,” she says. “The company has always been welcoming for female officers, and on board, our male colleagues help us so we can develop our skills, simply by considering us officers belonging to the same team.”

“Work on your dreams. Constantly. Very hard. Dream big. Be scared of your dreams. If they don’t scare you enough, that means they are not big enough. Fight for your dreams. It’s never too late to do so.”

Chief Officer Rachel Arnold

When she was 14 years old, Rachel Arnold and her family took a Caribbean cruise. She loved the whole experience (well, except for the sunburn part), and as soon as she got home, she began looking for job opportunities on board cruise ships. At first, she was thinking along the lines of guest services and hospitality, because on the Caribbean cruise, those fields were largely where she encountered female staff members. But then she saw an advertisement for deck cadets and decided to enroll at Warsash Maritime Academy, in her hometown, Southampton, England.

Arnold joined Celebrity in 2016. She says her proudest moment was in 2018, sailing a brand-new ship, the Celebrity Edge, into Florida’s Port Everglades (her home port), for the first time after it was built. “I was part of the start-up team and watched the ship go from steel to the incredible ship it is now,” she says.

Today at Celebrity, Arnold is a chief officer in charge of the navigational watch, creating the ship’s routes, maintaining the bridge equipment, and making sure all the charts are up-to-date and correctly marked with the boundaries and limits required by law.

Arnold says that Celebrity is an exceptional place to work because of the inherent culture of acceptance. “It doesn’t matter your gender, your sexuality, your religion, or your nationality,” she says. “The only things you will ever be judged on here are your character and your work.”

“Knowledge is power. If you know what you’re doing, if you know the details of an assignment, if you know the people you’re working with, nobody can tell you anything. They can try. But you will always be the strongest you can be with knowledge in your back pocket as your best weapon.

Do not underestimate ‘soft’ skills—leadership, teamwork. Always be kind because it always comes back to you tenfold.”

First Officer Elizabeth Marami

Growing up in Mombasa, Kenya, on the Indian Ocean, Elizabeth Marami was drawn to the maritime industry. She began her career as a cadet officer on a training vessel and then on shipping lines. To be able to have her own command, she successfully passed her international Unlimited Oceans second-mate license and became an apprentice marine pilot at the age of 25. Eventually she became Kenya’s first female maritime pilot. In 2018, she joined Celebrity, where she is now a first officer.

Marami is intent on helping other women break into and advance in the male-dominated industry. She is the founder of Against the Tide, an online platform for female seafarers across the globe to share stories, lend and receive support, and advocate for equality in the profession. She says, “As a digital story platform with the aim of pointing out the lack of inclusivity and diversity in the industry, we can propel change and find the sisterhood we didn’t know we actually needed.”

“Pursue your dreams with dedication, passion, while always being a team player. May your goal always be not only lead by example, but also to nurture and grow so that you are more of you.”

Second Officer Nurul Sahira Binte Shari

Born and raised in Singapore, Nurul Sahira Binte Shari, a second officer for Celebrity, never harbored any intentions of settling for a conventional nine-to-five job. She was determined, she says, to be involved in a progressive and dynamic industry. She discovered the nautical studies program at the Singapore Maritime Academy, and her career path was set. “I couldn’t imagine settling down for a deskbound job when I could literally make the world my oyster,” she says. “One of my fondest memories is of looking upon the cruise ships tied up in Marina South Pier and thinking to myself how it would be pretty impressive if I could chance upon the opportunity to helm one of those ships.”

As Shari worked her way up to the bridge, she encountered her fair share of discrimination, so when she landed at Celebrity Cruises in 2021, she was ecstatic. “What was once a dream growing up has now become a remarkable reality,” she says. “To be able to work in a company that actively promotes the role of female seafarers is an amazing feeling in such a male-dominated industry. I hope to continue this progress and one day join the list of female trailblazers in our industry.”

“Do not let the naysayers get to you. Learn to tune out the negative comments and focus on building yourself up. Never let your dreams hide behind your fear of being looked at as if you do not belong in this male-dominated industry. Step out of your comfort zone and face your fears. The tough choices we make now will define our future.”

* As to why ships are considered female? There are several theories, the most common being that women have historically been thought of as nurturers, mothers, and protectors—valued qualities for both a ship and its captain.

Ship Ahoy!

Ever wonder what some of the leadership roles are on a cruise ship? Here’s a brief breakdown.

The Captain: Overall command of vessel. Responsible for all operations on board—including the safety of guests and crew—as well as for the vessel itself and the environment it operates in.

The Staff Captain: Head of deck department. Responsible for deck operations, including but not limited to safety, navigation, deck maintenance, security, environment, medical, and public health.

The Chief Officer – Navigation: Responsible to the staff captain for voyage and passage planning, bridge equipment, and vessel stability. This senior watch-standing officer operates as the captain’s representative on the bridge to ensure the safe navigation and operation of the vessel, at sea and in port 24/7; typically standing the 4 to 8 watch.

The Chief Officer – Deck: Responsible to the staff captain for overall maintenance and appearance of the vessel. Like the navigation chief officer, this senior watch-standing officer operates as the captain’s representative on the bridge to ensure safe navigation and operation of the vessel, at sea and in port 24/7; typically standing the 12 to 4 watch.

The First Officer: Designated as the deputy safety officer, responsible for assisting the safety officer with all safety administration. This senior watch-standing officer operates as the captain’s representative on the bridge to ensure the safe navigation and operation of the vessel, at sea and in port 24/7; typically standing the 8 to noon watch.

The Second Officer: A junior watch-standing officer who operates as the assistant to the officer of the watch. The second officer is a member of the safety team and conducts various inspections around the vessel related to lifesaving
appliances and firefighting equipment.

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