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Business & Economy

25 years of #BreakingtheBias

With International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month having just taken place, Katherine Birchall, global director of freight, demurrage and defence at North, reflects on her experience as a senior female in a traditionally male-dominated industry.

The freight, demurrage and defence (FD&D) team at North is a team of specialist lawyers, who, under a form of legal costs insurance, handle numerous types of disputes relating to the operation of insured ships.

The last two years have been among the busiest of times for the team, due in part to the massive impact COVID-19 has had on the shipping industry.

In addition to what might be regarded as more routine FD&D cases, the team handled hundreds of COVID-19 related cases, with our shipowner and charterer members seeking urgent guidance on risk exposure, contractual compliance and clauses.

More recently, our team has also been dealing with rising numbers of claims and enquiries related to the conflict in Ukraine and its impact on shipping.

Amid all of this, 2021 marked my 25th anniversary at North.

And as the global economy looks towards a post- pandemic world, and following International Women’s Day last month, it seems apt to reflect on my own experiences in maritime insurance.

I first came to Newcastle to join North in 1996, after several years working at a major London law firm.

At the time, only seven people made up the FD&D team – a number that has since risen to 45 specialist solicitors across the world.

hat original small, close-knit team provided part of the foundation for growing North into the business it is today.

Right from the beginning, we had a sense of responsibility and knowledge that what we were doing was making a difference.

The work we do on the FD&D team is all about helping members resolve otherwise uninsured claims.

As such, what we do has a direct impact on businesses, their profit and their bottom line.

Over the years, I’ve seen North grow and develop.

In 1998, we merged with Newcastle P&I, later taking over tonnage from Liverpool & London P&I Club.

Thereafter, North continued to grow, and we now insure more than 12 per cent of the world’s entire shipping fleet.

More recently, North has entered into formal discussions for a proposed merger with another mutual insurer.

This link-up with The Standard Club would create one of the world’s largest maritime insurance groups, with a joint premium income of $800 million and assets of $2 billion, and would insure ships equivalent to 400m gross tonnage (GT) – or one in five of the world’s ocean-going vessels.

Having been given a staff management role within my first five years at the Club, my appointment to associate director in 2002, followed by global director in 2011 and a place on the executive leadership team in 2018, not only felt like a significant personal achievement, but a clear indication of North’s commitment to appointing the right people for the role and a lack of bias against women at a senior level.

Following this year’s International Women’s Day – the theme of which was #BreakTheBias – I’ve been reflecting on how much our industry has changed in the decades since I began my career.

The FD&D team at North was well balanced from the start but the same wasn’t true in the industry as a whole.

Today, it’s a different story, with many more women entering the industry than ever before, joining a more balanced workforce and progressing to management roles through merit and talent.

There’s no doubt the maritime industry has changed beyond recognition in recent years, and the advent of COVID-19 and advanced technological solutions means our sector will continue to evolve.

Breaking the bias is about creating a world that is diverse, inclusive and equitable.

And as we assess the work that still needs to be done to create a fairer society following last month’s Women’s History Month, my advice to women considering entering shipping, insurance or other professional services is this: challenge assumptions, say yes to opportunities to widen your industry experience, and be ambitious.

Most of all, don’t be afraid to do what is right for you