Women and Boat Ownership

By: women on the water

How the Boating Industry Can Grow

The Boating Industry is missing out on a massive piece of the economic pie as we speak. Is it Sexism? There has been a gender bias in boating that implies women are mostly there to do galley work or look pretty on the bow. They fail to see that more women are interested in being captains, doing maintenance of all kinds, and owning a boat of their own. Women are 51% of the population, 46.7% of the overall workforce, and 50.2% of the college-educated workforce. We are highly capable, enthusiastic, and increasingly have cash for leisure.

A possible reason more women do not own boats is the gender pay gap. Women make 85% of what men make.  With that said, times are changing fast. Currently, 25% of women are the larger wage earners in the household. By 2028 women are set to surpass men’s salaries. As I type this, women make 85% of the purchasing decisions for families and hold 60% of the nation’s wealth. On top of that, more women are choosing to be child-free and pursuing their passions. There is an opportunity here to welcome women into boat ownership. There is also an opportunity to realize that many women are already co-owners of boats with male partners. They deserve recognition and respect as such.

As we all know, boats take money, lots of it. As a boat owner myself, when I first heard the term B.O.A.T: “break out another thousand”, I laughed with commiseration. A new 26-foot boat costs around $80,000. Add in maintenance fees, moorage, and club memberships, it can be around 10k extra a year. Even if you buy an old boat and refit it yourself, as I did, the costs are still high. The sweat, time, and grit are even higher. 

Any boat owner will also tell you that it can be complicated and time-consuming to care for a yacht properly. Part of the joy of owning a boat is knowing its systems and how to maintain them. Gender bias is an unnecessary obstacle and deterrent to continuing on the path of boating for women. I am going to outline common struggles and suggestions for solutions. 

These are based on true stories: 

  • A woman is at a boat show. The yacht broker addresses her male friend or partner only. They direct the woman to the galley. They focus on the comfort amenities with her and the sail drive and engine with him. 
  • A woman is actively working on her boat alone and another boater asks who is helping her, or where the captain is. If a female boat owner has a boating male partner or friend, people assume he is doing the work for her. If she clarifies all of this and states this is her boat and she is doing the work herself, there is shock and surprise. If she does get help, people overemphasize it to take away any expertise she has.
  • A woman goes into a marine store to look for parts. She asks some questions. The staff say things like, “It’s complicated,” or “You should hire someone,” or worriedly, “Are you doing this yourself?” They also do the obvious mansplaining. I once had someone explain to me how the fuses I was buying worked in my electrical panel. I didn’t ask for that input and he was also incorrect.
  • A woman takes a class on diesel engines, men take over when it is her turn to check the pistons. They talk over her or down to her when she asks or answers a question. They make comments about her gender in the class like, “It’s so cute when women want to work on engines.” They try to flirt with her or hit on her. 
  • A woman goes to a boat parts swap, she is looking for shackles and cleats, she keeps being directed to dishes and kitchenware. They overbid items thinking she doesn’t know their worth, or try to sell her things she doesn’t need with explanations that are incorrect. I’m not saying this doesn’t happen to men as well, but it happens with women more.

How Can The Boating Industry Support Women?

CHECK BIAS. Everyone has biases— conscious or unconscious assumptions and judgments based on our personal and cultural experiences and norms. Assuming that only men are sailors or boat owners is an example of cultural bias. What if we all started to look at our bias and assumptions of gender and get curious instead? 

A good rule of thumb is to ASK QUESTIONS. If I was asked by a broker what I wanted to see at a boat show, I would say, “I would like to see the electrical system and batteries, the engine and driveshaft. I want to see the performance numbers and talk about how she sails.” Then talk to me like a skilled sailor and potential buyer—because I am.

BETTER MARKETING. The boating industry can start using more pictures of women at the helm or in foul weather gear on big seas. They could show us in the back of the boat and as boat owners. They could also start making some foul weather gear that fits better, or inquiring what women want on boat design and rigging.  

REPRESENTATION AND OPPORTUNITY. We could have more representation and articles written by women for women. We could have more classes and opportunities for women-led by women. We could fund women’s programs. We could learn to listen to what women need and want.

SUPPORT. In the Pacific Northwest, we have a robust sailing community with a lot of women, thanks to community support from all genders. We still get assumptions up here for sure, but we also have men in the industry who treat us like everyone else. Bonus points for the men in our community who help name and call out sexism where they see it. Those people get my business time and again. I also go out of my way to support other women in this industry who are true experts at their craft. 

Besides being the socially kind and responsible thing to do, encouraging women into the sport and industry is also good for business. Research is guiding us to be more inclusive and diverse in the industry through our products and staff in order to grow profits. In 2020 with the pandemic, Boat Trader saw an increase of 75% boat sales to women. Owning a boat is one of the most rewarding and fun endeavors I have ever experienced. I would love to see more women encouraged into boat ownership. We are here, we are sailors, we love the water just as much as anyone. 

So get on board, give us the respect we deserve, and give us some good deals.

Jenn Harkness, aka, Skipper Jenn, is a human being, artist, coach, therapist, writer, friend, mermaid, student of life and lover of all shine and sparkle. She is also Editor-in-Chief of the Women Who Sail Newsletter. May we all sail in peace.