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Weaving 'Herstory': Q&A With the History-Making International Women's Day Cruise's Female Officers on Celebrity Edge

Ashley Kosciolek

Last updated
Apr 23, 2020

On March 8, 2020, Celebrity Edge made history by becoming the first cruise ship helmed by an all-female bridge crew in celebration of International Women's Day.

Led by Captain Kate McCue, the first female cruise ship captain from the U.S., the women in charge weren't limited solely to the bridge. The sailing brought together 27 women -- who dubbed themselves "Oceans 27" -- to oversee the vessel's many departments including food and beverage, guest services, entertainment, hotel operations and others.

Cruise Critic caught up with several of them to get their thoughts on what it meant to be part of such a special, groundbreaking voyage.

What's the best part of your job overall?

Captain Kate McCue: I would say the number-one thing is the people, which is a surprise. I wasn't expecting that when I became a captain. I thought, "OK, it's navigation, and it's going and shaking hands from time to time," but you have the ability to really make a difference in people's lives.

I met a couple in August of last year, and ... the gentleman [had pancreatic cancer]. He was in tears, but I got to meet him, and his wife just sent an email saying he passed away two months after that event. She was really hoping that we had a picture from that evening -- and I had it in my files. So I sent her the picture ... but to be able to give a little bit of that moment and that memory back five months on is ... I mean, who gets to do that? It's not a job at that point. It's being able to touch people. I don't think everyone in this position realizes that they have that potential, but they do.

Guest Relations Director Julie Sherrington: It varies, actually, from day to day. I think one of my main passions is I love people, and I know that sounds a bit of a cliche, but I think it runs in the family. I'm one of eight kids, so I like to be around people all the time. I love meeting people from different nationalities, not only the crew but also the guests. And I love making a difference. That's a huge thing -- making a difference to somebody's life and their vacation.

What's the best part of working with other women?

Captain Kate McCue: There's kind of a pressure that's taken off that I guess I've always had in the back of my brain ... working in a male-dominated environment -- you know, kind of a little bit of a protective shield that just became part of the persona. But with the women, you don't need to have that, and we get to share things.

For example, the epaulettes: The epaulettes are built for men, but on women, the shoulders are obviously not as wide, so in order to have them so they don't stand up like a triangle because they're too large for the shoulders, we cut Vs out of the back -- something that no one ever told me, but now we all share between us. It's a very simple thing, but it makes a huge difference.

Hotel Director Niina Hautaniemi: We have a mutual, silent understanding and appreciation toward each other. We know that we all have different stories, different backgrounds, different hurdles that we had to pass before we reached where we are, and we worked very hard to get where we are. All of us. And it may have taken most of us longer to get where we are today because of those hurdles.

But it's more of a joyous thing, then, to be here together with all those females and see our apprentice officers and petty officers and girls along the way on their way up, and I'm very happy to help them on their route, wherever they want to go.

Do you ever get odd reactions from passengers when they find out you're in charge? If so, how do you deal with that?

Captain Kate McCue: When I was doing my handover with Captain Dimitrios, I was in my civilian clothes, and I was following him -- you know, shadowing him -- for three weeks. Every single day (and I'm not talking just once or twice), I was being asked if I was the captain's wife. But I got to video some of those [reactions] and put them on social media, which was a lot of fun because when people find out that I'm the captain, the initial response is kind of a shock, but then they're all so pleasantly surprised.

I get congratulated, on average, I would say 30 to 40 times a day, and I'm not sure if that's congratulations on being a woman, being an American woman, being a captain. Five years I've been captain, but every day, I still get congratulated. I reached a saturation point in the time since I've become a captain, and I was like "I don't want to hear 'congratulations' anymore. I'm the sixth-newest captain in the fleet. Five captains were promoted after me, and they don't get that on a daily basis."

But I realized it's not that people are being patronizing. It's because it's so foreign to them. So, if they're vocalizing it, they're also normalizing it; I will take the congratulations in whatever form it is because it means that, when the next girl comes up, it's not going to be such a foreign thing.

Chief Security Officer Mor Mia Segev: Yes, definitely. Sometimes it's very hard to present yourself as chief of security. I'm not walking around with a poker face. I'm a pretty cheerful person. I'm a girly girl. I know how to turn my skin when I need to become strict and tough, but I know that for many people it's a surprise -- but not like a weird surprise.

It's a good kind of excitement because I believe that [women] can bring to this position a little bit of compassion because security is not always related to the bad guys. As security ... I need to address myself to the victim and the suspect with the same objectivity, but at the same time give them the comfort and the right basically to say what happened.

Are there any stereotypes or biases you've encountered in your role that you wish would just disappear?

Captain Kate McCue: There's the physical stereotype that everyone thinks a female captain should look like, so I hope we're locking that down that you don't have to fit into a particular mold. If you're feminine, that's awesome if that's who you are. I tell the ladies that they need to first be their genuine selves, and that will evolve into how they do their jobs. I think the secret to success is being able to do your job, but interjecting your own personality into it is what will take you over the top and make you extremely successful.

Quick example of that: When I was sent for psychological evaluation when I became staff captain (the second in command) -- they send everybody to make sure you're sound to look after ... 7,000 or 8,000 people on ships, and you go through this series of testing -- at the end of the test, they sit you down and give you the results. The gentleman sat me down and said, "Everything was great, but I find you tend to smile too much." And I wasn't the only female officer he told that to.

So, the first two weeks I was onboard the ship, I tried not to smile. Because I didn't know anybody personally who had been in that role, I couldn't say "How do I do this?" After two weeks of thinking constantly about this and trying too hard, I said, "You know what? I can't do this. I'm going to be me." Honestly, from that moment on, it was smooth sailing.

Hotel Director Niina Hautaniemi: My first formal uniform jacket was made from a men's size 14 jacket. They didn't have female uniforms. So these little things. And even now, when I take over [as hotel director on a ship after a male has had the position], I have to look for a hair dryer [in my cabin] (because I'm coming back after a man) and for a little mirror [in my office] so I can fix my hair and put some lipstick on before I go outside of my office to see the guests.

When I became a hotel director -- and even before, when I was a guest relations director -- I was asking, "Why do I need to wear a skirt and nylons and high heels?" The days can be pretty long, and you are outside in the cold climate. You're doing tendering, you're doing luggage, you're doing everything just like the men, and you had to do it in heels.

I was sitting in my first HD and captain's conference in 2005, and [current Celebrity Cruises' President and CEO] Lisa Lutoff-Perlo had just joined us [as Celebrity Cruises' senior vice president of hotel operations]. I sat at our dinner next to [former Celebrity Cruises' President and CEO] Dan Hanrahan, and I asked him, "Why can't we wear pants?" And he looked at me and said, "What do you mean?" So I'm ... explaining why I feel women need to wear pants, and he looks at me and says, "I don't understand. Lisa, what does she mean?"

The next morning, when we sat in a conference room with captains and hotel directors, I was passed [Lisa's] business card, and she tells me to flip it over. She wrote on the back of her card: "Pant issue taken care of." A few months after that, the uniform policy with women was changed, and pants were added.

Nowadays it sounds silly, but back in the day it was a huge thing. It's one of those things that now people just think is a given, but it was only 15 years ago. It makes me really proud to be alive at this moment to see how far it has come. Did men have to fight for their pants? Heck no.

Guest Relations Director Julie Sherrington: Not only has the industry changed to introduce women; [it is] actually accommodating women to feel like women onboard. They haven't put a woman in a man's world and expected [her] to wear the uniform. They've accommodated us in every way possible ... and things have had to change onboard -- the ladies' toilets, the ladies' amenities and the crew area.

What are your thoughts on ships being referred to as "she"?

Cruise Director Sue Denning: That's a lovely question. I don't have any reservations at all, and you know why? Simply, the hull of a ship has to be strong, so why not call it a she? We are strong, and we're here, and we're having the best time I can tell you I've ever had on a ship with an all-female bridge team and hotel team. They've done a great job, and so I feel like we're a "she."

Staff Captain Maria Gotor: Why not? A ship is big, important and powerful.

Guest Relations Director Julie Sherrington: You know, it's really funny because it's not until somebody asks you the question that you think about it. It's not until people address things like a ship being called a she or "We're going to 'man' the ship." When are they going to start having a man as godfather? (I've got a few suggestions for a godfather. Gerard Butler -- and I'd be willing to host him.) But those things don't bother me, really. When you work on a ship with so many differences, you can't be delicate about anything.

Chief Security Officer Mor Mia Segev: Oh, 100 percent. This is Edge; she's a beautiful girl. She's a she. She's not an it. She's not a he. She's a she. I've known her since birth -- before [her hull] was even blue -- and she's a she.

What would you say to any little girls (or boys) out there who are thinking of exploring jobs at sea?

Captain Kate McCue: The opportunities are bountiful. There is no limit to opportunities of going to sea, and it is the best world that you could find yourself in. I say world because we are. This ship, for example, represents 75 different nations. We are the world under one roof, and it's such a unique environment that thrives on whatever differences you're bringing into it.

If there's an interest, I say pursue it, whatever job title it is or position you're thinking of. You could run the gamut. We've had people who started out as AV techs and are now bridge officers. We had people that were cruise staff and went on to be engineers. So if there's anything that kind of gets you into it so you can experience this world and then find what your passion is and hone in on that, I say try it.

Guest Relations Director Julie Sherrington: It's such a fantastic opportunity. At home, I can tell you now, if I go to my local bar, I know exactly who's sitting on the stool on the right and the third from the left because they've never left. You know what I mean? They've married the girl next door, and ... they're so tunnel-visioned. When you start traveling, it opens up your whole mind. I would suggest it to anybody.

What's one thing you know now that you wish you would have known at the beginning of your career?

Cruise Director Sue Denning: I would say I had to learn -- and learn fast -- a corporate world. When I first started on ships, I'd go into meetings with corporate people, and I used to just jump in and go, "Let's get this sorted out," because that's my nature. But I must say I learned how to ... get what I want, how I want, in a different way. You know, I've found my way through understanding and being, and I am very much more aware of the corporate world. Now I have a different tack when it comes to the corporate world.

Staff Captain Maria Gotor: Nothing. It was beautiful to discover every single step of this profession [along the way]. I still discover many new things every day, and I love them all. [Knowing it in advance] would have killed the surprise. [It has been] a wonderful voyage to discover all the smaller things of this profession.

What would you say to someone who tells you that they don't understand why we need something like International Women's Day?

Captain Kate McCue: Speaking [as someone in] a career that's been male-dominated for thousands of years -- just now, in 2020, we've been able to "woman" our bridge with an entirely female bridge team -- I would say that's exactly why we need International Women's Day. To show the world that there are opportunities in every single aspect [of maritime], and only 50 percent of the world's population has been tapped into for its talent.

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