Waves of Change: Female Leaders Navigating New Horizons in Cruising

A powerful new wave is sweeping through the cruise industry, reshaping the face and trajectory of executive leadership. Although the industry has a long way to go to redress the gender imbalance, bold steps are being made towards a future where more and more women are leading the charge both on and off the ship.

Of the 1.25 million seafarers worldwide, women make up just 2% – showing us there’s still plenty of room for growth in the cruise sector and the maritime industry as a whole. 

According to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), women represent only 29% of the global maritime industry workforce. It is important to acknowledge that the cruise industry has shown the most significant progress in achieving gender equality within the marine sector.

Of the 2% of female seafarers globally, 94% are in the cruise industry. At the same time, in the cruise sector, around 50% of women hold positions of mid-level seniority or higher. The cruise industry provides advancement opportunities for women, both on and off the ship.

It’s an exciting time for women in the cruise industry as we see more and more female leaders taking on influential roles. These women are changing the face of leadership within their respective companies and paving the way for future generations of female executives in cruising.

Belinda Bennett, Captain – Windstar 

In 2007, Karin Stahre-Janson from Sweden made history as the first woman to be appointed cruise ship captain, taking the helm of Royal Caribbean’s Monarch of the Seas. In July 2015, Celebrity Cruises named Kate McCue as the new captain of Celebrity Summit, further challenging traditional norms and embracing diversity in the maritime industry.

Belinda Bennett, the world’s first black female cruise captain and Windstar’s only female captain, made her maiden voyage with Windstar in 2016. 

Captain Bennett’s pioneering career is a testament to the industry’s increasing inclusivity and acknowledgment of women’s leadership capabilities. Her presence aboard Wind Spirit serves as both inspiration and a symbol of the broader transformations taking place in the maritime world.

“There is more awareness and support now for women and minorities, including helplines for bullying and racial harassment. A support system exists, and there is a general acceptance that didn’t happen when I was coming up in the industry. My background at sea is broader than cruising, but many of us get our start on cargo ships, private charters, ferries, naval, and other sectors before coming to the cruise industry.”

As captain, Bennett is responsible for all guests and crew aboard Wind Spirit. She loves the job’s daily challenges and that two days are never alike. One of the rewards of her job is meeting new people and exploring new places. 

What advice would Bennett give to women considering a path in cruising? “The opportunities are there for everyone, but it is still very much a male-dominated world at sea. However, if you are strong in mind, ambitious, driven, and not afraid of hard work, a career at sea is very rewarding and enjoyable. You get to see the world and be paid for it.”

Patrizia Iantorno, Chief Commercial Officer – Swan Hellenic

The cruise industry has traditionally been male-dominated, stemming from its roots in the maritime industry. Even in today’s era, this mindset persists, making it challenging to bring about change. But Patrizia Iantorno, CCO of Swan Hellenic, sees the industry changing and giving more opportunities to female leaders. 

“Personally, I am very proud of Swan Hellenic’s gender diversity because in most of the teams, we have great female managers leading the company, and it is something that I am always nurturing.”

One of the most demanding aspects of her global leadership role is the extensive travel and the need to be available across different time zones. Balancing these responsibilities with family life can be challenging. Today, women are increasingly finding ways to effectively manage their personal and professional lives, finding harmony between the two.

“I see the industry changing and giving more opportunities to female leaders. I am very excited to be part of this wave. I believe women in the industry are helping inject empathy and, in general, soft skills that are creating more balanced companies.”

Iantorno offers suggestions for women considering a path in cruising. To thrive in the cruise industry, embracing its dynamic and fast-paced nature is crucial. Regardless of your position, she maintains a genuine love for travel is essential. “If traveling is not one of your passions, don’t enter the cruise industry.”

It’s also very important to always be interested in learning a lot about the other departments. “In order to perform your role giving the company an added value, you need to stretch yourself out of your department because, in the cruising business, all aspects are interconnected.” 

Barbara Muckermann, President – Silversea

Barbara Muckermann holds the distinction of being the inaugural female President of Silversea and the second to helm one of Royal Caribbean Group’s three wholly owned brands.

“There has never been a shortage of bright, talented women; the industry is simply catching up, recognizing and nurturing female talent at all levels. I am proud to work alongside so many brilliant women at Royal Caribbean Group,” comments Muckermann.

“The cruise industry, in particular, has evolved to the point at which we have perhaps more female leaders than ever. Your passion and love for what you do will give you the strength to reach your goals, whatever they are. ”

She is thankful to have been able to dedicate a significant portion of her career to travel, one of her greatest passions. She finds it incredibly gratifying to deliver such a unique range of enriching experiences to her guests.

Her biggest hurdle is continuously innovating, which is key for any industry-leading brand. “Innovation forms an integral part of our strategy, and this is, in part, what sets us apart,” continues Muckermann.

Colleen McDaniel, editor-in-chief of Cruise Critic, shared that Muckermann understands her customers very well and ensures that everybody who touches the brand knows what a Silversea customer looks like.

“The truth is, a lot of the innovation that’s happened in that brand, especially around local dining and cuisine, and making that part of the onboard and a shore experience, those were Barbara’s ideas with collaboration, of course, from many, many other people. The Silversea brand and where it is today really has Barbara’s fingerprints on it.”

Natalya Leahy, President – Seabourn

In March 2023, Natalya Leahy was appointed President of Seabourn, overseeing 4,000 shoreside and seagoing employees with a fleet of seven ultra-luxury ships. One of the first things she did in her role was embark on a listening tour with the travel advisors, onboard team, and guests, seeking their hands-on experience and feedback on the Seabourn product.

The tour resulted in her revamping the “Delight in the Details” program, designed to give small choices and delights to guests along their journey with Seabourn.

She believes women have more role models than ever to aspire to and that the cruise industry is a prime example of women who have paved the way, showing firsthand the opportunities available in the industry.

Some of Leahy’s close mentors and role models have been leaders like Christine Duffy, president of Carnival Cruise Line, and Jan Swartz, Carnival Corporation’s executive vice president of strategic operations.

“I remember their poise, power, and grace as I strive to be a role model for other women in the industry today,” reflects Leahy.

“When we cultivate inclusive environments to thrive, women are naturally rising through the ranks in the cruising industry. I am immensely proud to say that I have a very diverse executive leadership team, with 6 out of 8 being female, and we have more than 200 female officers on Seabourn ships, which is close to 40 percent growth since pre-pandemic.”

When advising women who wish to pursue a career in the cruise ship industry, she remembers when her two daughters accompanied her aboard Seabourn Pursuit. “The whole way home, they told me how impressed they were to see so many women – of all ages and nationalities – taking charge on the ship,” continues Leahy.

“From the Guest Services Supervisor to the Cruise Director and the Environmental Officer, they recalled how it felt seeing these women leading in all kinds of ways, and that’s why representation matters. Women need to see it firsthand in order to believe that they, too, can have those same roles.”

Janet Bava, Chief Commercial Officer – Windstar

Janet Bava recently came to Windstar, and returning to the ocean cruise world holds a deep personal significance for her. Her connection to the sea and her love for the industry was ignited at age 15 when she embarked on her first cruise departing from her hometown in Miami with family and close friends to celebrate her quinceañera. 

“I’m thrilled to not only return to my roots but to expand my responsibilities and grow professionally. What’s even more exhilarating is the opportunity to work in a new category, one that focuses on yacht-style sail ships,” shares Bava.

As Chief Commercial Officer, she is responsible for driving strategic growth initiatives to elevate Windstar’s position in the global cruise market.

“It’s an exciting prospect to be part of Windstar Cruises, a beloved brand that has a rich history of providing exceptional experiences at sea. What’s even more exhilarating is the opportunity to work in a new category, one that focuses on yacht-style sail ships. This presents a fresh and invigorating challenge, and I’m eager to bring my expertise to this unique aspect of the cruising world.”

McDaniel has known Bava for a number of years and has followed her ascent from Royal Caribbean, Silversea, and AMA Waterways before joining Windstar. “She has been a leader in the industry for many, many years. One of the things that I think Janet has always led with is transparency and innovation. 

She’s done a really great job with some of these small ship cruise lines. She thinks there is no reason they can’t compete against the big guys, and it’s one of the things that really guides her. She is moving forward and really bringing the spotlight on these brands.”

Windstar has a shoreside executive team comprising several women who lead the company across various departments. Its commitment to gender equality also extends to the onboard leadership, with a diverse array of female leaders at the helm.

“Captain Bennett’s trailblazing career is a testament to the industry’s growing inclusivity and recognition of women’s capabilities in leadership roles. Her presence on board our ships is not only inspiring but also symbolic of the broader shifts happening in the industry” continues Bava.

When asked what advice she has to give to women considering a path in cruising, Bava emphatically replied, “Do it, and support others who make the choice. I am grateful for all the women who have supported and inspired me throughout my career; these women have not only supported me but also have made great contributions to the industry’s continued growth and development. 

“Some are now leading companies like Barbara Muckermann, named President of Silversea, to Kristin Karst, who co-founded AmaWaterways. Last but not least, I will never forget Betsy O-Rourke, while being the CMO at Royal Caribbean, promoting me when I came back from maternity leave and, later in life, her recommendation to become her successor for my current role. Without these women in my career trajectory, I could not have achieved what I have been able to achieve to date.”

Jessica Schumann, Hotel General Manager – Holland America

Hotel General Managers onboard large cruise lines are responsible for managing the hotel departments, including guest services, food and beverage operations, housekeeping, and entertainment. This role requires an excellent level of operational management experience in leading multi-disciplinary teams.

Jessica Schumann is one of the few women holding this position. “Female leadership at sea is not a novel concept, but the recent increase in female representation in the industry is. Some pockets of the industry have recognized their ability to significantly increase their talent pool and organizational diversity by including women. Showcasing female leaders in the maritime industry will go a long way to generating visibility. Making change visible is a powerful way to address underrepresentation,” shares Schumann.      

Like Janet Bava, she attributes part of her success at Holland America to having a strong network. 

“I feel it is very important to build a strong network of diverse allies, mentors, and sponsors. That kind of robust network can help pave the way for a successful career at sea. Invest in yourself and those around you by continuously learning and exchanging knowledge no matter where you are in your career.”     


Travel Writer at Savoteur | + posts

Casandra Karpiak is a travel writer and owner of Savoteur. A Toronto native with Danish roots currently residing in British Columbia, her travel writing has been seen on The Associated Press wire, MSN, FOX, CBS, NBC, Entrepreneur, 24/7 Wall St, Times Daily, and many more. When she’s not traveling, she can be found at hockey arenas all over BC cheering on her two young sons.