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Female captain wins $3.6M in gender bias case against pilot board

Jan 27, 2015 05:04 PM
Capt. Katharine Sweeney supervises her ship’s crew as dockworkers drape an American flag alongside MV Manukai at Honolulu in 2003. At the time, Sweeney was captain of the Matson Navigation Co. containership and was skipper for its maiden voyage from the U.S. 
mainland. Sweeney later tried to become the first female pilot in Puget Sound.

Honolulu Star-Advertiser/Bruce Asato

Capt. Katharine Sweeney supervises her ship’s crew as dockworkers drape an American flag alongside MV Manukai at Honolulu in 2003. At the time, Sweeney was captain of the Matson Navigation Co. containership and was skipper for its maiden voyage from the U.S. mainland. Sweeney later tried to become the first female pilot in Puget Sound.

A ship captain who sought to become the first female pilot in Puget Sound has been awarded $3.6 million in a discrimination lawsuit filed against the board that denied her a license.

Capt. Katharine Sweeney, a master mariner with 25 years of experience — including tenure at the helm of Matson containerships — claimed that the Washington state Board of Pilotage Commissioners (BPC) “willfully and wrongfully” denied her a pilot’s license based on her gender. She said the decision was based on a recommendation from the program’s Training Evaluation Committee (TEC), which treated her “differently and less favorably” than less-qualified male trainees. 

On Oct. 1, a jury in King County (Wash.) Superior Court ruled in favor of Sweeney after a two-month trial. She was awarded a reduced financial sum after originally petitioning for $12.6 million to compensate for lost pay and benefits, lost future wages and emotional distress. 

The case dates to 2007, when Sweeney was admitted into the pilot training program administered by the BPC. The lawsuit, filed in 2011, states that Sweeney was told “in words or substance” by the all-male TEC that because she was the first woman in the program, “the spotlight would be on her” and “they had to make doubly sure she was ready to be a pilot.”

At a special meeting of the TEC on Oct. 31, 2008, members recommended to the board that Sweeney “not be issued a pilot’s license and that she not be allowed to continue in the training program.” On May 19, 2009, the BPC voted to deny the license.
 
Capt. Harry Dudley, chairman of the BPC, told Professional Mariner that he could not comment on what led to the vote because the board is filing an appeal in the case. No reason for the action taken against Sweeney is cited in the lawsuit, although there are references to male trainees who were allowed to continue in the program despite “marine incidents and/or other incidents demonstrating poor performance” — including one trainee who hit a dock.

“At least one commissioner of the board has stated in words or substance during a meeting that incidents of brushing the dock or having contact with the dock, not causing serious or significant damage, occur all the time or are common,” the lawsuit states. “Such incidents have not been used to deny a pilot license to male trainees. Such incidents have not been used to revoke the pilot’s license of a male pilot.”

Sweeney, who is now chief executive officer of Compliance Maritime, a provider of internal compliance auditing for vessel operators, did not respond to requests for an interview.

The nine-member BPC is composed of eight men and one woman. It includes a designee of the director of Washington State Ferries, who serves as chairman; two members of the public; an American shipping representative; a foreign shipping representative; two licensed maritime pilots; an environmental member, and one member from the state Department of Ecology.

The sole female on the board is Elsie Hulsizer, who was appointed as its environmental member on Sept. 1, 2007. According to court records, she abstained from voting on BPC actions involving Sweeney. Professional Mariner could not reach Hulsizer for comment on the case.

Dudley said the board was disappointed by the jury’s verdict and that bias has never been an issue in the BPC’s pilot training.

“We believe very strongly that our training program provides adequate protection against any form of discrimination, be it gender, race or any other form of bias, because of the way we’ve structured the program,” he said. “I really can’t comment any further than that, other than to express our disappointment that the jury didn’t get it.”

Dudley said the BPC is looking at potential lessons from the case but has not found anything that would lead to policy changes.

“We’ve been modifying our training program since 2005 to add incremental improvements that are based on what we’ve learned from our trainees and the supervising pilots through the years,” he said. “In terms of things we’ve learned from this case, there is nothing that has prompted the board to initiate a formal review.”

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