The saying “a rising tide lifts all boats” is one that rings true for the female leaders who are overflowing with passion for the Mississippi River.

It’s a waterway that flows straight to the heart for the Upper Mississippi Waterways Association (UMWA) and members of the Women in Maritime Operations (WIMOs), an organization dedicated to retaining, advancing and promoting women in maritime operations through sharing knowledge and continuing education.

“I come from generations of crop farmers, and through what I’ve grown to understand in my professional career, I’ve come to realize and appreciate how important the Mississippi River is for feeding the world,” said Nicole Siems, senior marine designer at VAA in Plymouth, Minn. “The corn and beans that are raised on my family’s land are transported by truck to a local grain handling facility. From there, they may be transported by rail to a barge loading facility, where they will then travel south to the Gulf to be transported to large vessels on route to other countries. That connection is huge!”

Incorporated in 1932, UMWA works to ensure that the Upper Mississippi River navigation system is used and maintained in a safe and environmentally responsible manner. This wouldn’t be possible without organizations like WIMOs, which was founded in 2017.

“Having organizations like WIMOs actively engaged in partnerships with industry stakeholders such as the Upper Mississippi Waterways Association not only promotes gender equality, but also fosters a more inclusive and supportive environment for women pursuing careers in marine sectors,” said Jeremy Putman, president of UMWA.

Word of mouth spread quickly, and WIMOs has since expanded to 30 U.S. states and three different countries.

“I decided to join WIMOs because a colleague at our New Orleans location recommended it,” said Selena LeBeouf, port operations management trainee for ADM-American River Transportation Company (ARTCo). “After doing some research I really wanted to join an organization that fights the stigma of women’s roles in industries that are predominately male.”

According to WIMOs, women remain underrepresented in the industry, making up less than 30 percent of the maritime workforce worldwide, but these female leaders say they are excited to turn the tide as women tow their way through the Mississippi.

“With a platform to educate, engage, and elevate women in the industry, I saw the opportunity to propel my maritime career while connecting with other women in the industry,” Siems said.

“More women are becoming informed that we do belong in this industry. Just take a look at each of our WIMOs chapter leaders. They all hold very substantial roles for their company,” LeBeouf added. “The more women who are informed, the better. Women are applying for more senior roles and are getting chosen. This is the first stepping stone to our success in the industry.”

Breaking the glass ceiling

Bringing in more female leaders is just one of many challenges in the industry. WIMOs leaders say knowledge and strategy can never be left on the banks.

“Transporting cargo along the river is no small feat. I am on multiple calls during the week about water levels, weather conditions, grain patterns. If the Mississippi is having problems, whether it’s a downfall in grain production or a sudden increase in water levels, there are thousands of eyes watching,” LeBeouf said. “Our third-party customers want to know, ‘Can you move my barge? Will my cargo make it here on time?’”

WIMOs says there must also be a strong working relationship with the more than 120 cities along the Mississippi River for everything to flow regularly.

“As a provider of engineering services to river terminals, it’s important that we help the shipping industry remain operational, efficient, safe and thriving to keep up with the agricultural productivity growth,” Siems said.

All these qualities serve as important pieces of the puzzle that Siems hopes will carry on a legacy for the trusted waterway.

“I hope to see the Mississippi River continue to be a large transportation artery in the connection of Midwestern states to the greater global commerce,” Siems said. “If terminals maintain operations and continue to improve efficiency and safety to meet the growing demands of production, I think a flourishing river shipping industry can be expected to follow in the years ahead.

With female leadership steering in the right direction, Putman believes this partnership will only get stronger.

“The collaboration between the Upper Mississippi Waterways Association and WIMOs is not just about gender diversity; it’s about leveraging the strengths of each organization to address challenges, share knowledge and promote professional development opportunities for women in maritime fields,” Putman said.

LeBeouf agrees that the power of women in this industry means a beaming opportunity on the horizon to make big waves in this industry.

“There isn’t a single person on the river with the exact same career path or experience. That is what I love so much about it, said LeBeouf. “We are moving towards an industry where you are able to pave your own way through, no matter what your background, age, race or gender is. Break the glass ceiling!”