Stena Line: a beacon of equality, diversity and inclusion

Philippe Holthof asks Stena Line’s female leaders, Marica Derenstrand, Margareta Jensen Dickson and Elisabeth Lonne, how the pan-European operator is creating a more inclusive workplace and adapting to meet evolving customer demands

Stena Line: a beacon of equality, diversity and inclusion

Stena Line

Marica Derenstrand (left), Elisabeth Lönne (centre) and Margareta Dickson Jensen (back right) with the rest of Stena Line’s senior leadership team

By Philippe Holthof |

Since Niclas Mårtensson took the helm of Stena Line almost seven years ago, a fresh wind has been blowing through one of Europe’s leading ferry operators. His mission to transform the business from a traditional shipping company to a leading sustainable and digital ferry operator is bearing fruit, with three out of its six leaders being women – a ferry industry first.  

Addressing gender equality 

The maritime sector is probably one of the last male-dominated bastions, especially at senior leadership level. However, during the 2017 London International Shipping Week, the UK’s then Maritime Minister, the Honourable John Hayes, addressed the topic of gender inequality in maritime, which led to the establishment of Maritime UK’s Women in Maritime programme in early 2018.  

“The entire room at the session was full of men in suits,” says Margareta Jensen Dickson, Stena Line’s chief people and communications officer. “In the wake of Hayes’ call for action, Stena Line walked the talk, signing a gender equality pledge to address the shortage of women on a group level.”  

Marica Derenstrand, chief financial officer at Stena Line, adds: “The maritime industry’s initiative built on the work by the finance and other sectors, which had earlier struggled to find female managers.”  

According to Jensen Dickson, Stena Line also used the technology industry as a benchmark for its ambition to reach 30 per cent women in management positions by 2020. “The technology industry is probably in the lead when it comes to a gender balance in decision-making,” she explains. 

Stena Line recruited “many” female managers between 2017 and 2020 but when Covid-19 hit, the brand was “almost back to square one with 1,400 layoffs”.  

“Most of the redundancies were in the onboard sales and services team, which typically has many female leaders,” says Jensen Dickson. “The female-dominated marketing and sales departments were also hit hard. Despite the Covid-19 setback, our ambition to reach 30 per cent of female staff in managerial positions remains, but with 2026 as the new target date. We are currently at around 21 to 22 per cent. In certain departments, this will arguably be a challenge. When I recently met with the officer’s unions, I didn’t see a single woman. The same goes for our operational port staff, although in late 2022 we recruited our first female port operations manager in Poland. A second female port operations manager has since joined us.”  

Improving diversity and inclusion 

Gender equality is part of a bigger strategy at Stena Line. “Our focus on gender marked the start of a bigger transformation,” says Elisabeth Lönne, the brand’s chief commercial officer. “We’re also focused on diversity and inclusion. Obviously, you can never move away from finding the right person with the right competence for the right position, but it is paramount to be an inclusive workplace, regardless of sexual orientation, age, disability, gender reassignment, religious or spiritual beliefs, ethnicity, and more.  

“This is also something that customers have come to expect from us – as an organisation we should mirror society. We need to understand our customers and we need to look like them. The bottom line is that it’s about making Stena Line better and stronger. Many studies have demonstrated that diversity, equity and inclusion are directly linked to profitability. A better workplace guarantees higher employee satisfaction which boosts customer satisfaction and profitability. It’s all very connected and it benefits the balance sheet.”    

Derenstrand agrees and calls for more women to be appointed to company boards. “The number of female board members are still few and far between. And the same goes for CEO and key commercial positions.” 

To help increase diversity, Stena Line has evolved from a Sweden-centric to a pan-European organisation. “Diversity is about having employees with a range of thoughts, perspectives and backgrounds,” says Jensen Dickson. “As a company we should mirror our customers, who are from all over Europe. Physically the headquarters are still in Gothenburg but emotionally we are Europe-wide. This has made us stronger and more successful because we are now closer to where the action is – it’s crucial to keep your ears to the ground.”   

Stena Line’s leaders count multiple nationalities within their diverse management teams and many of these employees work flexibly. “Essentially, I’m based where I’m required,” says Lönne. “I travel a lot, meeting colleagues in different locations, so I consider myself to be based in Europe rather than in Sweden. After Covid-19, we launched flexible working for all our office employees who can now work two days per week from anywhere. This is our mindset, yet another part of our recipe for commercial success.”  

All three women agree that Stena Line has adopted a new mentality and identity under Mårtensson’s leadership. “I remember my first leaders’ conference many years ago,” says Derenstrand. “Out of about 150 leaders, there were just five women. The picture looks really different today, something which makes me so proud – although men are still in the majority.”  

Jensen Dickson adds: “Our leaders’ conferences are a far cry from when I joined Stena Line nine years ago. The discussions are also totally different. Gender no longer matters – it’s all about the actions we take, the way we act and our behaviour.”  

Under Mårtensson’s impetus, Stena Line has also launched a diversity, equity and inclusion council comprising employees from different departments and regions. The LGBTQ+ community has always been well-represented in hospitality and Stena Line is no exception.  

“While we cannot generalise, historically we are the sort of industry that attracts members of the LGBTQ+ community,” says Jensen Dickson. “Although coming out is much easier today than it used to be, employer surveys have told us that there can still be issues with bullying and harassment, especially in more conservative countries. It’s very much generation-related and, with younger people joining, things are fortunately changing for the better.” 

Stena Line

Stena Line’s vessels provide reliable and regular services on multiple routes in Europe, allowing the brand to cater to changing customer demands

Responding to customer needs 

Stena Line is adapting its services to meet the ever-evolving needs and expectations of its diverse customer base. Over the past 25 years, ferry companies have been fighting a losing battle against the low-cost airlines that offer cheap flight policies, so who are the customers Stena Line wants to attract?   

“Times have changed,” explains Lönne. “We no longer offer a cruise-ferry-type product. We are a critical part of the European transport infrastructure, connecting people, places and societies, hence the ‘Connecting Europe for a Sustainable Future’ slogan painted on our ships’ hulls. Many of our passengers travel for work purposes, but they are not always like the typical business traveller who sits in an airport lounge. It’s people driving vans and trucks, but also individuals and families travelling by car to visit friends and relatives. People in their 20s and early 30s might choose other modes of transport but especially at weekends and during holidays, we have many children onboard – and they are our future customers.”  

Jensen Dickson underlines that Stena Line has customers of all ages, nationalities, ethnicities and sexual orientations. “For us it’s most important to understand our passengers, whoever they are, and offer them better value. The way we travel is changing quite a lot due to the demands of society. To be able to meet the new demands, we need to understand everyone’s needs. It’s not only about who’s travelling with us today but also who will travel with us tomorrow.”  

Derenstrand highlights that Stena Line’s role is to transport freight and people. “If there is no need for people to take our ferry from A to B, then we are probably not in the right location, making our product unnecessary. This is the very reason why we permanently closed a couple of routes in the aftermath of Covid-19. There was no real need for customers to travel on these routes.”  

Finding future talent 

One of the biggest challenges for Stena Line will be to find future talent, says Jensen Dickson.  

“It’s crucial as a company to take care of your staff,” she says. “You need to be a good employer to keep your employees. The change in demographics is a huge problem, with an imbalance between people retiring and people entering the labour market. Then there’s also a number of people who no longer want to work. It’s not the younger generation but rather 50-plus who haven’t reached their retirement age yet. Some were furloughed during Covid-19 and realised they managed to make ends meet. They have savings and some sell their house, so they can afford to live without earning money. A huge group of people is no longer available to us as talent. Yet another challenge is the implications of Brexit.”  

Another concern is the threat of artificial intelligence to white-collar employment. “Things are changing rapidly as AI will undoubtedly affect the office environment, especially when it comes to middle management,” says Jensen Dickson. “It is therefore crucial to understand the digital world. As an industry we need to be more tech savvy. We are struggling to understand it as we don’t know its impact yet and how it will affect us.” 

This article was first published in the Spring/Summer 2024 issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed. Subscribe  for FREE to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.  

Contact author


Subscribe to the Cruise & Ferry newsletter

  • ©2024 Tudor Rose. All Rights Reserved. Cruise & Ferry is published by Tudor Rose.