Female ship captain awarded $3.6 million in discrimination lawsuit

Captain Katharine Sweeney was the first woman to pursue a ship's pilot's license in Puget Sound, and claims the all-male evaluating committee discriminated against her. Last week, a jury agreed, awarding her $3.6 million. Elisa Hahn reports.

SEATTLE -- She wanted to become the first nautical pilot in the Puget Sound. But Captain Katherine Sweeney said she came up against a "good ol' boys' network" and widespread nepotism.

Last week, a jury agreed and awarded her a $3.6 million verdict.

All her years in the shipping industry, Sweeney was used to being one of the only women in the room.

She captained container ships for Matson Navigation for seven years. At the time, Sweeney was one of three women in the world at the helm of such a ship.

"I started out my career and worked myself up and made it through all the levels and became captain," said Sweeney. "And it was really an incredible experience."

It was an experience that includes many accolades and awards, including the Aotos Award for rescuing a crew of Japanese fishermen after their ship sank in a typhoon in 2003.

"That was quite an honor," she remembered.

All of that work was toward one goal: to become a pilot, one of the experienced handlers who guide the vessels in and out of Puget Sound.

"Being a pilot is at the upper echelon of the industry. That's the top," said Sweeney. "Being a captain is great, but being a pilot is the end of the line."

But pursuing her pilot's license ended up being the end of her career.

In 2007, Sweeney was admitted to the pilot training program run by the Washington Board of Pilotage Commissioners. One of her attorneys argued she scored as well as the male trainees, but the men were "cut slack" because of the tradition of an all-male community and nepotism.

"Up until 2007, in their 100-year history there had never been a woman on the board," said her attorney Deborah Senn. "There was no woman on the training committee. And Capt. Sweeney was the first woman in the training program, so there was no woman pilot."

Despite her skills and experience, Sweeney claimed she was held to a different standard than the male trainees, and that there was widespread nepotism in the program. At the end of her training, the commission voted against issuing her a pilot's license.

"I had spent 15 years of my career track becoming a pilot," said Sweeney. "I went through all the training and the prerequisites and it was really hard. I had to come home and tell my family what had happened, and it was really devastating."

She sued the state's Board of Pilotage Commissioners, which is largely appointed by the governor. A spokesperson said they were disappointed in the decision, but could not discuss the lawsuit further because they may appeal the verdict.

The governor's office declined to comment about the case, but was committed to racial, gender and geographic diversity in all the governor's appointments.

Sweeney has given up on her dream of becoming a pilot and now works as an industry safety consultant. She hopes her legal battle will mean smoother sailing for other women.

"Hopefully, as a result of this lawsuit, this door will change and it'll open for the next woman," she said. "But I think it's pretty much shut for me."


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