Seafood Summit emphasises the vital role women play in the seafood industry

Dr Alice Miller, our Social Research and Programme Director, reports back from SeaWeb’s Seafood Summit, held in Malta 1-3 February 2016.
Dr Alice Miller, IPNLF, convened and facilitated the session. Devin Harvey courtesy of the SeaWeb Seafood Summit.

On Tuesday morning, as SeaWeb’s annual Seafood Summit was getting into its stride, myself and Emily convened a session called ‘A New Agender: Sex and the Seafood Industry’s People, Profits and Production’, to specifically address the role of women in the seafood industry. In the lead up to this session, it turned out that even the process of thinking of a title was an interesting and illuminating experience for me. Originally, it was listed in the Summit programme under the more neutral heading ‘Women in Seafood’, but those of us who were organising the session felt this title might not necessarily generate as much interest as we would like among Summit participants. So instead, we took the somewhat more risqué route, falling back on the old adage that ‘sex sells’. Ironically, this title choice did raise a couple of eyebrows for that very reason, some felt it would sell the wrong message and bring to mind (unfortunately not-too-distant) memories of women in bikinis advertising seafood of various kinds at seafood shows thus cheapening the importance of what we wanted to discuss. In deciding our choice of title, it was brought home to me just how complex and worthy of attention having a session dedicated to talking about the role women are playing in the seafood industry is. 

IPNLF launched their film 'Women at the Water-Front' at the session.

To kick the session off, we presented IPNLF’s video ‘Women at the Water-Front’, which through the voices of women we work with offered two steps that IPNLF feel will sensitise current business leaders and policymakers to the value women can bring: Step 1 – Establish a reporting system that provides clear international data – available to all – on where exactly women are working in seafood and where they are contributing to the supply chain; and Step 2 – Examine the seafood industry workplace and consider whether there are people being underutilised, and whether there is balance in teams, with everyone in the right role.

Despite being integral to the organisation of the workshop, Marie-Christine Monfort, economist and leading voice on women in the seafood industry and author of the vital FAO publication ‘The Role of Women in the Seafood Industry’ was unfortunately not able to attend the session. However, she did take the time to record an excellent video for us, sharing some key findings from her research. She concluded that recognising the importance of women and including them in decision making and decision making processes “is not for the sake of women but for the benefit of the industry; this is not to be fair, this is to be smart”.

Following both introductory videos it was time for quick-fire presentations from panellists, describing their experiences in the seafood industry.

Ashley Apel, Fair Trade USA, started by explaining that through Fair Trade programmes, women have moved into leadership roles and that dialogue on social and financial systems has opened up within their communities.

Sandra Hinni, Migros, shared that while the majority of Migros’ employees are women, they remain underrepresented at the managerial and board level. Concluding, she stressed that women should have confidence in themselves to demand their fair positions in the workplace.

Duncan Leadbitter, Fish Matter, said in order to drive reform we need to get people together, that the sustainable seafood movement is as much about culture and commerce as it is about conservation. He proposed looking at whether fishery improvement projects can take on social issues, including gender, if mutually agreed by stakeholders; and looking to secure funding for a two or three year process that develops a ‘how to’ guide for this.

Helen Packer, Anova, Fishing & Living, outlined some of her work with the Fishing & Living programme saying fishers' wives are involved in capacity building through small-scale enterprises and finance management. She expressed amazement that of the 100 top seafood companies globally only one has a female CEO and said there is an opportunity for women in the seafood sector to be 'agents of change'.

Reflecting on Helen’s fact about female representation, Elisabeth Fischer, IntraFish, outlined challenges she’d heard of from interviews she’d conducted for the IntraFish series on Women in Seafood, including: preconceived expectations of male industry veterans; inflexibly of industry to family life; and sensitivity to positive discrimination quotas. She finished by saying that if those in a power base actively focus on equality this will lead to innovation and bottom line improvements. 

It was then time for group discussion, and participants broke into three groups to discuss: examples of best and worst practice where the role of women has been notable in its presence/absence and lessons that could be taken forward from these examples; solutions and innovations that would support mainstreaming gender balance into industry activities; and women in seafood “Room 101" (1) – consigning the top five ‘pet hates’ on women in the seafood industry to oblivion. Here’s a brief summary capturing what came out of these sessions.

Best and worst practise

Describing their discussions as “free-flowing”, the group summarised some key points they had covered. Regarding worst practice, they highlighted issues such as under-representation in international fora and at events meant women’s contribution to reported company successes may not be known or acknowledged. They pointed to global imbalances in access to education, explaining this reduces the professional opportunities offered to females and limits the chance of mainstreaming balanced participation in the seafood industry. Regarding best practices, the group welcomed the strong female participation in the NGO community. They concluded by stressing the need to motivate women with strong ideas to “stand up and speak up for themselves” and to serve as role models for others.


Reporting back, the group underscored the need to mainstream the conversation more, suggesting: more public dialogues happening at events and conferences like the one we were in, adding that there is a need for more information and active awareness raising to get more stories out there. On this, the group stressed that this isn’t a “call to battle” but that this is an issue of interest that requires greater focus.

They said that there is quite a lot of money going in to gender programmes in developing countries and while that should continue and increase, it is important to note that currently, there is not much mainstreaming in developed countries.

Three proposals suggested to support this mainstreaming were: a scholarships and leadership programme for women in the seafood industry; a SeaWeb prize recognising excellence in promoting and achieving gender balance in the seafood industry; and a dedicated plenary session at the next Seafood Summit.

Top 5 candidates for women in seafood Room 101

1. Hearing women described in terms of "how pretty she is" rather than what she is saying, with the group urging that people open the conversation wider and encourage focus on content over appearance.

2. #Manel to describe the often-seen all-male panels and predominantly male seafood conferences. To this the group said that we should begin to have conversations with colleagues/organisers that challenge the male-voice dominance and eliminate #Manel.

3. The propensity of women in executive roles acting overtly masculine in an attempt to succeed in a “man's world”. Explaining this devalues archetypal female traits/behaviours, and continues the status quo of apparently needing to be masculine to succeed. Noting this is not unique to the seafood sector they added that even the author JK Rowling felt she needed to take this approach in her early career by not using a woman's name in authorship.

4. The use of prejudiced language of power, for instance, when a man is in an authoritative leadership role synonyms such as powerful or assertive are used; but when a woman is in a similar role, or displays similar traits, words with negative association such as bossy are used.

5. One-dimensional perspectives in power-groups at the “top” adding that having only male voices limits creativity and innovation, which not good for business!

As the session drew to a close, I was able to look around and see groups of people enthusiastically discussing their experiences and the issues covered in the session. It was really heartening to see that the first-ever session at the Summit dedicated to discussing an issue so deserving of the spotlight had been well-received. Working on sustainability in tuna fisheries, we at IPNLF have an amazing opportunity to look at ways we can incorporate the learnings and recommendations into the work we are doing with one-by-one tuna fisheries and the markets they supply to. Watch this space to learn more… 

(1) Room 101 is a term that originated from George Orwell’s novel 1984 and represents a room in which a person’s greatest dislikes reside. The term is now used to refer a fictional room where a person can nominate to put something they dislike the most and it will never be seen again.