Redressing a persistent imbalance

Originally published in the Eurofish Magazine, December 6/2020

Women in the Seafood Industry (WSI) is a non-profit organisation dedicated to eliminating the gender discrimination that is widespread in the seafood sector. Globally, one in two workers in the seafood industry is female, but they dominate the lower echelons of the sector and are woefully underrepresented at the top. Marie Christine Monfort, executive director of WSI together with Christelle Vigot, the president, and Benjamin Cavalli, the secretary, argue here for the importance of a gender equal industry. The three form the executive committee of WSI and, with their different backgrounds, represent a broad vision and understanding of the fisheries and aquaculture industry from a gender equality perspective. Broadly, their organisation raises awareness of gender inequality issues, advocates to reduce discrimination, and seeks to inspire changes in the sector.

The right to equality between women and men is already enshrined in several international documents such as the founding charter of the UN, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), as well as European Union Treaties, many of which are decades old, yet discrimination persists. What is the reason for this and what more can be done to improve the situation?

The international texts describe an ideal but they are not binding. There is a huge gap between what these institutions strive to achieve and the reality in the field. The gap is closed when on the one side institutions provide the means to implement the changes (financial, human, and legal) and on the other side the industry itself realises that gender inequality is a handicap that needs to be addressed. WSI intends to act on both sides—by lobbying institutions to act and by raising awareness among industry stakeholders.

While women account for almost half the workforce in the seafood industry, they are under-represented in the higher paid positions and over-represented in the lower skilled and lower paid segment. The reasons for this must vary from country to country, but are there some common factors that affect women everywhere?

I think we should split these two aspects. Yes, women occupy the low segment of the work in the seafood industry, as in other labour-intensive industries. They dominate the seafood processing industry, with employment rates of up to 90% in some countries. The reasons have diverse sociological and economic origins: women are more constrained than men and accept lower wages; their earnings are considered complementary income to the main household income (the man’s); they are perceived as more flexible; and being in charge of the household and caring for the family they have less time to engage in trade-unions, etc.

At the top of the pyramid, women in boards are no more than 15% (WSI data 2020) as incentive and advancement practices give priority to males. The informal setting (relationships, networks, information flow, mentoring…), where a career is made, also favours men. Consequently, women are held back from climbing the corporate hierarchy, which makes it more difficult to promote women to the top. We see that the seafood industry originates from and maintains a patriarchal system, where rules are made by men for men.

Do you see a connection between the disparities between male and female workers in the fisheries sector and the unsustainable exploitation of many stocks? Could female empowerment also contribute to a more environmentally sustainable fisheries sector? Could you mention an example to support this?

What we see is that globally marine resource managed by men are in poor shape. Over exploitation and mismanagement are common traits. Enabling women to participate in marine exploitation and ecosystem preservation policies could hardly add to the catastrophe. So yes, if by empowering women you mean giving them the same position as men, we say yes. It is worth trying. Note that shellfish fisheries in Galicia which are co-managed by women and the local authorities are giving very good results. Similarly, Mexico offers good examples of inclusive management and sustainable outcomes.

One of the ways to reduce discrimination may be to create quotas for women to secure a more gender-balanced representation. For example, in Norwegian publicly listed companies a proportion of board members must be women. Do you see quotas as a way of advancing the cause of women in the fisheries sector?

Speaking only of discrimination in high level management, quotas have proven that they can be part of the solution. Norway is an excellent example. However, if a society were truly egalitarian, we would not need quotas. With no constraints, with only the will of men, nothing will change. Why should it? So in this imperfect environment we need an imperfect rule. But discrimination is embedded in the culture. Quotas will not solve everything.

The empowerment of women in the fisheries sector is likely to be most successful if it is supported by men as well. Does the potential to lose this support exist if efforts to create awareness of the conditions of women working in badly paid jobs ignore the conditions of men in the same jobs? Can women’s rights be promoted in ways that also benefit their male counterparts?

We will not lose the support of men, because we don’t have it yet! It must be understood that all the good developed for women will also benefit men. This has been proven by piles of articles: when society takes care of women, the entire community benefits.

Equal access to education and healthcare, and freedom from discrimination, harassment, exploitation, and violence are already laid down by law at least in most European countries. Would not the equitable implementation of the law achieve a large part of what Women in the Seafood Industry is trying to realise?

Yes. The failure of the system is the “raison d’être” of WSI, as of any NGO.

Reducing discrimination and empowering women implies a new social structure where men take on more of the roles that women have traditionally occupied such as household work and child rearing. What is the best way to encourage this and would it contribute to effecting the changes your organisation is seeking?

There is no need to make a revolution to further evolution. Reducing some discrimination does not necessarily imply a reshaping of social patterns. For instance addressing the pay gap, training, mentoring, access to finance, etc. can have a tremendous impact. A lot can be done now.

As a professional fighting for greater equality between the sexes in the fisheries industry, have you personally experienced discrimination based on your gender? Who are your role models in this struggle?

Every day WSI receives messages from women around the world who complain that sexual discrimination of all sorts blights their working lives. There is a lack of role models in this industry. We take this opportunity to call women to act as role models, and we also call for male gender champions. Both would inspire women and men to act towards a more gender equal system.