Wanted: new host

The launch of WiSA, 2019, (from left): Graham Black of Marine Scotland, Charlotte Maddocks and Heather Jones

A ground-breaking body set up to encourage the development of women in aquaculture is looking for a new supporter, as Sandy Neil reports

Women in Scottish Aquaculture (WiSA), a network dedicated to supporting the growth and development of women in the aquaculture sector, is seeking a new host to ensure the group continues its impactful work in the future.

WiSA was founded by the Sustainable Aquaculture Innovation Centre (SAIC), which up to now has hosted the organisation and provided vital administrative support. Now, with SAIC itself required to operate with a much narrower focus, WiSA’s future depends on finding alternative support.

WiSA was formed on International Women’s Day in 2019 following a consultation of 200 people working in the aquaculture sector.

Nearly all (90%) of the respondents were keen to see a network of support for women working or considering a career in the industry. At that time, published research showed that only 12% of the aquaculture workforce was female.

At the launch, SAIC’s chief executive Heather Jones said: “Diversity matters – research shows that it can significantly impact business performance, with companies that commit to diverse leadership likely to be more successful than those who don’t.

“Equality is a universal value that Scotland champions and SAIC is proud to be a founding member of the Women in Scottish Aquaculture network. We’re committed to delivering positive change through this initiative over the next five years.”

WiSA carries out a range of activities, including mentoring schemes connecting early-stage professionals together with experienced aquaculture leaders. One participant said: “The mentoring programme is such a positive, supportive experience. As a mentor, it’s great to have sight of the wealth of talent already within the industry, and really rewarding to be able to help develop people’s confidence and experience to reach their goals.”

A dedicated virtual forum was launched in October 2021, funded by Marine Scotland, providing a space for WiSA members to connect with and support one another, access events and share career opportunities. WiSA also hosted a Scottish Government-funded returners’ training programme for women looking to get back to work after a career break.

A New Wave of Talent campaign, in collaboration with SAIC and rural skills body Lantra, featured videos of young women and men at work to promote aquaculture careers. The WiSA Awards were also launched in 2021 to recognise exceptional women in the sector.

By WiSA’s third anniversary in 2022, more women had been welcomed into the sector. Speaking at a celebration in March that year, Heather Jones reported: “In the three years that it takes a salmon to transform from fertilised egg to adult fish, WiSA has gone from a nascent idea to a mature organisation, full of life, energy and impact. We now have a well-established peer-to-peer network for women, supporting one another in what is still, numerically at least, a male-dominated sector.

Mairi Gougeon at WiSA event, Edinburgh

Mairi Gougeon at WiSA event, Edinburgh

“In many cases, cultures and attitudes are already changing and we have seen some great progress made through the likes of recruitment approaches, parental leave policies and gender pay gap reporting. However, there is always more that can be done and WiSA has an important role to play in making that happen.”

Rural Affairs Secretary, Mairi Gougeon MSP, added: “Since 2019, Women in Scottish Aquaculture has proved to be an invaluable organisation that showcases the many career opportunities for women in a sector which plays a key role in our economy.

“The peer-to-peer support of the network is outstanding and encourages more young women with science, technology, engineering and maths-related degrees to take up careers in aquaculture.

“I am proud the support provided by the Scottish Government to the network has helped make a real difference in attracting and retaining the skills of talented women in the aquaculture sector.”

Since its inception, WiSA has now grown to almost 400 members, including representatives from finfish, shellfish, and seaweed, operating in industry, government, academia, and non-governmental organisations. WiSA membership is open to anyone, of any gender, studying or working in Scottish aquaculture.

“WiSA is an achievement in that it continues to be a shining example of how working together can improve equality so that our children can look forward to a brighter, fairer future with rewarding careers,” said Robin McLean, former WiSA Advisory group member.

“I was very proud to be involved with WiSA from the beginning and it is fantastic to see how much has been achieved so far,” said Rowena Hoare, former WiSA Co-Chair in 2022. “It allows women a safe space in which to develop skills. Often just talking with others in the same situation, or those who are further ahead in their career, can be extremely helpful. It is encouraging to see the impact WiSA has had on equality and inclusion in the industry.”

WiSA launch, Scottish Parliament

WiSA launch, Scottish Parliament

Future in question
Now, in its fifth year, WiSA is looking for a lifeline after its founding body has had to step back. Up until now, SAIC has administered WiSA, using in-house expertise and staff time, with financial support from industry and government.

Last year SAIC’s own main source of finance, the Scottish Funding Council, announced it would cease funding SAIC. Under a new package of support announced last month, SAIC’s funding has been secured, but on a transitional basis and at a more limited scale, and it will operate with a much narrower focus.

WiSA explained: “The innovation centre announced it had secured a new funding package to sharpen its focus on helping to deliver research and development on finfish health and wellbeing, but its new focus means SAIC will have to step back from providing administrative support for WiSA.”

At the Aquaculture UK trade show in Aviemore, WiSA issued a call to any potential sponsors. In a flier issued at the show’s conference, WiSA said: “WiSA is looking for a new host organisation to fund or fundraise in order to administer and deliver our key initiatives alongside our advisory group. If you share our vision and passion, then please come and speak with us about how you can help make sure WiSA continues to exist.”

In a video address to the WiSA session, the Minister for Rural Affairs, Land Reform and Islands, Mairi Gougeon, said that she wanted to see support for WiSA’s work and added: “The Scottish Government is committed to working with you in the future.” She added: “I have met many inspiring women in aquaculture… but there are still barriers to entry.”

SAIC will hold meetings through June and July with prospective WiSA host organisations, with the aim of identifying a new host in August and handing over responsibilities in September.

SAIC’s Chief Executive Heather Jones told us: “I founded WiSA because I am passionate about supporting and promoting the role of women in aquaculture. The network has proven to be a vital step in helping the sector to grow. We are now calling on organisations who share our vision to step forward and help us ensure WiSA’s initiatives continue to thrive.”

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