‘More questions than answers’ in gender debate

Co-chairs Synnove Hellund (centre) and Rob Fletcher (right) and the panel (left to right) Lara Barazi, Ole Christiansen, Birgit Schmidt-Puckhaber, Javier Ojeda, Selina Stead and Matthijs Metselaar

THERE is no wilful exclusion of women from aquaculture roles, but there is a generational issue of men avoiding the ‘difficulty of having a more diverse workplace’.

This was the view of Lara Barazi, CEO of Kephalonian Fisheries in Greece, one of six panellists (three women and three men) at a Women in Aquaculture seminar at the EAS conference in Berlin this week.

Barazi said the industry has a lot of challenges, ‘both image and actual’, and the workforce had to reflect these increasingly complex problems.

‘We have to be responsive to our stakeholders and to consumers, and our consumers are diverse, they are not just old, white men!’

Although gender imbalance is not a problem peculiar to the industry, there has been a recent drive to improve opportunities for women in the sector.

The Women in Aquaculture initiative was launched by the Fish Site at Aquaculture UK in Aviemore last year, and the Berlin forum, organised in conjunction with the EAS, provided a chance for women and men in the industry to continue the debate.

Co-chaired by the Fish Site’s Rob Fletcher and Nofima scientist Synnove Hellund, the meeting agreed that while there were plenty of women in aquaculture jobs – 70 per cent of the global workforce, in fact – they tended to be outnumbered by men in senior positions.

Fletcher said: ‘It is not only an ethical imperative to ensure gender balance, but also an economic one. Research shows that having more women on the board is economically very wise. Companies with mixed gender boards out-perform all-male boards.’

Hellund said at her research institute there are 60 per cent females at all levels, and at universities, the majority of masters and PhD students are female, but they are under-represented at higher levels. And most companies are also dominated by men at top management and boardroom level.

Birgit Schmidt-Puckhaber of the German Agriculture Society pointed out that at an innovation forum during the EAS conference that afternoon, much of the start-up technology was presented by young women, but the judges were mostly older men.

In aquaculture, as the industry becomes less labour intensive and more knowledge based and technology driven, the younger generation will benefit, and already there are more young women entering the sector, said panellist Matthijs Metselaar of Benchmark Animal Health, who has seen a rise in the number of female vets.

But women still faced specific hurdles, many related to trying to work and raise a family at the same time.

Panellist Selina Stead, director of the Institute of Aquaculture at the University of Stirling, recounted an experience earlier in her career, when she lost out to a male colleague when it was her turn for a sabbatical. It was based on length of service and she had taken maternity leave and he had not.

Professor Selina Stead

She voted with her feet and left, but in her subsequent post she did not have a full-time contract and lost all her maternity entitlements.
Since joining the IoA seven months ago, she said she had tried to support other women, and had introduced flexible hours to ease the path back to work for mothers. The option was also available to men, she added.

Barazi highlighted a dilemma for those women who had reached executive level – ‘being tough and not being called a bitch’.

‘How do you pitch your voice just right so that everybody listens to you without seeming shrill?’ she asked.

‘Soft skills can really make or break your career because you can get a reputation for not playing by the game…then it’s not easy when you’re climbing up the ranks.

‘You can easily be passed over for being difficult whereas a man with the same traits would be seen as ambitious and good at their job.’

She said this might be more of a problem in southern Europe, were attitudes were ‘less progressive’ than in the Nordic countries, but the response from the audience suggested otherwise.

Barazi said flexible and remote working could help women, and she had also introduced a creche at one farm site to try to make a difference for female employees.

Another panellist from southern Europe, Javier Ojeda, general manager of the Spanish Aquaculture Association, said he noticed a north/south divide at every EAS event, referring to the relative success of the salmon and sea bream and sea bass sectors.

But, he said, in Spain things were changing fast regarding gender rights, mostly thanks to legislation outlawing discrimination at work. He said he was optimistic.

‘In marine aquaculture, companies are relatively young, they are not big companies with old sclerotical structures, so it’s easier and I think they are more modern minded.’

Barazi said there are more women in top jobs in northern Europe because of affirmative action – for example, in Norway, on boards.

‘Sometimes you need to do this, to have quotas. It can be so hard to get your foot in the door.’

Professor Hillary Egna of Oregon State University, speaking from the floor, made another suggestion. She said disaggregated data (statistics broken down by gender to measure differences) was necessary to redress the balance.

‘Women and men need to know if they have a fair shot. So when we were talking about this being an individual voyage, yes you can be the best you can be, but there are systemic challenges at the top and barriers that still prevent women, when they reach the highest rung, from doing everything that any man can do.’

Gender equality was not just an individual challenge, but a community challenge, a global challenge and a cultural challenge, she added.

Stead said training was making a difference in raising awareness that gender problems exist. For instance, the Athena SWAN scheme (for advancing the careers of women in science) forces panels to do unconscious bias training.

She also stressed the importance of female role models and mentors, and said she had been lucky to have the generous support of her colleague, the late Dr Lindsey Laird.

Schmidt-Puckhaber said she had also benefited from the backing of her female professor at the start of her career.

And Metselaar agreed that mentoring could make a difference; he is one of nine mentors on a programme established last year by WiA. He mentors two early career female vets and said having a sounding board with someone in the same industry but from a different background was very valued.

He gave advice, such as, when applying for jobs, if you have five out of 10 of the requirements that is often enough. Women were too cautious about their abilities – ‘be prepared not to get the job, but at least apply for it’.

Panellist Ole Christiansen of BioMar said he thought women should speak up more and if they really wanted a promotion they should say so.

Other advice from the panellists included joining networks, which Barazi said would help women learn what rights they have.

Stead also said sitting on panels was useful, and she advised women to have a plan and think two jobs ahead. And she said joining the EAS had opened doors for her (she is a past president of the society).

The seminar was the final session of a busy day but drew a large number of delegates, both male and female, and overran due to the lively Q and A session.

Fletcher summed up by saying: ‘We’ve asked as many questions as we’ve answered; this is an ongoing project and let’s keep moving forward.’