FAO report addresses gender imbalance in seafood industry

Published on
May 13, 2015

The FAO GLOBEFISH report on the “role of women in the seafood industry” is a long time coming, according to Dr. Audun Lem, deputy director of the FAO Policy and Economics Division, which commissioned the work.

“This report signifies a recognition within [the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization] that the role of women in the sector is important, but is not given the attention it deserves. We tend to focus on the role of women in traditional areas such as processing and local selling, where they may have little power to effect change, and have largely ignored the wider value chain,” he explained.

“By investigating the global situation and identifying areas for improvement, we hope that it will help industry to recognise the potential for attracting qualified women into the sector, because they are important for its successful future,” he said.

The report points out that for more than 30 years, research has been carried out, reports published and debates organized on the issue of discrimination against women, but in the seafood industry the level of awareness about the important role they play is still very limited amongst stakeholders.

“It became obvious to us in recent years, attending international conferences and debates where the majority of speakers were male, and in some cases 100 percent male, that the make-up of industry was not reflected adequately, nor was the role of women within it portrayed,” Lem said. “There are many qualified women in academia and in seafood businesses, especially in areas such as technology, food safety and quality assurance, and we would like to see this reflected at such fora.”

Taking the whole supply chain into consideration, women represent about half of the total workforce. In many areas, however, their participation is constrained by cultural rules, societal conventions and by discriminatory laws.

“Women are present in all sectors of the industry, and despite the fact that one in every two seafood workers is a woman, many remain invisible. They are efficient workers, yet are most often underpaid, and they do not receive the same public support as men,” said the report’s author Marie Christine Monfort.

“It is 20 years since the Beijing World Conference on Gender Equity, but much remains to be done by the public and private sectors in most developing and developed countries, to improve the balance.”

The report includes case studies from Croatia, Egypt, France, Iceland, India and Senegal and looks at the level of information available around the globe on women’s roles in industry.

“I found that far more information was available from developing countries such as Senegal and India, because these important fishing and aquaculture nations have received the attention of gender-sensitive development aid agencies. By contrast, knowledge of the participation of women in the seafood industry in France is dramatically poor,” said Monfort.

She found that in both developing and developed countries, the seafood industry continues to be ruled by patriarchy, where hierarchy, authority, power, competition, development and control of human and natural resources is shaped by men.

In some countries women are barred from some seafood-related jobs, such as going to sea on-board fishing vessels. They may be deprived of ownership rights, and thus hindered from running fishing or fish farming businesses, or they may not be allowed to access finance and insurance services. Limited access to capital reduces their capacity to invest in modern technology for fishing, farming, processing and storing fish, and also limits their capacity to upgrade knowledge and skills. The presence and participation of women at decision-making levels is even rarer, and at top management level they are simply excluded.

Lem hopes that by disseminating the report’s findings widely, it will bring greater awareness of gender issues and become a catalyst for change. A major aim is to encourage more women to consider the seafood industry as an attractive career choice. But first it needs to shake off its image as a male-dominated “club” and careful handling will be needed to overcome ingrained cultural differences. This is especially important given the enormous challenges the sector is facing to ensure adequate seafood supplies to feed a growing world population.

Aquaculture in particular is seen as an area where women could excel, and with this sector accounting for 50 percent or more of the world’s food fish supply and rising, there is an excellent opportunity for them to play a major part in improving local, national and global food security.

Lem explained that the report is not a one-off but the starting point for discussion, and for a strategy that is currently being formed. One element of this is to examine how FAO could help to set up a network of professional women in the seafood sector, to mentor others and highlight opportunities in the field.

“With all the talk of gender imbalance, we must not forget men!” stated Lem.

“The aim is to make industry inclusive rather than exclusive, and to obtain a better balance for the benefit of industry itself,” he added. “To do that, everyone must be involved in the discussion and at all levels.”

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