WSI, under new director, working to scale up its impact
For six years since its founding in 2016, WSI – the International Organization for Women in the Seafood Industry – has advocated for greater gender equality in the seafood industry, led by founder and president Marie-Christine Monfort.
At the start of 2022, Monfort stepped down from her role, and Camille Cherques, previously the organization’s head of programs, stepped in to serve as director of WSI. Now, Cherques said she is hoping to continue to grow the organization and increase its influence.
Cherques told SeafoodSource WSI has evolved from what was once a relatively small organization to a larger one with a wide range of staff.
“It was a key year, because WSI is growing and developing quickly, and a lot,” Cherques said. “We need more people, and we are in the process of being more professional. In the past, it was the hard work of volunteers with small budgets, and now we are really trying to grow and hire, and that’s why we’re expanding our partnership because we’re looking for new opportunities, new partnerships, new projects.”
Since its founding, WSI has had a growing presence in the seafood industry, and its analysis has shown that women have played a larger role in managing seafood companies in the past few years. A WSI report released in 2020 found the representation of women on global seafood companies grew to 14.4 percent in 2020, up from 9.1 percent in 2016.
However, that number is still low compared to the importance of women in the seafood industry as a whole. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations estimates that while women represent 15 percent of the harvesting workforce globally, they represent 70 percent of the aquaculture workforce and 80 to 90 percent of the processing workforce.
Early in the pandemic, WSI began cataloguing the various ways the pandemic impacted women more heavily in the seafood industry, finding COVID-19 deepened the gender inequalities present in the seafood industry, Cherques said. A study by the University of New Hampshire found seafood industry workers were twice as likely to contract COVID-19 compared to other professions. Specifically, seafood industry workers in close-quarters processing roles saw some of the highest risks – and nearly 90 percent of that workforce is women.
The good news for WSI, Cherques said, is that more companies than ever in the seafood industry are paying attention to the issues of gender equality.
“There’s a lot more events, a lot more visibility, and companies are a lot more receptive because they feel that there is a huge recruitment issue and a huge talent pool to foster and value, so they understand the issues,” Cherques said. “Also in the press, there has been more stories about human rights issues – maybe not women’s rights issues – but at least the human rights at sea subject has grown so much that the whole social dimension has triggered more interest from CEOs, HR, and CSR managers. It’s a really interesting dynamic we’re in.”
The increased attention is evident in how many are instituting programs to promote the role of women in seafood. Kvaroy Arctic, for example, has implemented a Women in Aquaculture Scholarship program devoted to increasing access to financing, education, and training opportunities for women.
Sri Lanka-based Taprobane Seafoods – the largest seafood company in the country – became the first seafood company in Sri Lanka to establish a sustainability team specifically devoted to areas like diversity and inclusion. The all-women team is focusing on environmental sustainability as well.
“We are proud to launch the sustainability team and to be the first to do so in the Sri Lankan seafood industry,” Taprobane Head of Diversity and Inclusion Sunela Samaranayake said. “Being part of such a diverse all-female leadership team and with a 78 percent female workforce ratio, we are passionate about setting benchmarks in D&I to pave the way for others in the industry to follow suit.”
Cherques said gender equality benefits everyone and examples of positive changes stemming from gender equality are abundant. Equality is also essential to one of the key issues facing the seafood industry: environmental sustainability and meeting the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).
“SDG 5, on gender equality, is really intertwined with SDG 14 [life below water],” Cherques said. “Seafood companies are really interested in ocean sustainability and preserving stocks and biodiversity and the marine environment, and they see they can’t do that without the women because the women take such a huge role and responsibility in that area.”
Economic and social aspects of seafood production are innately tied to gender equality, especially given the role women play in some of the initial parts of the seafood supply chain, Cherques said.
“If you want to achieve sustainability, you have to take into account the economical and social aspects and that includes gender equality,” Cherques said.
The subject of advocating for women in the industry is a complicated one, Cherques said, and more work is needed to understand the issues and advocate for women in seafood.
“It’s a really complex subject and it demands more data, more explanation, more support, both financial and human resource. There’s such a huge gap, and we have a road ahead of us,” Cherques said.
Cherques said she remains optimistic that positive work is being done, but said she’s still realistic about the work ahead for WSI, especially given the WSI’s latest report released on International Human Rights Day, which highlighted a number of findings regarding gender equality in seafood.
“You have a huge pool of women-led initiatives. You also have stories about discrimination, but also the solutions to the problem. So it’s really a great source of inspiration for everyone who’s interested – a government, a company an NGO, a local NGO, a community – it’s a great source of inspiration from country to country and region to region. So we try to continue that work of documentation and having that watch over what’s happening throughout the world.”
Through it all, Cherques said the best way to make progress on gender equality is open dialogue and collaboration between different companies and stakeholders.
“There’s a lot of companies that are working on their own and in their own corner,” Cherques said. “It’s a slow cultural process, and in a company it can be really complicated and slow, but if we would collaborate more and cooperate more and get everyone around the table for the subject – like we did for overfishing – maybe we could advance things faster.”
Photo courtesy of Louise Dejour