Just three years ago, men outnumbered women in Scotland’s aquaculture industry by almost ten to one. Is the gender imbalance improving?

In 2018 women made up only 19% of the aquaculture workforce globally. In Europe that figure was 22%, according to a UN report State of the World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2020. That same year in Scotland, the gender imbalance was even greater: only 11% of salmon farm workers and 15% of shellfish farm workers were women, according to the Scottish Government.

The scale of this inequality, and the challenge ahead to fix it, was starkly revealed by a study published in May 2018 by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) for the Aquaculture Industry Leadership Group. The report, Skills Review for the Aquaculture Sector in Scotland, found a “significant” gender imbalance in both the present workforce and in those coming into it.

This was both “horizontal” (i.e. a gender division in types of roles) and “vertical” (i.e. a gender division based on occupational levels).

“Females tend to work in support roles e.g. administration, HR, finance, etc.,” the report explained. “Roles in aquaculture have traditionally been quite manual, which may have meant that women either self-exclude and also, that employers may have consciously or unconsciously been biased in their recruitment between men and women. However, innovation and adoption of technology and automated systems means that aquaculture roles are now, or are becoming, less labour-intensive. This may make it more attractive to a wider pool of workers, including women.

“Women are under-represented in managerial positions. Conversely, women are over-represented in low-skilled manual roles, for example in processing. This is an untapped resource that could have a significant impact on skills shortages across the sector, and the roles within it. Women could also play a key role in addressing succession planning and leadership challenges.”

The gender imbalance will not equalise soon, the report notes: “Males have accounted for over 85% of those enrolling on Fish Production/Fisheries FE-level College courses from 2010/11 to 2015/16.”

Something had to be done – but what? The solution, HIE advised, was “more promotion of the sector as a career opportunity for school leavers, graduates and other potential recruits”.

On International Women’s Day, 8 March 2019, the Women in Scottish Aquaculture (WiSA) initiative was launched by Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre (SAIC).

The SAIC’s CEO Heather Jones, who led the campaign to form WiSA, explained: “Our aim is to raise awareness of the opportunities available to women in the industry, encourage more female participation at all levels in the sector, and provide support to those entering or already working within aquaculture. The industry is full of potential; however, if it isn’t attracting the best people from across the talent pool, it’s unlikely to fulfil that.”

The pitch was succinctly made by WiSA’s co-chairs, Dr Teresa Garzon and Dr Rowena Hoare, in a blog for Marine Scotland during Scotland’s Food and Drink Fortnight in September 2020. “One main misconception about a career in aquaculture is that it is a career involving ‘beefy’ physical work and that the sector is utterly male-dominated. However, the industry is at the cutting edge of technology, using sophisticated equipment to monitor livestock, feeding regimens, etc. Scotland’s aquaculture sector is full of people committed to improving the sustainability of the industry with an overriding focus on fish health and welfare.”

In December 2019, WiSA was granted £50,000 from the Scottish Government and industry sponsors to deliver a mentoring scheme to help develop the careers of women already working in the sector, and a website to promote aquaculture and job opportunities to women.

WiSA highlights many examples of women working in diverse roles in the industry. One of those is Tracy Bryant-Shaw, Head of HR & Business Support at Scottish Sea Farms, who joined the company six years ago from the banking sector.

“There is a gender imbalance that is not going to be changed overnight,” she said: “Certainly in Scottish Sea Farms we have actively tried to change. That includes writing job adverts that are less gender specific, and that speak to as many people as possible, changing our approach for a female audience, and showing off the success of the women we have.

“As a result, we have seen more and more women come through the door and two of our female employees were named Finfish Farm Manager of the Year and Rising Star in the Aquaculture UK Awards in 2018. I’m proud of the number of women who work in senior levels now, although we do need to focus more on diversity and inclusion and build policies that represent that, and our changing workforce.”

Another example is Charlotte Maddocks, Regional Health Manager at Mowi Scotland, who holds an MSc in Aquatic Veterinary Studies, a BSc in Marine Biology, and a veterinary degree from Bristol University. “As a vet student you are a commodity, four females to every one male,” she said. “When I went into farming and aquaculture, I quickly spotted a stark difference in the balance. In aquaculture it was easy to see that the majority of people in the industry happen to be male.”

“This motivated me to bring something different to the conversation, although I did take a while to find my voice,” she added. “I soon learned that by speaking up I had lots to contribute, and the more I did the more confident I became. So now when I am in a room and happen to be the only person who is female, I see it as an opportunity to speak up.

“There are times when inappropriate things are said. As much as possible I try to stop the conversation and call it out as being inappropriate or point out the fact privately one to one. Both are tough but necessary. It would be nice to get to a point where you no longer have to correct others.”

Laura Rubio Martinez

An international perspective was brought by Dr Laura Rubio Martinez, writing in October 2020 about her experience coordinating all Mowi Feed research projects in Norway and Scotland.

“In general,” she said, “Norway is a country where the gender equality is a reality that you can see, not only ‘on paper’ but also in the attitude of most of the people I have come across since I moved in 2014.”

Encouragingly, most of WiSA’s interviewees said they had not experienced any discrimination.

WiSA also launched a Facebook networking group, and an online platform hosted on SAIC’s website. The inaugural WiSA mentoring programme met in January 2020 at SAMS in Oban for a day of training sessions for mentors and mentees, with all 20 places filled. Through one-to-one sessions, it provided training and support, building up skills such as creating a network, making career decisions, cultivating leadership styles, and building confidence.

Following its “huge success”, the programme returned in January 2021, to “match some of the most influential leaders, both male and female in aquaculture with aspiring women in the industry looking to develop their careers and skills”.

The scheme is recommended by one of last year’s participants Laura Tulip, an Environmental Analyst at Mowi Scotland.

“It enabled me to network with colleagues from a wide range of areas within the sector, and established connections with people that have continued since,” she said.

Mary Fraser (L) and Teresa Garzon

In February this year, WiSA launched a new initiative to support women in rural Scotland to return to the workplace after career breaks, focusing on the range of opportunities available within the sector. Evidence suggests women still face barriers when returning to work after an extended absence, with many experiencing a “motherhood penalty” following maternity leave. The Scottish government’s Women Returners Fund was established to help address some of these issues, with a focus on rebuilding skills, knowledge and confidence.

Backed by the fund, WiSA will support up to 50 women with career coaching, confidence training, and mentoring. The month-long series of free workshops and events will kick off with an introduction to aquaculture, and later sessions will include careers and performance coaching, interview skills, CV writing and confidence building. It will also offer one-to-one mentoring sessions with experienced aquaculture professionals.

WiSA’s co-chair Dr Teresa Garzon said: “Our returners programme aims to give women the skills and confidence to get back into employment, and address any of the challenges they might face on their return.

“Aquaculture is a forward-thinking, innovative industry, and access to a diverse talent pool will be a crucial element of helping the sector to continue to grow. Through the WiSA network, we hope to create a positive community that supports professional development and provides women with the tools and skills needed to help build successful and rewarding careers.”

“Women shouldn’t have to make a choice between taking care of family and a successful career,” added Yvonne Booth, Senior Environmental Analyst at Mowi Scotland: “Support should be given to women returning to work whether a career break was taken to have a child or care for close relatives, and the WiSA initiative is a really good example of that.”

There was no such WiSA network when Yvonne first started as a farm technician after 19 years in the oil and gas industry.

“When I first started, there was a lack of opportunities to network with other women in the industry who might have been able to provide some inspiration and mentoring, but I did work with a great team of guys on site who were really helpful. It was a welcome addition when we had Kendal Hunter, a female graduate, join the team and I’m really pleased to say she has progressed to being a well-respected farm manager now.”

Individuals like Clara McGhee, a Mowi employee who started as a farm technician in 2018 and is now a trainee farm manager, also do a lot to inspire.

“There’s still work to be done but progress is definitely being made.” Yvonne told Fish Farmer. “The company is committed to aligning with the UN Sustainability Development Goals including Gender Equality and has committed to a 50/50 employee gender ratio and 30% female in leadership roles by 2025,” she said.

“In the 2019 annual report, Mowi reported women made up 40.3% of full-time employees, which is relatively high for aquaculture. In the environment team we have 44% women. One of our previous female team members, Kate Stronach, recently progressed to the role of Compliance and Sustainability Manager. Currently our senior management team of 10 has three females (30%), including our Production Director Meritxell Padrisa, who is a role model for any female either thinking of a career in aquaculture or already employed within Mowi.

“It’s great to see young women successfully going through our graduate and apprenticeship programmes too. Connie Fairburn, Shannon Graham and Hilary Turnbull are now nearing the end of their 18 month graduate programme and will continue as assistant farm managers. Getting involved in career fairs and incentives like the Scottish Apprentice Week in March is a great platform to get the message out about opportunities for young women and tell the story of female employees like Emily Connolly, who is successfully working through an electrical engineering apprenticeship at Mowi.

“Incentive programmes to retrain and attract women from other industries are also really important. For example, the oil and gas industry is in decline and many people have lost their jobs or have been struggling to find new contracts in the past few years… it would be a shame to see those skills go to waste.

“Finally, I think recognising and celebrating the achievements of women in the aquaculture industry and research would help attract more female talent to drive innovation and progression of the industry.”

“We are celebrating that [women] are here,” Dr Teresa Garzon told Fish Farmer. On WiSA’s progress so far, she said its membership had grown (its Facebook group now has over 300 members), its events have been fully booked, and it receives a lot of positive feedback.

One new entrant wrote: “I honestly don’t know if I would have been so open to considering entering the salmon farming industry if I didn’t know a platform like this existed.”

Sarah Riddle, SAIC’s Director of Business Engagement, added: “This is a fantastic sector, whatever age or gender you are. The world is your oyster. There are so many skills these large organisations require to operate. We need depth and skill coming into the industry, whether you are leaving school, returning to work, or coming from a different sector.

“Our network is critical. We have over 190 companies within our consortium. Our reach is global. WiSA is an excellent conduit for conversation, making a community visible and accessible. We hope WiSA is a platform for knowledge: how did you get into the sector, and what would your advice be? We have all come by different paths. That is the importance of WiSA: to make things just, and to show what is possible.”

Meritxell Padrisa

Laura Tulip

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