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Women in Seafood

“The industry will not rise to the challenge of scaling up production sustainably if it can’t attract the best people. And it can’t afford to exclude 50 percent of people.” - Audun Lem, deputy-director of FAO’s Fisheries and Aquaculture Policy and Economics Division

Leadership in Sustainability

As the word “sustainability” continues to move to the forefront of our collective consciousness, it is critical to understand the role of women in sustainable solutions.

In 2015, the U.N. produced the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) intended to address global issues of “poverty, inequality, climate, environmental degradation, prosperity, and peace and justice,” and have stated that the realization of these goals is dependent on the achievement of Goal 5: Gender Equality. This highlights the importance of initiatives like the James Beard Foundation’s Women’s Leadership programs presented by Audi, which seek to help empower women in the culinary industry.

The Beard Foundation also aims to support women involved in the sourcing of ingredients for chefs through its Smart Catch program, which helps educate chefs on how to make better seafood choices.

Photo: Oxfam
Photo: Oxfam

Gender Issues in the Seafood Industry

Despite equal numbers of women and men working in the seafood production industry, there remains a significant disparity between the two regarding the type of work performed and the wages received.

While men dominate fisheries, females tend to work more in aquaculture. However, in both industries, women are generally relegated to low-paying, low-skill roles. Furthermore, when considering both the paid and unpaid work associated with social, familial, and community duties, women typically work longer hours.

Photo: Asian Seafood Improvement Collaborative
Photo: Asian Seafood Improvement Collaborative

A recent Oxfam report revealed that women are the most vulnerable group in our seafood supply chains. Day after day women process seafood for leading supermarkets across the world, while many face poor working conditions such as lack of bathroom breaks, excessive work hours, and far less than living wages.

The unofficial status of women’s work can also prohibit them from accessing credit and financial resources, placing limitations on their ability to play more significant roles in the seafood industry. Additionally, women can face cultural barriers that affect ownership rights and perpetuate a perceived lack of ability to succeed. Add in the fact that women have close to no representation at the household, management, and executive levels, and you end up with a system that works for men while ignoring the needs of women in the industry.

The Opportunity for Chefs

The Beard Foundation entered the seafood space through Smart Catch, a chef education program that assesses the sustainability of seafood menu items and provides guidance on seafood choices.

Chefs are pivotal for setting the bar on what is innovative, creative, and a product with a great story. As chefs continue to take strong positions on sustainability and social justice issues surrounding the products they use, there is an opportunity to bring gender into the conversation.

Chefs and consumers around the world can support women’s empowerment in seafood by increasing demand for equitably produced options. For example, the Asian Seafood Improvement Collaborative (ASIC) is a group of international stakeholders partnered with Oxfam’s Gender Transformative and Responsible Agribusiness Investments in South East Asia (GRAISEA) to promote improvement in small-scale shrimp farms. This initiative’s goal is to create a new approach to handling gender inequality in the small-scale seafood sector by running capacity building programs and creating a tool to help purchasers find shrimp supply chains that actively promote women’s economic empowerment.

Another group advocating for women is the Indonesian Sisterhood of Fisherwomen (PPNI), a network of 16 Indonesian fisherwomen organizations that work collaboratively with other NGOs to strengthen women’s voices. The PPNI also fosters knowledge and skill sharing as well as relationship building. This empowers women to develop livelihood and survival strategies, build social capital, and carry out collective action for policy change.

The culinary community occupies a powerful position, as they can influence consumer preferences and raise awareness of gender issues in food systems through the choices available on their menus. A better understanding of where our food comes from means that we can make more informed decisions and promote change in seafood both at home and around the world.


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