Women in Scottish fisheries: literature review

Findings from a review of research literature, case studies and examples of good practice from Scotland and beyond, alongside existing government strategies, to provide insights into challenges and opportunities presented for women in Scottish fishing.

4. Challenges

The previous section demonstrated that women are an underrepresented and often under-appreciated group in fisheries. Current research indicates that women in fisheries and fishing communities face practical, socio-economic and cultural challenges, however, there is significant interest from top-level government and industry actors in improving the situation indicated from reports summarised above. The table below presents a brief overview of challenges which are discussed in greater depth in the rest of the section.

Table 1: Challenges for women and steps for improvement


Training/skills gap

Steps for improvement

  • Identify what training women in fisheries need and wish to attend (e.g. practical skills related to fishing, safety, leadership, careers guidance).
  • Create opportunities for introducing careers in fishing and associated skills to people of all genders (e.g. in schools).
  • Develop training opportunities, ensure they are accessible through consultation with women (financially, practically).
  • Evaluate the success of any training opportunities.

Equipment and safety issues

  • Assess the safety and accessibility of current equipment used in fishing and seafood processing.
  • Consult with industry and manufacturers on possible adjustments to equipment production (easier for things like clothing than changing heavy machinery).
  • Implement regulations that require provision of equipment suitable for the worker.
  • Prioritise safety in the industry overall.

Inadequate (rural) childcare provisions

  • Identify specific needs of local communities.
  • Work with communities and existing childcare providers to improve access to childcare (e.g. seasonally flexible hours, transport, financial support, qualifications in childcare).
  • Develop alternative solutions (e.g. childcare cooperatives).
  • Address other caring responsibilities.

Succession and vessel ownership

  • Encourage shared vessel and business ownership in families where both partners contribute to work related to fishing.
  • Challenge the norm where male descendants inherit family businesses.

Equal pay

  • Gather data on the gender pay gap in the industry in Scotland.
  • Implement regulations on equal pay across the sector.
  • Increase pay and respectability of onshore work.
  • Develop a formal recognition of unpaid work in fisheries (see case study in section 5).

Gap in knowledge

  • Undertake research into Scottish fisheries to gain accurate data about the work undertaken by women in the industry and community which centres on the perspectives of these women.
  • Create spaces where the voices of women and other marginalised groups are prioritised and where women can express their opinions and knowledge about the industry.

Work-life balance

  • Assess the reasons why work-life balance is worse in fisheries than in most other industries in Scotland through consultation with skippers and industry representatives.
  • Introduce minimum measures for work-life balance in different fragments of the industry.

Invisibility and representation

  • Ensure images in government outputs more accurately represent the diversity of current workers in fisheries and put more emphasis on onshore work in discussions surrounding fisheries.
  • Recognise and highlight the work of women in the industry to develop a positive fishing identity for women.
  • Develop mentorship schemes and networks between established women in the industry and new/potential entrants.
  • Use the gender-neutral word "fisher" in government outputs and encourage the use of the word externally.

Perceptions of the industry

  • Identify perceptions of the industry held by women and other underrepresented groups in coastal communities
  • Asses to what extent perceptions are factual or imagined.
  • Challenge imagined false perceptions.
  • Address real perceptions (e.g. improve safety issues).

Broadening of career options for women in coastal communities

  • Provide training to work in other fields that are more lucrative, less dangerous. Including those that provide food security (e.g. aquaculture).
  • Facilitate inclusion in fishing and training provision across the sector.

Women in fishing communities face challenges on several levels; challenges to entry into the industry, challenges to progression within it, and challenges in achieving equality within the industry. Specifically, women take on few leadership roles, they are less likely to inherit family businesses and vessels and are less likely to obtain skills related to fishing while growing up (Bennet et al, 2021).

Following a review of the most frequently emerging themes, they are divided into practical, socio-economic, and cultural. When considering these challenges, it is important to keep in mind that increasing the participation of women in fisheries employment will not directly lead to a better standing of women in fisheries (Inhetween and Schmitt, 2004). Setting gender quotas and increasing awareness of work opportunities in fisheries to women can be productive, but may not immediately reduce sexist attitudes, behaviour or language, the gender pay gap, nor does it challenge a culture where a woman on a boat is still sometimes considered "bad luck" (Zhao et al, 2013). Rather, efforts have to be made to improve the situation on the whole. While some challenges can be addressed individually, they must be accompanied by a broader effort towards equality in the industry.

Practical challenges

Training provision: Much of the learning in fishing communities is intergenerational and is oriented towards male descendants in fishing families who are encouraged to spend time on vessels from an early age, learning the skills required to operate the vessel and operate a fishery (Bennet et al, 2021). Women are less likely to experience this training in their youth, either due to a lack of interest or gender-based social factors, and would therefore benefit from further training opportunities. While limited training exists through college courses, apprenticeships, and short courses (e.g. Safety at Sea), these are geographically restricted to certain towns and offer little promise for future employment. Specifically, people undertaking these courses will be at the mercy of skippers, many of whom have noted that there is a reluctance to hire female fishers (Zhao et al, 2013, Northern England case study). This is most significant when entering offshore work which requires a myriad of practical skills and is often perceived as "dirty and dangerous" (Zhao et al, 2013). Nonetheless, providing more training opportunities across the sector would enable women access to the industry and better progression opportunities. Specifically, training for the work women already undertake may be useful. Ahead of developing any training opportunities, it is important that women themselves are consulted to assess what training they would most like to take on and how to make them accessible to them. Training provisions are currently being developed through Defra's UK Seafood fund (UK Gov, 2021), but it is essential to ensure that these are relevant, accessible and promoted to women (e.g. to fit around childcare commitments).

Appropriate equipment: Most fishing equipment, from fishing gear, design of vessels, to toilets and clothing, has been developed with male fishers in mind. The consequences of this for women in fisheries range from inconvenience (e.g. incorrectly sized clothing) to danger, as certain equipment may be too heavy for safe use by smaller people (Women in Agriculture Taskforce, 2019). Manufacturers should be encouraged to develop a wider range of clothing sizes and equipment that is safe to use by women, an issue echoed in the Women in Aquaculture consultation (WiSA, 2021). Provision of toilets on board is also an issue continuously cited in various sources. In practice, male fishers often urinate into the sea, while women use buckets "in the engine room" (Zhao et al, 2013), which is a big factor making offshore work less attractive to women. There is a clear need for better regulations for sanitary provisions aboard vessels to address this issue and funds would be needed to support this.

Safety: Fishing is dangerous work which is a strong factor deterring people from entering the industry (Gustavsson et al, 2019). Somewhat dated reports suggest that crew on UK fishing vessels are 115 times more likely to die at work than the average UK worker, a rate 24 times higher than in construction industry (Roberts and Williams in McCall Howard, 2017). Recent reports from the UK Health and Safety Executive (2021) consistently cite "agriculture, forestry and fishing" as the most dangerous occupations for loss of life or limb. A safer working environment, with updated equipment and the use of the best available technology to reduce potential for accidents, could make the industry more attractive to new entrants, including women. This is an increasingly significant challenge as some skippers undertake dangerous outings in poor conditions with underserviced vessels to cut costs in response to changes in regulations and loss of fish stocks in certain areas (McCall Howard, 2017). Irrespective of gender, addressing this is already a priority integrated in broader policy and regulation changes in the industry, demonstrated in the development of The Scottish Fishing Safety Group in 2019 (SFFMS, 2020). Safer options for seafood production (e.g. aquaculture, seaweed farming) can also be considered as viable options for desirable employment. Groups such as Scottish Women in Aquaculture may be effective in ensuring jobs in these sectors are accessible and inclusive to women.

Challenges to research: Methodological literature discusses difficulties in accessing female research participants in studies of the fishing industry and fishing communities (Gustavsson, 2021). There are several reasons for this, such as difficulties in accessing participants for studies, a small overall sample size, and difficulties protecting anonymity of those who do participate in smaller-scale studies. Research reports also indicate that it is often men who are asked to discuss issues as they are better represented in industry associations (Salmi and Sonck Rautio, 2018). Cultural factors mean that women often allow men to speak when families are interviewed together, even though they express their own opinions and wide knowledge of the sector when interviewed on their own (Ross, 2021). In line with previous recommendations, efforts should be made to close quantitative and qualitative evidence gaps on women in Scottish fisheries through engaging directly with women.

Socio-economic challenges

Quota and vessel ownership: Male members of the community tend to inherit fishing quotas, vessels and businesses, while women tend to be encouraged to pursue education or non-fisheries work (Gerrard, 2008). This leads to inequalities in access to business capital. Similar research in agriculture has shown that the norm whereby sons inherit land is scarcely challenged and discussed, but in agriculture the calls for a shift in inheritance patterns seem to be louder than in fisheries (Women in Agriculture Taskforce, 2019). This is a difficult subject to breach for actors external to families and communities and may be best addressed through cultural shifts discussed later in this section.

Gender pay gap: Closing the gender pay gap is a government priority addressed in "A Fairer Scotland for Women: Gender Pay Gap Action Plan"(2019). Data on the gender pay gap in Scottish fisheries is limited, but there are indications from qualitative research that pay disparities exist in the sector in the UK ("Women-Fisheries", 2020). More specifically, somewhat dated data from 2003 suggest that women in UK fisheries consistently earn about 70% of what men make across processing and aquaculture (in Zhao et al, 2013). The gender pay gap must firstly be assessed, then addressed by paying close attention to differentials between onshore and offshore work, as the latter is more likely to be undertaken by women. Furthermore, much of women's work in fishing communities is unpaid, an issue which must be better assessed through further inquiries.

Childcare and work-life balance: Childcareprovisions in some rural areas are lacking and there is a general lack of free childcare for young children under 3 in the UK (Gustavsson, 2020). This is an issue disproportionately affecting rural areas, as only 11% of rural local authorities in Scotland reported that they have sufficient capacity for childcare (Family and Childcare Trust, 2018). Insufficient provisions and costs of childcare often mean that women are stopped from entering or re-entering the workforce once they have had children. This is no different for fisheries, and is particularly true for offshore work that requires working outside of traditional working hours. Fishing often takes place around the clock, either through multi-day outings, or through early starts and late night finishes with unpredictable times of landing (McCall Howard, 2017). Not only does this impact those working aboard vessels, but also some supporting activities, such as sales and food processing.To address this, specific needs of communities need to be identified on a local and national scale. A similar inquiry has been done by the Women in Agriculture taskforce, where participants identified specific practical needs such as seasonally flexible hours, transport provisions, financial support, and better provision for qualifications in childcare for rural residents who do not live near a college. Furthermore, caring responsibilities for the elderly should be acknowledged and addressed through similar consultations. In general, there is a need to balance more flexible childcare provisions in fishing communities with a move towards better work-life balance within fisheries in general, where possible.

Cultural challenges

Invisibility: Many women work in fisheries, especially in food processing and administration, however their work is often under acknowledged and underappreciated relative to the work of those who catch the fish (Frangoudes and Gerrard, 2018; Zhao et al, 2013). Methodologies behind reports on employment in fisheries tend to underrepresent women as the work women traditionally do is not always considered "fishing" – even if their work is crucial to the running of the business and selling fish. Projects such as "Women in Aquaculture" (ScotGov, 2020; see case study in section 5.) which promote the work of women in fisheries, provide a space for them to connect with each other, and gives them a voice through consultations can serve to make visible the work women already undertake in fisheries, and in turn encourage more women to join the industry. It is important to note, however, that these community groups are not panaceas as each community presents specific internal dynamics.

Representation and the need for a "positive fishing identity" for women: Gustavsson (2019) discusses how the idea of a strong, successful male fisherman is well developed socially, but is heavily gendered and does not directly transpose to women's experiences in fishing communities. Summarising previous research, she notes that women have often highlighted their roles as mothers, caregivers, and providers for the community as significant for their fishing identity. These ideas are often not sufficiently represented in discourse and policy, and there is a lack of role-models and mentoring opportunities. This can be addressed in a similar way as "Invisibility" above.

Perceptions of the industry: The image of a male "fisherman", public perceptions of fisheries as an unsustainable, difficult and not financially lucrative means that they are unlikely to attract new entrants from outside of fishing communities (Zhao et al, 2013). Some of these preconceptions are accurate (e.g. see HSE statistics under "Safety"), so they should be evaluated and addressed before creating opportunities for new entrants. It is important to acknowledge women's agency in deciding to take up work in fisheries or not, and in deciding how involved they want to be at different levels of management and decision making. The challenge is to ensure women are not prevented from entering the industry due to practical or cultural factors, but it is also pertinent to create other attractive, fair work opportunities in fishing communities, so women's involvement in fisheries is by choice, not necessity.

Mentorship schemes and networks can begin to address these cultural challenges, but overall cultural change is difficult to achieve. While cultural changes related to gender roles can appear urgent from the outside, and some of these challenges are highly problematic, it is important to remember that traditional fishing communities are often proudly independent and resistant to external regulations, which can make it difficult to enact sudden changes from the outside (Ross, 2017).

Language and representation

It is worth noting that the language used to describe people who fish has been changing. Increasingly, especially in European contexts, the word "fisher" is substituting the previously almost universal use of the word "fishermen", usually with the aim of inclusivity. While a small practical change, this transition asks for a big cultural shift in the mindsets of many people involved in fisheries. The linguistic transition has been somewhat smooth in managerial and academic contexts, but the cultural and everyday use of language is slower to adapt to this change. It is also important to acknowledge the views of some prominent female fishers who prefer to be called "fishermen" (Telegraph, 2022). Branch and Kleiber (2015) state that language used in fisheries comes "loaded with history and meaning that can simultaneously be interpreted as terms of inclusion and validation, or exclusion and disrespect depending on the context" (Branch and Kleiber, 2015: 126). They urge us to respect the language people use to describe themselves and their own work, while understanding that their choice of words takes place in a social context which undervalues women's labour. This report uses the word "fisher" to refer to all people who fish with the intention of avoiding "gendering" the subjects and thus excluding certain groups of people, and to encourage inclusivity in the sector – through language.


Email: oana.racu@gov.scot

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