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.

5. Opportunities and Case Studies

This section introduces three ambitious yet realistic projects that could be first steps towards achieving a greater cultural shift away from underrepresentation of women in Scottish fisheries:

  • Research into the experience of women in Scottish fisheries, specifically local-level research focusing on women, akin to the Scottish Government project on Women in Agriculture.
  • Formal recognition of women's contributions that would give security and benefits to fishing spouses and other people not formally employed in fisheries who provide support to the industry
  • Better representation and positive role models through mentorship and networking opportunities. For instance, through a Scottish umbrella group for women in fisheries and fishing communities which would amplify their voices.

It is pertinent to now explore how some of the challenges outlined in the previous section could be addressed. This section looks beyond fisheries and beyond Scotland to consider how other comparable industries and countries are attempting to tackle issues around gender inequality, increase the recognition of women's work and seek to make employment more inclusive.

Learning From Women's Experiences

Comprehensive insight into the experiences of women in the industry is necessary to ensure that any future regulations of projects to support them respond to the actual needs. Reports such as this one can identify key issues across the sector and indicate direction, but they cannot give definitive guidance on future steps. Looking at an internal example of a Scottish Government project which looks to improve the standing of women in agriculture through evidence gathering (interviews, consultations), piloting support projects and trainings, and evaluation, is helpful in imagining what a similar project on women in fisheries may entail.

Case Study: Scottish Government Women in Agriculture Project (2017, ongoing)

In 2017 the Scottish Government commissioned research into challenges faced by women in agriculture. The Women in Agriculture Taskforce published a report with a series of recommendations in 2019. These reports produced a series of specific recommendations and action points related to: leadership, training, rural childcare provision, succession, new entrants, health and safety, and the establishment of the Equality Charter for Scottish Agriculture.

Work on the project, which includes research training needs, consultations, research into needs of agricultural families, the "Be your Best Self" leadership training and unconscious bias training have continued to be undertaken and evaluated. Initial evaluation points to evidence of positive changes for women following skills-training and networking. They have resulted in reported increases in confidence, gaining practical knowledge and strengthened identities and aspirations. Results have also emphasised that there are strong connections between challenges experienced by women in agriculture and other issues facing rural communities, and shown that cultural attitudes and structural limitations (e.g. childcare) are significant factors in their lives.

While not all of the recommended action points have proven to be successful through the evaluation process (e.g. unconscious bias training has had limited success), this comprehensive approach which includes surveys, consultations, in-depth interviews, and rigorous continuous evaluation has been impactful in producing practical solutions to some challenges and supporting a broader socio-cultural shift for women in agriculture. Some of the project's points may be directly applicable to experiences of women in fisheries, however this project did not include fishing in its scope, therefore a similar comprehensive project on women (and other marginalised groups) in fishing and coastal communities may be similarly effective in guiding the direction for change in collaboration with women and community members themselves.

Formal Recognition of Women's Contributions

Women already undertake a significant amount of work in fisheries, and even more work in wider fishing communities. They are more likely to be taking on caring responsibilities, doing ad-hoc or unpaid jobs around fisheries (e.g. book-keeping, net mending) and work for supplemental income when crises hit (Maneschy and Alvares, 2005). They take on many of the burdens, but often have an insecure status in terms of financial security and benefits. Attempting to shift the culture towards one where spouses share the benefits through joined business ownership could give women more security. A case study from France exemplifies one way in which the status of women in fishing families could be formalised.

Case Study: Collaborative spouse status, France (Frangoudes and Keromnes, 2008)

Many women in France who are married to fishermen undertake work such as selling fish, accounting, and occasional work aboard vessels. Despite this, they are not usually employed in their partner's businesses, so their work is not formally recognised and they do not qualify for any benefits or compensations. To address this, a new system requires women who undertake any type of work in artisanal fisheries to register for one of the following statuses, depending on the nature of their involvement: employee, enterprise associate or collaborative spouse. This allows them to access benefits such as maternity leave, personalised pension funds, right to training, and enables them to run for representation in industry bodies. It also provides some protection to women in cases of conflict or divorce.

This format has some drawbacks and challenges. After a trial period, this type of formalisation became mandatory, placing a lot of pressure on families to discuss and formalise the role of fisher's spouses. As often the case with new regulations, there were difficulties in spreading awareness about the application process, so many found themselves in breach of regulations. Furthermore, fishers need to apply for the status on behalf of their spouses, which means that the very feature developed to foster greater independence makes women further rely on their spouses.

Further difficulties arise in a similar case in Canada where women's formalised entry into offshore fishing in family businesses was seen as suspicious as it gave them an opportunity to apply for employment insurance and income in non-fishing season (Grzetic, 2004). Their traditional role as onshore crew did not qualify them for these benefits, which put pressure on women to be visible in undertaking fisheries work. This often resulted in rumours and accusations about abusing the system and triggered monitoring within communities, and from the government.

Both examples outlined here demonstrate that there is necessity and interest for women undertaking fisheries-adjacent work, especially in inshore fisheries and fishing families to have a recognised status. It poses significant warnings, however, about how this formalisation process is designed and regulated.

Representation: Mentorship, Networking and Positive Role Models

From Scotland to Japan, different types of women's groups can serve to provide support and guidance to other women in the industry. This increases the visibility of women's contributions, offers structures for mentorship and networking and can help campaign to raise awareness of issues facing women (and others) in fisheries. In Japan, for instance, there is significant emphasis on women's fisheries groups which promote local food in schools and around the area, especially to encourage the use of seafood which does not sell on the global market (Soejima and Makino, 2018). Similar groups exist across the UK, for example the Women in Welsh Fisheries Group exists to support women in fisheries and fishing spouses in Wales through organising (online) coffee meet-ups and promotes employment in the industry in local schools. The Women in Scottish Aquaculture network is a relatively new development in Scotland and is the basis of the final case study.

Case Studies: Women in Scottish Aquaculture; Women in Welsh Fisheries (2021)

Women in Scottish Aquaculture (WiSA) is focused on representing the growing aquaculture industry as a viable career opportunity for women and other people in Scotland. It was established by the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre in response to an industry survey and aims to help people connect with others across the industry and develop training and mentorship opportunities. While inclusive to all, its aim is to encourage more women to enter the sector and support them to progress to all levels within the industry (WiSA, 2021). The group's events and programmes have received positive feedback, although a more comprehensive evaluation of the group's work would be beneficial.

A similar initiative for Women in Welsh fisheries was established by the Wales Seafood Cluster in Summer 2021 as a support and networking vehicle for women who work across the fisheries sector (Business News Wales, 2021). As with WiSA, the intention is to raise the profile of women already working in fisheries and to encourage entrance into the sector. Currently their events run online and are discussion centred, but there are plans to run events in schools to raise awareness of careers opportunities. They are keen to establish a network of such groups. Members of the group have stated that involvement has been significant for them, emphasising the benefits of having a space where they can discuss the specific issues and challenges they and their communities are facing, as well as for social and support purposes. Finally, it is explicitly inclusive to women from fishing families who are not employed in fisheries which can be invaluable for validating the unpaid labour of women in fisheries.

These are just a few examples of actions which could create opportunities for a more equitable involvement of women in fishing and recognise their contributions to fishing communities. They are not comprehensive solutions, as more evidence is needed to gain a better understanding of what women themselves would find useful.

Intersectional Approach to Equalities in Fisheries

Intersectionality is important in addressing people's experiences with fisheries. Factors such as age, disability, race, nationality, sexual orientation, marital status, caring responsibilities can compound with gender and make people more vulnerable to experiencing inequality or discrimination within a workplace and within a community. Further research is needed to gain comprehensive knowledge of how these affect people's experiences of the industry in Scotland.

So far, this report has established that gender inequality is an issue in fisheries and suggested some actions to improve the situation for women so that those who want to pursue a career in fishing are able to do so. It is important to emphasise that gender is not the only factor that increases inequality within the industry. Rather, it intersects other factors, such as nationality, race, age, class and disability, which influence the experiences of people in fisheries and fishing communities. Some of these factors have been researched specifically in the context of fisheries, while others discussed below draw on other industries.

Race and Nationality

Approximately 35% of all workers in seafood processing in Scotland are from outside the UK, most of whom are women from Eastern Europe (Seafish, 2021). According to the DEFRA "Women in Fisheries Study" (2010) these workers tend to be on average more educated, often possessing university degrees, and usually come to work in the industry for economic reasons. Beyond food processing, nationality and race are also important factors for pay inequality in the catch sector. Evidence by Jones et al (2019) shows that migrants who work in Scottish fisheries have significantly lower levels of remuneration compared to their Scottish counterpart undertaking the same work. These workers are often from outside the EU, most frequently from the Philippines and Ghana, and mostly male.

Marital status and caring responsibilities

Women married to fishers are at times in better economic positions, especially in cases of joint vessel ownership, and cases where male partners inherit a successful businesses. Single women rarely do so. However, this often makes women economically dependent on their spouses which can be an issue in cases of separation or conflict (Frangoudes and Keromnes, 2008). Furthermore, fishing spouses often undertake precarious employment within the sector to earn supplemental income (Maneschy and Alvares, 2005).

Caring responsibilities were more widely discussed in the "Challenges" section, but it is worth restating that women with caring responsibilities face barriers to entry into many segments of the fishing industry, especially the catch sector (Gustavsson, 2020; Women-Fisheries, 2020). Long unstable hours mean that fishing is not a viable source of employment for women who are taking on caring responsibilities within families and communities. A better insight into what kind of childcare could best support fishing communities is needed, to alleviate one factor restricting choice and opportunities for their career and employment.

Age and class

Young people experience barriers to entry due to existing succession practices. In families owning successful fishing operations and quotas, sons tend to inherit the business from their fathers (Women-Fisheries, 2020). For others seeking work at sea, oil, gas or shipping industries are significantly more lucrative, offering better pay and somewhat more stable work patterns. Young women are less likely to take on offshore work in other sectors, so they take on lower paying jobs on shore. It is worth noting that this varies across the country. In Shetland, for instance, there is an established route into fishing through formal and informal training opportunities for youths (still mostly centering on boys). Shetland fisheries often employ traditional crew ownership practices in pelagic fleets, which provide better security and more lucrative employment. However, these are also difficult to access for new entrants because of the high costs of quotas (Cardwell and Gear, 2013). Indeed, the cost of quotas presents a big barrier to young people without capital, because even schemes designed to support them require a relatively large initial investment that youths from poorer families cannot afford if they enter the industry on a deckhand salary. The Shetland model is comparatively successful and therefore attractive, however Shetland fisheries are considered quite specific (as they experience fewer crew shortages, a smaller decline in fish stocks, and high profitability) and would be difficult to replicate in other communities.

The catch sector workforce in particular is aging (Seafish, 2018), which also impacts those at the other end of the age spectrum. Fishing is gruelling work that takes a toll on the body and the lack of attractive opportunities for young people to replace older fishers means that they are placed at higher risk of injury or long-term health effects in their retirement. Older fishers nearing retirement might also be more likely to leave the industry in the face of an economic shock such as Brexit or COVID.

The intersectional factors mentioned here are just some of the most discussed ones. Other protected characteristics, such as disability, sexual orientation, or religion, may influence employment conditions and social experiences of people working in fisheries. Due to a small sample size in Scotland it is difficult to speculate, but a general equalities approach to future policy developments should be prioritised.


Email: oana.racu@gov.scot

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