What’s it like to be a woman working in aquaculture? March 8 is International Women’s Day, and we thought it was a perfect chance to ask two of ASC’s own employees their experiences.
Renée Hamel is ASC’s Technical & Operations Support Manager. For her, sustainable seafood is a lifelong passion: ‘I grew up in rural Newfoundland in the aftermath of the 1992 cod fishery moratorium. I saw the devastating impacts that the loss of wild fish stocks can have on a community, which gave me a love and respect for the ocean from a very young age.
‘I eventually pursued a Bachelor of Science in Biology (Marine) where I first became acquainted with aquaculture – and the rest is history!’
Kathrin Steinberg is head of the Research Team in ASC’s Standards & Science department. She too has long been fascinated with all things marine: ‘As a kid I wanted to study ‘dolphin biology’ and was fascinated by marine life, which I still am, of course. So when I found a course on “marine technologies” I knew what I wanted to study.’
‘I had not heard about aquaculture before, and it was only a small part of the curriculum, but I found it intriguing. There are still so many things that we do not know about aquaculture and things we can still improve in the “real world” – I am sure that I will never get bored of it.’
Although the practice of aquaculture goes back centuries, it is only in recent decades that is has become a global industry, and its dynamism can make it an exciting place to work. Kathrin says: ‘There is so much open exchange and honesty. I have had very fruitful discussion with tilapia farmers in Kenya, shrimp farmers in Bangladesh, and Recirculating Aquaculture System (RAS) farmers in Europe, all of whom were proud about what they achieved, willing to share their knowledge and at the same time open to suggestions and exchange.’
The excitement of such a fast-paced industry is also something that Renée is proud of: ‘I love the constant creativity and ingenuity’
‘When I first started, we were slinging feed by hand based on surface reaction of the fish. By the time I left the farming side of the industry, feeding was controlled remotely with underwater cameras and gaming controllers. Fish farmers are the most adaptable people I’ve ever met.’
It is also very much a global and diverse industry. As Kathrin points out: ‘The sector is diverse, not only in methods and species but also in people. There are people who, like me, studied aquaculture, others taught themselves all there is to know with so many varied backgrounds.’
But of course, as with many other industries, there is still more to be done to ensure aquaculture properly reflects society. Kathrin continues: ‘Unfortunately, when you look around in meetings or panel discussions there are still mainly male participants – but I do have the feeling that this is slowly changing as well.’
What could help make this change happen more quickly? ‘Flexibility of employment,’ says Renée. ‘As women are generally the primary caregiver of children, they may not be able to commit to a rigid schedule. Offering flexibility in working days or working hours to accommodate working mothers could potentially attract more women to the sector.’
ASC is also working to help drive this change, as Renée points out: ‘As an employer, ASC does offer that flexibility in working location and hours, which I think has led to a high proportion of working mothers than other workplaces.
What about the wider industry? ‘Our women-led social standards team has been working hard to develop the new social elements of the Aligned Farm Standard,’ says Renée.
‘These updated requirements will address gender discrimination and equal opportunity in accordance with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.’
As for the question of advice for young women thinking about a career in aquaculture, both Kathrin and Renée are in agreement: ‘Go for it!’
Kathrin adds: ‘There are so many options and careers in the sector I am sure that everybody will be able to find their passion. There are also a lot of different mentorship programmes and networks, like the European Aquaculture Society for example, that are worth joining.’
Both Kathrin and Renée are keen to share their experience of what is needed to be successful. For Kathrin, it is ‘Persistence, patience, and passion. After all, we are working with animals as well as people’s livelihoods, so things take time.’
Similarly, Renée advises on having ‘tenacity.’ She explains: ‘At my first farming job, I was the only woman, and I was quite young to boot. But I was determined. Determined to learn how to run the equipment as good as the men. Determined to squash any doubts that I should even be there at all.’
And finally, who would their dream dinner date be with? ‘My Nan Davis,’ answers Renée. ‘She was one of the toughest women I’ve ever known. She helped shape me into the strong-willed woman I am today!’
Kathrin picks another inspirational woman: ‘Michelle Obama – I find her very inspirational and would love the chance to get to know her in person.’
Of course, this is just a tiny snapshot of the huge and diverse experience of women working at ASC, let alone all of the inspirational women in the wider industry.
ASC is devoted to inspiring a greater push towards diversity in the aquaculture industry. All of ASC’s standards include social requirements that include fair treatment of all workers and the prohibition of any form of discrimination.
Aquaculture can provide an economic opportunity to women, particularly in developing countries. But only with collaborative work can it be a truly representative and equal industry. ASC will continue fighting so more women can follow in Kathrin’s and Renée’s footsteps.