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Photos: iStock and Visit Greenland, David Trood

Gender, agency and capital power in fisheries and aquaculture

While women in the Mediterranean region may face the dilemma of choosing between a career and motherhood, that is not the case for women in the Nordic countries even if we have an example of how Sisilia Skagen (NO) had to fight for her rights to take care of her children while fishing (NRK, 2021; NRK, 2023). In the Nordic Region, citizens enjoy generous parental leave, pay schemes and supportive childcare. However it was not until 2018 that female fishers in Norway gained the legal right to take leave during pregnancy and breastfeeding after birth without losing their welfare rights (Kilden, 2023). In an ideal world, the shared values of the Nordic countries and their aim for welfare society infrastructure should liberate women to work according to their skills and abilities as their hearts desire. However, as witnessed throughout history and also more recently, women at sea have had to deal with bullying from male colleagues and speak out to increase awareness of a rough and toxic male-dominated culture in the primary sector of fisheries. According to studies referred to earlier, the perpetrators of bullying and harassment are commonly found among supervisors, from senior crew members down to subordinate crew members, followed by co-workers.
Luckily, we can also point to positive and encouraging examples that we have collected of women on board vessels of various sizes; they are visible and have freedom of action without being harassed. Besides normalising women’s presence on board it is important that, regardless of gender, people should have the agency to choose their line of work. That aligns with Nordic gender equality values and visions. The question is how it can be ensured that women are on an equal footing with men onboard vessels. Seemingly minor aspects like work uniforms that only come in men’s sizes is something that is easy to change to make women feel more welcome.
Upgrading of skills in the blue economy (biotechnology, marine biology, secondary student mobilisation etc.) is important and we can observe higher numbers of women in some fields of aquaculture. More education results in more women in charge and we have indications of that in research and development leadership – but not necessarily where the money or allocations of fishery licenses are (with some exceptions of ministers).
In general, the gender equality discussion in the Nordic Region and elsewhere is often centred around inequalities in earning or pay gaps, based on the principle of equal pay for equal jobs. Numerous measures have been implemented in the Nordic countries on the path towards increased gender equality. One example is equal pay certification in Iceland. Another initiative is the SHE index in Norway. Various other initiatives have likely been put in place. We also know that male fishers in Norway earn on average twice as much as their female colleagues (Kilden, 2023). However our knowledge across the Nordic countries on this question remains limited and we have only found statistical data on income differences within the industry regarding Finland (for 2008). Such knowledge, however, is important if gender equality is to be achieved. It should be the responsibility of public authorities, in collaboration with industry and trade unions, to enable access to such data, making this aspect of equality less opaque.
Independence and acknowledgement of women involved in the maritime field is important. Young women see the sea as exciting. We know of several cases where women have left their former jobs (including those with education and training in the fields of nursing and prison services, as well as PhD students, to work at sea). There is an interesting contradiction in acknowledging hard work as a form of liberty. Nonetheless that is what women describe:

“It is a struggle to achieve equality, no doubt about it. My contribution is to show that I master my job in a male-dominated profession, while at the same time being a mother and managing to take care of my family. If you want to have a voice like a fisher and be able to express yourself, you must also have done something at sea. I am very committed and think that things should be fair and arranged so that those who want to work as fishers should be able to do so. Whether you are a woman or a man, old or young, single mother or single father.”

– Sisilia Skagen, seawoman, Lofoten