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Top Story: Barrier breakers

Female executives are changing seafood’s reputation as a male-dominated industry

By Melissa Wood
August 01, 2012

When Great Atlantic Shellfish hired Ruth Levy to be a purchasing agent in 1981, the Long Island company employed her through a minority grant. Levy was designated as such because she is a woman. “A woman was considered a minority. I was certainly a minority on the waterfront,” remembers Levy, who 30 years later is the chief business development officer of Stavis Seafoods in Boston. “There were no women fishing; there were very few women in the industry at that time.”

Times have changed, albeit slowly. International Boston Seafood Show attendees recall just a handful of women 10 years ago; most noticeable were the ones in bikinis or fishnet stockings that some exhibitors hired to attract the mostly male attendees. Now there are more women both on the trade show floor (fully clothed) and throughout the seafood industry. 

Women’s roles have progressed, yet challenges persist: Seafood’s male-dominated reputation lingers, women in upper management remain a minority and the globalization of seafood means sometimes doing business with countries where women are discriminated against because of their gender.

Women’s work 

Women play significant roles in fisheries around the world, most often in processing and marketing, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. In India, young women make up 60 percent of the workforce in fish-processing factories, while in Vietnam 80 percent of aquaculture workers are female. But low value is often attached to women’s work in some developing countries. 

“Despite their crucial contributions to the fisheries industry and to household livelihoods and nutrition, these women are often invisible to policy makers who have traditionally assumed — mistakenly — that fisheries are a male domain,” wrote Jennie Dey de Pryck in an FAO draft report on “Good practice policies to eliminate gender inequalities in fisheries value chains.” Women make up about half of the 200 million people working in the seafood industry worldwide, according to the 2012 report. 

Dey de Pryck’s point that such issues are not isolated to developing countries was proven at the North Atlantic Seafood Forum held in Oslo, Norway, in March. Though the country’s fisheries minister, Lisbeth Berg-Hansen, is a woman, only four of the 64 speaking slots were allocated to women. That fact was not lost on some delegates. 

“Norway is a model country when it comes to sex equality, where women have gained equal status with men and access to leading positions in business and public affairs. But what do we see at this forum? Less than 6 percent of the speakers are female,” said Marie Christine Monfort, a seafood market expert from France, as reported by SeafoodSource.com.

The U.S. seafood industry’s journey to gender equality has been behind the times. Lynn Girouard, former president of specialty products at Morey’s Seafood International, was surprised by what she saw at first. 

“My first Boston Seafood Show was in 2003, and it was very, very male dominated,” says Girouard. Twenty years earlier when she had started in the dairy industry, it was much the same way and she had thought that other industries had also progressed. She guesses that seafood may have taken longer to change because of the high number of family-owned businesses that may tend to be more traditional with gender roles. 

She started in marketing at Morey’s and noticed more women on that side of the industry in general, and wonders whether that was a typical path for women in seafood. 

“In general you want the best possible talent for your company, so you don’t really think about whether a person’s male or female, old or young,” says Girouard, who is currently on sabbatical but looking to get back into the industry. “I’ve always practiced that in my career and will continue.”

The increasing importance of sustainability opened the door for people trained in that field, points out Nadine Bartholomew, who started her own communications consultancy, The Good Foodie, in 2011 and was business outreach and development manager for Seafood Choices Alliance from 2004 to 2010.

“The NGO community has always been more of a female-dominated sector, and I think as those two groups work closely together, I can honestly say I have seen women leaving the NGO community and going to work for the seafood industry in the capacity of sustainability managers in that area,” says Bartholomew.

In their blood 

Despite her “minority” status three decades ago, seafood was a natural choice for Levy, 53. Her father was a bayman on Long Island before starting his own boat business. When she graduated in the 1970s with a degree in economics and linguistics the job market was flat, so she chartered a recreational vessel, then longlined for cod on the commercial side.

“I had grown up on the water; we were always fishing. It was a passion,” says Levy. “Before I was driving cars I was driving boats back and forth to work.”

Levy then accepted the purchasing position with Great Atlantic Shellfish, which was expanding from live product into processing. She then moved to the production side of the business, where she continued managing frozen production at Capeway Seafood in New Bedford, Mass., which had never hired a woman before for any kind of production position. She later learned that she had impressed the company owner because she drove a truck. 

She left Capeway after the owner told her “he couldn’t give her a raise because there was no way in hell I could make more money than the male supervisor on the floor,” says Levy, who then worked as plant manager for Seafresh USA in Southern Rhode Island. She moved to Houston to work for Sysco in 1986 and returned to New England in 1988 to join Stavis.

Throughout the early years, she was usually the only woman in the room, on the dock or on the fishing boat.

“Even when I went to Sysco, here I move down to Texas and in a company of 650 employees, there were five women managers, and they wouldn’t allow women to wear pants,” remembers Levy. 

Another time a fishing boat captain wouldn’t let her on his boat because he was superstitious about having a woman on board. “I looked at him and said, ‘Do you see this check in my hand?’ 

“You did have to be tough. It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t gentle, but it was very real,” she says. 

When she returned to Massachusetts she discovered the Women’s Fishery Network, which she became president of in the early 1990s. Over the years, she has seen an increase of women in the industry in account rep and buyer positions, but not necessarily as C-level executives.

“There’s not as many senior women as there should be yet, but hopefully that will change,” she says.

Along with Levy, prominent National Fisheries Institute female board members include Lisa Webb, director of distribution and seafood procurement for Gorton’s; Magdalena Wallhoff, VP-sales for Regal Springs Tilapia; Ellen Clarry, senior VP for quality assurance and global supply chain for Ignite Restaurant Group; Sarah Hayes, national sales manager for Maritime Products; and Kim Gorton, president and CEO of Slade Gorton in Boston. 

Despite being the third generation in her family business, Gorton had not planned for a career in seafood. 

“I was about to take a position with a new [public relations] firm in Boston and my dad said to me, ‘If you want to try the family business this would be a good time, while you’re still young.’ There was never any pressure,” she says.

Gorton, who was 23, started at the bottom in the cash sales office in the loading dock. She was handed the yellow pages and told to start making cold calls. “There was not much training,” she says. “I picked up the phone and called and some gruff guy answered and he swore at me and hung up. For whatever reason that didn’t discourage me.” In fact, she was anything but discouraged.

“After three or four months, I fell in love with it. As crazy as it sounds, it’s definitely in my blood,” says Gorton. “We feed people, and we feed them wholesome and nutritious food, and I feel there’s a lot of honor in that.”

Gorton, who became president in 2006 and CEO in 2009, left Slade Gorton to earn her MBA from Harvard Business School in 1994. She returned to tackle positions in sales, marketing and business development. Gorton credits her real world experience for the majority of her education.

“I think the thing I learned the most, early on, was more of the street-smart side of things. How do you use your interpersonal skills to be successful in a rough environment?” she says.

Gorton, 46, is also mom to Brinley, 16, Lily, 14, and Will, 11. Each has been with her on a business trip so that she can show them what she does and give them that special time.

“Superwoman is a myth,” she says. “There is no such thing as perfect balance. You just have to do the best every day, and some days are better than others.”

Gorton thinks it’s fabulous more women are in the seafood industry, though she would also like to see more female leaders. “My management team is equal, half and half men and women, which is great. It’s not by design, it’s based on people’s skills and experience.”

She’s noticed that there are not just more women in the industry, but the industry itself has become more sophisticated in the last 10 years.

“This is certainly a generalization, but at times women can be really consensus-building. If I rewind 20 years ago, there really wasn’t any consensus-building going on,” she says. “But I really think it’s more about being passionate about what you do, loving what you do, believing in your team and getting them excited about your mission.” 

Unlike Levy and Gorton, Jennifer Keith, director of seafood procurement for Darden Restaurants, never imagined herself in the industry. 

“When my husband and I were dating and we would go to Olive Garden and share a crab Alfredo, I had no idea that I’d be buying the crabmeat on that,” she says. “So how cool is that?”

She started at Darden — the nation’s largest casual-dining company that owns Red Lobster and Olive Garden — 17 years ago as a risk analyst. A promotion to senior financial analyst had her working with the seafood department, forecasting the company’s multi-million-pound seafood purchases. In 2000, Roger Bing, VP-purchasing, suggested she would make a good fresh fish buyer. It was a complete career change.  

“Finances are analytical and purchasing is very relationship-driven. Obviously I have a little bit of both, or I have a lot of both, but definitely the relationship side is where my strength is,” she says. 

In her travels, Keith says, “You run into some countries [where people] will not necessarily speak to me; they’ll speak to my employee because he’s male. You always have to remember too that as the Darden buyer you also have the Darden checkbook. They’d probably treat you very differently than they would treat another woman.” 

Women thinking about a career in seafood have something else to consider, she says.

“If you can’t handle the blood and guts that might not be the role for you,” she says. 

Whether it’s on deck, on the processing floor or in the boardroom, Keith, Levy, Gorton and other female executives are paving the way for the female leaders of the future. Seafood may not be glamorous, but it has instilled in them a passion to make it their lives’ work. 

Email Assistant Editor Melissa Wood at mwood@divcom.com 

August 2012 - SeaFood Business 

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