Host: Welcome to ACIAR voices stories from agricultural researchers and experts from across the world into the remarkable 40-year history of ACIAR, the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research.
Caroline: She champions women in fisheries and aquaculture globally, and her work over the past 25 years has been endlessly passionate and tireless. Dr Meryl Williams is an Australian agricultural research leader who's held roles including WorldFish, Director General and she's dedicated her career to gender issues and gender equality in international research for development. She says while there's still a long way to go to make a real lasting impact, the support she's received through her long association with ACIAR remains invaluable. Hi, I'm Caroline Winter, and I'm delighted to welcome Dr Meryl Williams to the ACIAR studio from her home in Malaysia.
Meryl: Nice to be with you, Caroline.
Caroline: Now Meryl your name is synonymous with aquaculture, fisheries, gender equality, conservation, development and food security. And that's just to name a few. We're going to explore those themes shortly. But firstly, where and how did the research journey begin for you?
Meryl: In 1996, my late Indian colleague, Dr M.C. Nandeesha, invited me to give welcome remarks at women in fisheries workshop in Indo China in Phnom Penh in Cambodia. With him at that workshop, I also summed up the outcomes of the workshop and became very interested in the topic soon after that. In 1998, he and I and other colleagues ran the first Asian Fisheries Society, Women in Asian Fisheries Symposium, and we published the proceedings. This led to an ongoing, still ongoing string of related conferences and publications, which became much broader and deeper in their coverage. But that's really how I started into the research side of gender.
Caroline: Now, you've spent more than 40 years working in fisheries research and development and more specifically, aquaculture. What challenges did you face as a female researcher over that time?
Meryl: Well, the challenges varied with the times, going back to the very early days from being one of the first women in the professional field in the organisations I worked for. And they were everything from the very fundamental like, how to get the girly calendars out of the workplace, to how to get sufficient number of women's toilets in the buildings. But coming into the field later of doing research on women in fisheries and aquaculture is a much different and deeper kind of challenge. And a couple of things have sort of triggered the journey in the research field. For example, our 1998 symposium, I just mentioned, was rather shocking in some ways, it was held as part of a major mainstream Asian fisheries forum. And although most of those of us who were presenting at the symposium were accomplished researchers in our own rights, and well known to most of the mainstream in the conference, the initial reaction from many men was that this symposium was just for women. And we were subjected to a lot of jocular comments like can men attend the symposium too, then quite a few men did come and probably made up about 1/3 of that first audience. But as the topic became seen as a serious research topic, producing research papers and serious discussion, we didn't really face that initial response again, at least not in the Asian Fishery Society events, we still find it from time to time when new professional bodies start to look at women and gender issues, they still don't quite know whether this is a serious topic or just something that the women want to do. A less triggering event was when the CGIAR are started doing gender research in the heartland of CGIAR research in plant breeding. Their research asked the question, what characteristics do women want in the crops and what ones do men prefer? When the studies started to reveal that there was some significant differences between what breeding outcomes women wanted in the crops but a lot of overlap, but it became clear that gender did play a role in all manner of situations where mainstream scientists just assumed that solid biophysical science held all the answers. So sure, everyone wanted faster growth and better disease resistance, didn't they, but it took a long time. And it's only really starting to get through that there are other things that people want, and the gender does make a difference in what it is that people want. It's often sort of thought that women are going to make the big changes and be the miracle creators of the virtuous future in agriculture and other sectors. But I don't see women that way, as being this mystical vehicle of positive change. I think it puts too much burden on them in agriculture, and fisheries, women have always been critical to economic production. But their needs have often never been recognised. They've been overlooked when it comes to decision-making. And it's time to really look at the political economy of women in the agricultural sectors.
Caroline: It's fascinating when you talk about gender in any industry, and this one included that a lot of people think of gender equality as being the main issue here. But it's so much more than that, isn't it? As you've just pointed out?
Meryl: Yes, yes. And one of the things that I'm focusing on at the moment in fisheries and aquaculture is whatever the big changes in these sectors and they've been enormous. What have they done to women, nobody's been taking notice of this, and in many cases, there's been huge impacts? Without going into any of the details, I'm coming to the overall conclusions that women by the changes have been rather economically ostracised, technologically excluded, and made pretty politically powerless. And so, something needs to be done about what's happened to women, as these agriculture, forestry and fisheries and so on systems are undergoing major, major global changes.
Caroline: And as the landscape for women, as you say, which has changed and obviously opportunities have presented themselves, but has that been a very slow or very gradual shift?
Meryl: Extremely, there have been changes emerging, but probably not enough, recognised until the changes are quite obvious. And as the importance of women in the sector is being gradually recognised, there is more attention to them. But I think there could be a major shift globally in how much attention is given. ACIAR has had a very interesting development of its attention to gender. It has a process of very careful project selection and development. And using the Pacific as an example, through that careful attention to selecting good projects that are going to really make a difference and developing them carefully with the partners. The roles of women are really starting to come out. More than a decade ago now ACIAR did a project called PARDI, the Pacific Agribusiness Research Development Initiative. And it spawned a number of daughter projects, including several in my own field in fisheries and aquaculture. And these have involved women vary substantially. For example, the pearls projects in Fiji and Tonga, which were recognised in the original PARDI Project as being opportunities. They've been borne out by careful work by ACIAR. And this and work on women and in the projects over the last decade or so led ACIAR to its 2017 Gender Strategy, which will be being renewed I believe, in the next year or so. So, this is pushing the frontiers further and based on very solid sort of evidence coming from careful analysis, and then careful development of the opportunities.
Caroline: We'll come back and talk more about ACIAR in a moment. I did want to find out though, were there any trigger points for you or situations that made you realise the importance of gender equality in international agricultural research for development?
Meryl: I guess there were several low one I've already mentioned being drawn in by a male colleague, to highlight the importance of women in fisheries and agriculture. The second trigger was realising just how hard it was having made that first foray into trying to understand what was going on. I found how difficult it was to generate the same level of interest more generally. And that really, today is still the case. The fisheries sector has been rather isolated in many ways in its policies, and its international laws, and it's, therefore, it's national laws, from a lot of the advances made by the women's movement, for example. So, one critical international law, in fact, the only global international law on women is the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women CEDAW, which was agreed by the countries in 1979. And it's one of the most heavily adopted of the international laws of any field. But its use in the fisheries sector has been very little. And now we're pleased to say that several countries are, such as Indonesia, are starting to bring CEDAW into the fisheries policy-making in some of their fisheries programs. So, it's realisation that fisheries has operated in its own world rather than seeing itself more as part of society and the people that work in it is more embedded in the general society and economy. So, trying to bring fisheries into greater connection with what's happening on gender equality in the rest of the economy, and politics and society is quite a challenge. Yes, indeed.
Caroline: And Meryl, where else are you seeing examples in your field of how gender is still being overlooked?
Meryl: I think one of the biggest examples is happening right now, which has been the disruption caused by the pandemic where supply chains have been very badly disrupted in many cases, not all, where women's work has been changed by those disruptions by things like the movement control orders in many countries, happen from time to time with different peaks in the pandemic, these have kept women close to home, have put back on them a lot of the care work that then takes them out of the employed economy. And we've been doing some projects recently that by accident, of course, coincided with a pandemic. And this has come out very strongly that women rather than men don't have access to the latest phones in many countries, so that they are hard to contact a not able to even get to some of their seaweed farming areas, for example, they are required to stay near the home and look after the children who may not be full time at school anymore. So, doing something about empowering women, before we get more disasters, and making sure that they are part of the system that receives help. Many of the women, of course, aren't registered as working in the sector, they’re just informal workers. So when governments come around to give some assistance to people in a particular sector, they don't see the women there because the women aren't registered, so the women don't get some of the support and other assistance that's going around. So, the pandemic, as in previous disasters has highlighted the way women are overlooked and the damage this does when a disaster occurs. But this damage, of course, is happening in smaller ways in ongoing normal periods. So getting women made formally more recognised, with more of a voice, able to be part of the decision-making, rather than not even thought about is some of the critical lessons that are emphasised yet again, by the disruptions being caused by the pandemic.
Caroline: On the flip side, can you share some examples that emphasise the value of focusing on women as a vehicle for positive change and sustainable development?
Caroline: Yes, and even a couple from the pandemic itself, the online marketing of some seafood products, in some areas where there's good connectivity has given advantage to particularly some of the younger women. And it's also brought in younger members of the family who may be more IT capable than, than their parents in some cases. So, this has spurred opportunities that were dependent before on old ways of getting the product to market and finding buyers. So that's one opportunity. However, again, that needs to be calibrated in a way with the fact that women often aren't the most connected in an IT sense. And so, the more connectivity is the better. Women are also being supported and encouraged to collectivise to work together. Now that's not always as easy as it seems to be. because often they will have even competitive interests in, for example, fish marketing. But it has been some of the work by existing groups who are already used to working together such as the African AW fish net group of women fish processes, that's been quite active in many countries in Africa in promoting the women's online and other marketing opportunities. So collective action definitely can work. But it's not always easy. And when you come to an emergency situation, collective action can be really, really important to getting attention to the right places.
Caroline: Meryl, you have decades of experience under your belt, are there specific parts of your research over that time that I guess stand out to you as having a lasting impact or a lasting effect?
Meryl: I think keeping the research action of Research and Outreach action going on gender is one of them. And it's still a very small action. Globally, I still believe we have huge distances to go in making a real impact. But in the 25-plus years that I've been involved, I've also seen how fragile progress can be. We now have around the world. In addition to the section which I currently lead, another dozen or so ongoing groups working in various parts of this business, nearly every one of them in that last 25 years, not all of them been going for 25 years. But nearly every one of them in that time has at one stage or other thought of just closing up. It's very hard to keep the momentum going when support is often very low when the founders retire, and there aren't enough others to take over, etc. But I've also seen that the right amount of encouragement not to close up at those critical moments has helped groups keep going and strengthen in the next stages. So working together with all of the groups as we've established ourselves and worked with each other around the world has to me been one of the most rewarding and revealing pieces of work and revealing in the sense that it just shows how hard it is to establish action and to get progress. But the knowledge base is growing considerably. We've got a lot of the mainstream research journals now actually wanting articles on women and gender in fisheries before it was very hard to get them into anything but the social science journals. So, there's a growing interest. So, we hope it's snowballing.
Caroline: It's certainly a collective approach and it needs leaders like yourself to help that momentum continue. Let's talk about ACIAR again. And you did touch on this before but how have you seen ACIAR research and engagement in the gender space evolve over time.
Meryl: I've seen it evolve with the whole of ACIAR as approach and program. And I'm very hopeful that it's going to be a major contributor to the efforts as I said, I've seen the work in the Pacific bear fruits with actual projects. But more than projects, of course, farms and community group enterprises in places like Fiji and Tonga, for the pearls as an example, to people actually prospering because of the work that ACIAR did. I've seen it grow into the gender policy, which now informs the whole of ACIAR work. I saw ACIAR lead the Seeds of Change Global Conference in Canberra, in 2019, which was one of the first global agricultural conferences on gender in agriculture, was happy to be part of a 2017 workshop. That was one of the factors that led to that conference. The first groups of Meryl Williams Fellows that are stressing the importance of women leaders, I think is really important. And when I met with the really inspiring first group, in 202) one of the things I tried to encourage them with was to say, don't just think of your own careers. But think of what women in the agricultural systems that you work in are facing and how they can be helped by the research that you and your institutions lead. So I think that ACIAR is very well placed and I'm really looking forward to how that gender space is going to evolve in the years ahead on thinking it's going to be very exciting.
Caroline: Now you've had a long association with ACIAR, including the Meryl Williams Fellowship, which is a wonderful honour. Tell me about that and the other roles that you've held.
Meryl: I first had my formal contact with ACIAR in the early 90s. For a year or two, before changing jobs, a member of the Policy Advisory Council of ACIAR, this happened to also be the time that ACIAR was going through its sunset clause review. ACIAR was set up in 1982. It had a sunset clause in its establishment act, and the sunset clause said that ACIAR would run for 10 years, and then we'll see. And to get the sunset clause removed. If ACIAR had shown itself as a valuable contributor, a very substantial set of impact assessments and evaluations of ACIAR’s, first 10 years of work were being undertaken. The results that those evaluations and impact assessments came out with were really impressive. And of course, ACIAR’s type of work is not something you do once, and you've solved problems forever. The world is very dynamic place, things change, or you can't solve all the problems in 10 years. And the value of ACIAR’s work was shown very clearly by the reviews. So, it was not hard at all to get strong political support for removing the sunset courts. So that was my first exposure to ACIAR, which I suppose in a way gave it also a very good overview of what ACIAR was achieving. Of course, when I became director-general WorldFish Center for 14 years, our centre has one of the CGIAR centres was a recipient of ACIAR support. And I found ACIAR as a donor to be thorough, respectful, tough, but very long-term support of when they did their homework on whether something was a good area to support. They kept that support going through various stages of development provided the work was going well or the idea was proving up. So, I found ACIAR, a very honourable funding partner to work with. Later, I became the Chair of the ACIAR Board of Management and Policy Advisory Council for three years. And that period coincided with another change in the overall federal government's governance approaches. And those sorts of boards of management were generally done away with in a lot of government agencies and were replaced with things such as commissions. So, in the case of ACIAR, the government split the Policy Advisory Council and created a new commission. With similar but different responsibilities to the Board of Management. I chaired the commission then for another three years and was very close to the ACIAR programs in that period. Since then, I've had only very infrequent interactions with ACIAR, and lately, mainly on the gender front. But I always keep a very good lookout for the exciting things come out of ACIAR and I love reading Partners magazine, and some of their technical reports and papers and so on and a huge fan of things that ACIAR does and how they do it.
Caroline: Meryl, you've mentioned how ACIAR and in some ways how the international research community has changed its approach to gender over the years, but more personally, have there been any milestone moments that were pivotal in you recognising that change was happening?
Meryl: Well, I guess they've been many of these things are often very small, but they are symbolic and can make a big difference. I mentioned earlier that we started out gender in aquaculture and fisheries symposia, and publications and reviews and so on, is through the Asian Fisheries Society, which is still very active in this area. We now have the society in its upcoming triennial forum, which is its main conference, highlighting with keynote speakers and plenary speakers, gender topics, and not putting the gender topic as the last one on its list of topics that will be covered by the conference. And also including imagery in its publications and its outreach that emphasise that this is a gender-inclusive approach and event and the themes are gender-inclusive. That sounds almost trivial, but it's highly symbolic and we would like other mainstream actors in the field to be doing the same thing. ACIAR is doing the symbolic in many of its images of its agricultural work, as are many others. So, I think those kinds of moments are small but the important steps in showing that things are changing. But I think we're still a long way from taking the change for granted, I think there is still a resistance in a lot of quarters, resistance to the extent that well, this is not really important that some of the bigger economic approaches may be more important and social aspects, not so vital. But we'd like to keep changing for the positive, those views that the social and inclusive aspects are in fact equally, and what's sometimes more important.
Caroline: There is obviously as always more work to be done. But pictures, as they say, are worth 1000 words. So, I have no doubt those moments were more than symbolic. To you work and live in Penang in Malaysia and have done for a couple of decades now. How are women addressing inequalities in aquaculture in your region, and more broadly, and have there been opportunities for improvement in recent years.
Meryl: There have the professional field is probably the area that seen the most improvement. There are more women scientists and more women in the technical professional areas in the government's and in the companies and in the aquaculture enterprises. But I keep cautioning people not to take that at face value, it doesn't mean that there's necessarily improvements in the whole value change in the people working in factories, processing the fish or the shrimps. etc, we need change rights throughout, we need more women entrepreneurs, we need more women in management, we need more women in decision making and political roles in the sector. Some colleagues and I have recently published a paper on women in the Western and Central Pacific tuna fisheries, looking right across the industrial-scale value chains, which deliver you your canned tuna in the supermarket, to the small-scale tuna, fisheries and fish processing products, value chains in the countries which don't get much attention. And the data that we had to draw on were very poor, as gender-disaggregated data are throughout the world. But from what we could pull together, we estimate that probably in that fishery, which is the biggest tuna fishery in the world, and one of the biggest fisheries in the world, that women make up about half the workforce. But women do not get any attention at all, in all the policy work. So, we feel that that has to change. So, you know, my vision is that there is a quantum leap in knowledge sometime in the next decade, about the current status of women in all the agricultural value chains in the agriculture communities and households. I think ACR can have a role here also that gender is a dimension that's going to be included in all the program planning and delivery. And when I say gender, I mean women, men, minority genders, people's life stages are important. Among the many diversity factors, whether people are young or old, what are the different needs and opportunities? How do we factor in a more equal share of the care and reproductive work in our societies? And then how are we going to deal with the future of putting into practice the lessons we're learning from the pandemic and climate and other disasters? So, I think we need a lot more building on what we've the progress we've already made.
Caroline: I'd like to look into the crystal ball now. What do you see as the future opportunities for strengthening the impact of women in agriculture and research? worldwide?
So, I guess, what's your vision?
Meryl: We need all of the key policymakers to be gender educated. And by this, I mean women as well as men, many of the women in senior positions and as I said, there are more and more of them. Don't think gender is an issue because they have attained their senior positions, their leadership positions. In fact, some of the greatest resistance to doing gender work can come from successful women. I often point out that this is a result of the huge advances we've made in educating women. This has been one of the real wins of the last century. women's education and that's paid off in senior women in professional positions. But it doesn't translate into the same gains for women in other areas, but we have to educate the decision-makers, women and men, that there are still huge needs to improve the status and opportunities for women in all the sectors, that there's very systemic discrimination all through life and careers. And that's very hard for most people to overcome. There's a lot of stereotyping of women and men's skills and abilities, that's quite unequal and not correct, that needs to be overcome, we need to give women and minorities greater voices. So I would tend to start with trying to find ways to as we are to open the eyes of the people who are making decisions at the top, I would also want a lot done about collecting data so that we really know what's happening, the changes I see from the research often don't have time series have good data to support them, we have to go from the individual research projects that might have come up with individual data points, but we don't have comprehensive data that really has to change so that we know where to put the effort for the future.
Caroline: There's obviously a big job ahead, but you have had the passion and commitment all of this time to achieve what you have. How do you feel about handing the baton on in the next, you know, 10/20 years and I guess where that baton ends up?
Meryl: I'm hoping to hand over a lot sooner than that. But I feel positive about where the baton lands up because I see a couple of generations coming up that are much more aware. But we the older generation always think that the younger generation doesn't appreciate the challenges enough. But they do come equipped with much better knowledge of the issues that we had, when we started working in this field, is my belief from my own career trajectory. So, I think they have a much better platform on which to build their efforts and a much wider set of tools to build on as well. One of the positives of the pandemic has been in some ways to make the inclusion of voices a bit easier. I mean, I think it's still going to be difficult, but people can now attend webinars and even be admitted to high-level global meetings that they once couldn't afford to go to. Now more people can be part of what's happening. Now, I don't think that translates into power. But I do think it allows access to knowledge and potential sources of influence. So, I think the next generation coming up is better equipped, knowledge-wise, but it needs to take that knowledge to a new level again. And it does have more tools than we had in our day for becoming active and influential in making change.
Caroline: And Meryl. What advice would you give to a woman or women keen to start a career in aquaculture or an international research for development? And forge this path, much like you have?
Meryl: Oh, definitely go for it. And it'll be very rewarding. Don't think it's always going to be plain sailing? It never is. I read a lot of interviews with particularly young women who are working in the field. And when asked if they've had any challenges from being a woman will say no, you know, not at all. And I'm always a little bit amused by that because I think they probably haven't yet had the challenges they go to have. I think everybody has challenges in their careers, whether they because of your gender, or other factors. But just be ready to realise that this is not the end of the world. And that you can bounce back, overcome whatever the challenge is, and get on with whatever it is that you're planning to do to make a difference for good. So, go for it, but be ready.
Meryl: Some great advice there. And before you go, Meryl, I'd like for you to share with me what ACIAR means to you as we mark the organisation's 40th year.
Meryl: ACIAR to me has been a teacher about international agricultural research. It's been a donor to organisations and projects I've worked on. It's been a source of tremendous benefit to our partners in developing countries and to all Australians, including particularly the agricultural, forestry and fisheries communities.
Caroline: And what a perfect way to end Dr Meryl Williams, you've achieved so much. Thank you for joining me in the ACIAR studio.
Meryl: Thank you, Caroline.
Host: We hope you've enjoyed this episode of ACIAR voices in celebration of 40 years of ACIAR, listen to our other episodes to meet ACIAR luminaries and hear their stories of agricultural research for development from 1982 to 2020.