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More women, or more leaders?

The industry needs more of both.

On Tuesday night, I found myself in a position I haven't been in at a seafood event for some time. I found myself unsure of how to act.

After 15 years of mingling, I know how to elbow my way in to a gathering of seafood execs -- it's a big part of my job.

And I know what kind of small talk to make. We all have our opening gambits, our talking points, our frames of reference.

But, suddenly I didn't. With so many people animatedly engaged in conversation, I didn't really feel comfortable butting in. They looked deeply engaged with each other. They were talking passionately and animatedly. They seemed to share inside jokes I didn't know. Would I be welcome, or an annoyance? I felt, simply, out of place. 

Certainly nobody intended to make me feel that way. It was just that I found myself in a minority, and had to recalibrate how I connected with this crowd. I was able to experience, on a very small level, the additional hurdles you face when outnumbered and in a social situation you're not sure how to navigate. Welcome to the world of Women in Seafood.

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My colleague Rachel Mutter, who emceed the inaugural IntraFish Women in Seafood Leadership Summit on Tuesday, opened the event by saying, "I guess this is what it feels like to be a man."

The room, which was over 95 percent women, erupted into applause.

The entire lineup of speakers offered, for me, some of the most insightful and inspiring presentations I'd seen in this industry, and the feedback we've gotten from the audience already is that they hadn't been inspired in quite this same way, either.

When, for example, was the last time you heard a speaker tell you to say "No" to authority? To "go start your own fucking company" if you're not happy where you are? Most importantly, when was the last time you walked away from a conference reminded of just why you love the seafood industry?

Something was very, very different on Tuesday night. As the evening wore on, it became clear what that difference was: passion.

The industry has in its midst a group of employees that have the passion, enthusiasm and dedication to this sector that is largely being overlooked. And far from dismissing men as creating obstacles (though there is plenty of that in this sector), many of the presenters were inspired and mentored by men. The result? Their companies benefited from long-term, dedicated employees that made them more successful and profitable.

Men need to set biases aside and think pragmatically. This isn't just about what's right -- it's about what's smart. This industry has come a long way, but we need new faces, and that can't and shouldn't just be new male faces. Multiple presenters (and many, many studies back this) noted that in their experience, having women in management positions improves productivity, morale and profitability.

It's easy to stay in your cultural comfort zone, but oftentimes, comfort equals stagnation.

And if anything, when you have to fight harder for opportunities -- which women certainly do -- you're more eager to succeed.

But our presenters pointed out that women tend to underestimate their ability, while louder, more aggressive male colleagues suck the air out of the room. I have a feeling many in the audience left ready and eager to take on that challenge.

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The advice to attendees was blunt, direct and above all else, honest. Take Trident Seafoods' Torunn Knoph Halhjem, one of the driving forces behind making the event a reality. 

In her speech kicking off the event, she gave advice anybody trying to succeed in their career needs to hear: ignore the people who tell you 'you can't,' surround yourself with like-minded individuals, find a mentor, speak up, don't take 'no' for an answer, and -- most importantly -- strive to be respected, not liked.

In all the ways the industry communicates in the public sphere, it's rare that executives actually admit that they didn't start out knowing everything, and that their path to the top was paved with a lot of help from others. We're certainly lacking women in seafood, but we're also lacking leaders that can help others craft a career path.

So as it turned out, the Women in Seafood Leadership Summit was a lot more about leadership than it was about women.

Feedback? Contact:  drew.cherry@intrafish.com

Follow me on Twitter:  @drewcherry

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