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FEATURE STORYMarch 1, 2023

Cynthia Wickham, Solomon Islands: Caring, Confident, Problem-solver

Cynthia Wickham

Each year for International Women’s Day, the World Bank meets women across East Asia Pacific who are challenging, creating, and leading the way in their fields.

Cynthia Wickham is embarking on a new chapter after 14 years as a fisheries professional in the Solomon Islands. Describing herself as a caring, confident problem-solver, Cynthia serves on the boards for Solomon Water and the Tuna Trust Credit Union - leadership roles in which she brings her determination to learn, grow and be of service. 


What inspired you to pursue work in fisheries?

My father worked in the fisheries industry. After playing sports in high school, I wanted to do physiotherapy and was taking a year off when he sent me out on a fishing boat trip. My job back then was to hold this gate down while they picked up undersized bycatch to throw back into the sea. I enjoyed the trip and realized I really liked fisheries, so I applied for a scholarship to study Fisheries Science at the Australian Maritime College. I was not successful with my scholarship application; however, I was very fortunate to have parents who still found a way to get me there to do my studies.

What does your profession mean to you?

I am lucky that I got to experience several types of fishing methods. I worked with carriers, worked with longliners, and got to understand the vessels and the people working on them. I had the opportunity to venture outside Noro to our head offices overseas, giving me a global view of the industry. I got to see how global trading happens and where the fish ends up in canneries other than our Soltuna cannery. 

Over my 12 years in the industry, I saw growth in the fleets that call to the Solomon Islands and increased regulations and documentation that go with tuna trading from our little corner of the world. There's been and continues to be a big push for more sustainability in the industry, and more care is being put into decisions now regarding the fisheries stock than before, which is a good thing. 

In your various roles, how have you seen equality evolve in your field?

When I started, I was a young woman, newly graduated, and entering an organization with few females in the operations department. Then they had a young agent officer; she was the boarding officer for the carriers at the time. When I left, we had nine more women in leadership and management roles, and we probably outnumbered the men at our Head of Department meetings. We had women managing or in charge of Human Resources, Sustainability and Fisheries Compliance, Fleet Compliance, Crew Development, PL and LL Operations, Quality Control, Procurement, Warehouse, and Agency Operations. Outside of leadership roles, we see women taking on roles that previously only men were doing, with women mechanics in our vehicle workshop and women being part of the casual labor taking part in unloading vessels. 

That’s onshore, but the industry is still quite male-dominated in the fleets. I see women bring a different style when, for example, you're dealing with 100-plus fishermen, and they're always out at sea. But then a close family member dies at home or a child of theirs is seriously ill, and as a woman and a mother, you empathize with them and their wives onshore, so you're going to try and help them as much as possible. You see them as more than a name on a payroll sheet because their families sometimes communicate with the office when they are out at sea. 

This year’s UN theme for International Women’s Day is ‘DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality.’ How can digital technology and innovation deliver greater gender equality?

What's gaining more traction now is real-time data. People want to know what's been caught, where it's been caught, who's catching it, where's it going, and where it ends up, from the vessels catching it at sea to the consumers scanning barcodes. This digitalization will open up opportunities because, in the industry, you're not just looking at someone's physical abilities anymore. You're on a level playing field with your mind. You're able to use your brains, use your intelligence in this digital space. It's been a good experience on the boats. It opens up a new space where women can come into and be instantly on an equal playing field.

You can understand the fishing industry differently when it comes to digitalization. If you're into data or traceability, you can put that together and be on a level playing field with anyone else in the digital space. Women should capitalize on that. Take every opportunity they can to get into that space because it is moving. The Solomons has an Electronic Monitoring and Reporting Department for the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources. They're putting cameras on boats now, with observers trained in observing recorded footage. Eventually, we hope all fleets will be doing away with the paper log sheets. It’s a very convenient way of reporting information when it’s been trialed, tested, and working well.

What were some of the challenges you faced as a leader, and what did you learn from them?

I serve on two boards. I'm on the Solomon Water Board and chair the Tuna Trust Credit Union. We started the Credit Union in 2014, and now that’s helping tuna industry workers and their families in Noro with our financial products. Since stepping into the chair’s role, I’ve found it interesting having a mix of members who are used to certain ways of governance and have more experience, with newcomers who are developing their own leadership and governance style, so there's an element of respect that you still have to keep at the forefront despite any differences that you may come across. 

Having to put your foot down is where I find the challenge is for me, when you know what's right and when someone's not exactly doing it wrong, but testing those waters. The cultural barrier of being a female, being younger, being less experienced, but still knowing what's right - you have to navigate how to put it nicely. You say it with a smile.

In your experience, what do you see as the key ingredients to succeeding?

When you care about something a lot, you always do what's in its best interest. You aren't just there to clock in and clock out. When you care about something, you do well in it, and when you do well, you excel. Also, doing what's always right, even when it's hard, and encouraging others to do the same. Overall, I would say caring, doing what's right, and finding ways to understand who you’re dealing with when there are differences at play.

What are some memorable projects or mentors you've encountered in your career?

My tuna tagging experience with the Pacific Community (SPC) from 2008 to 2009 was my first fisheries-related job out of university. My dad said, “There is a group of scientists doing tagging. With your background in fisheries, you might be interested.” We went on a five-month cruise in this boat around the Pacific, and I got to see how scientists collect data. Fast forward to 2017, I ended up managing the vessel and most of the same crew I was on the tagging trip with. 

Being on the managing end of the vessel and preparing it for this tagging trip was a complete eye-opener for me compared to when I simply stepped onto the vessel to work as a tagging technician. I had a new appreciation for the work that went on behind the scenes when I was a tagging technician. I now found myself thinking about the food lists, spare parts, whether we had enough gas and freezer space for food, making sure clearance documents were in order, is the weather okay, and so on. This wasn’t just a typical fishing trip but a chartered trip for research, so we couldn’t afford to have things go wrong with the vessel. Looking and thinking back, I know everything I had gone through had prepared me for that moment. That's one of the most memorable parts of how everything came full circle for me.

What advice would you give Pacific women still studying, early in their careers or considering a career change?

If you decide to make a change or a big life decision, it's such a pivotal moment. As long as you recognize, this is what you need to do, that's where your starting point is. For me, it was good schooling for my son that inspired my latest life change. The lifestyle I wanted no longer matched my workload and location, and there was enough reason to say, “I need this. My kids need it. My partner needs it.” From that starting point, we worked out what the next thing was. 

I'm enjoying time off - not closing off opportunities, but taking the time to figure out what I want to do next. Remaining in the fisheries space would be ideal. I'd love to give consulting, get involved with community work, and manage my own time. One of my bosses advised me to decide the lifestyle I want, then work to achieve that.


The World Bank - through the Pacific Regional Oceanscape Program - is helping Pacific countries deliver greater returns from their fisheries, while ensuring fish stocks and marine environments are better protected for future generations. Learn more.

**The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily represent the views of the World Bank Group.


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