Sangeeta Mangubhai – We need to break the glass ceilings

By Thimedi Hetti

Photo credit: Emily Darling

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 14: Life Below Water is about aiming to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas, and marine resources for sustainable development. In honor of both SDG 14 and World Ocean Day this month, I spoke to Dr Sangeeta Mangubhai, principal consultant and research scientist at Talanoa Consulting. Sangeeta has a PhD in coral reef ecology with 25 years’ worth of experience working on environmental issues. Originally from Fiji, she has worked in Australia, East Africa, Indonesia, and the South Pacific on natural resource management, coastal fisheries, “blue foods”, payment for ecosystem services, value chains, gender, protected areas, environmental policy, disaster, and climate change. Sangeeta is a 2018 Pew Fellow working on mainstreaming gender and human rights-based approaches into coastal fisheries in Melanesia.

What was it like growing up in Fiji?

“We spent a lot of time in nature, enjoying the outdoors with family and friends. It’s fascinating to think back to a time without TV or social media, when life was much simpler in Fiji. We spent a lot of time swimming in the sea. As a special treat, my dad would take us out snorkeling. We really got to appreciate the natural environment around us because that’s what we had and that was how we spent our family and leisure time together.”

What sparked your interest to get into marine science?

“My parents encouraged us to get out into the environment and enjoy it. We spent many Sundays at Suva Point, exploring the mangroves and mudflats looking for crabs, sea cucumbers, and shellfish. My aunt, who was a big part of our childhood, used to take us to her village and remote inland river areas. She taught us about things like fishing, natural resources, traditional medicines – and she still does because she’s generous with her knowledge. I didn’t really appreciate how much that time with so many different women who knew so much about nature taught me about the living environment until I was older. Those memories, stories, and information passed on have stayed with me and have been my foundation and early introduction into marine sciences and nature, through local and Indigenous knowledge.”

Can you tell us a little about your background and career?

“The first 25 years of my career had been largely working with international conservation NGOs. Prior to this job, I was the country director for the Wildlife Conservation Society’s program in Fiji. When you’re running an organization, there’s a lot of admin or fundraising and it’s harder to do more technical and hands-on work. I wanted to broaden my knowledge and skills because everything had been very conservation-oriented and I was keen to get into the development space and work across other sectors that I’ve not traditionally worked with. So, in 2022, I joined a local Fiji-based consultancy firm, Talanoa Consulting, which allowed me to pursue broader areas of interest. 

“The move was an important one for me. The real world is so complex and multi-disciplinary. We need to get out of our own silos of what we’ve originally studied and start understanding different disciplines and the relationships between different sectors, and thinking more holistically. I think that is what is needed to solve some of the challenging issues around our natural environment and our balance of how we live with it.” 

Could you highlight the importance of our oceans in today’s world?

“The ocean is absolutely critical to our wellbeing and survival on this planet; everything from the contributions it plays in terms of our climate, creating productive systems and food to livelihoods and cultural practices. It’s impossible to live without, but we still don’t understand it enough. Think about how much of the deep-sea ocean we have explored as opposed to the amount of money that gets invested into space exploration. However, we’re making huge decisions about the deep-sea ocean, where I don’t think we fully understand the consequences until it’s too late, just like with biodiversity and climate change. We seem to be a species that learns things far too late or not until we get to those critical tipping points. It is important that people better understand that our very existence is not possible without the ocean.”

One aspect of SDG 14 is sustainable fishing. What can we learn globally from small-scale and artisanal fisheries?

“There needs to be much more effort in terms of valuing small-scale fisheries as equally as big industrial-scale fisheries. When dealing with donors in the Pacific region (and elsewhere), there’s a skew towards funding work on industrial-scale fishing, despite in many cases, inshore fisheries being worth a lot more. This is because we only value fisheries if they’re economically valuable – meaning we can generate money from it. However, small-scale fisheries, and in particular subsistence fisheries in the Pacific, contribute to our food security and a high percentage of our basic protein needs.”

A lot of the work you do is involved with gender equality in the fisheries sector. What kind of inequalities do women face in fisheries and why is it so important to shed light on it?

“Women greatly contribute to the fisheries space. The wonderful work they do contributes to the critical roles they play in their families all the way up to the societal level. Yet, we recognize that those same women are not sitting at the table, sharing their thoughts and ideas, and bringing their own solutions when it comes to events and dialogues with policy- and decision-makers. There is a real gap and it’s challenging because some barriers are tied to cultural and social norms.

“A lot of my work is trying to get people to recognize that fisheries are gendered and understanding the different roles men and women each play is essential for the sustainable management and development of fisheries. Women also work in different spaces and environments, compared to men. There’s a misconception that when we talk about gender equality it’s all about women, but it’s actually about men and women and their relationships to each other, where there are imbalances. We really want to make sure we are being inclusive and fair, and that’s why we end up focusing a lot on women, because women and other marginalized groups are often the ones who have historically been left behind.

“At the end of the day, if women aren’t there to contribute their ideas, you’re essentially only using 50% of the brainpower to solve problems. You’re losing that opportunity for them to bring their knowledge, particularly traditional knowledge, to those spaces.” 

Building on that, what is the significance of intersectionality in achieving the SDG?

“It is important because it cuts to the heart of equity in fisheries. To be more equitable in fisheries, we need to understand how things are fair or unfair to different people. We can’t group people as just men and women in such a binary way, because people are made up of so many different social identities, and those intersecting identities are what give certain people privileges and others disadvantages. The challenge is that if we don’t look through an intersectional lens, there’s a much greater chance of leaving people behind. Those are the people who are invisible and become marginalized. We can’t have a truly functioning society when we have a vast portion of the population being left behind or being rendered invisible.”

From your own personal point of view, what were challenges you faced along the way, and in particular, as a woman of color in science?

“Growing up in Fiji, our education system wasn’t strong, and when I moved to Australia for the end of high school and then university, I really struggled. While I was privileged to get that opportunity to study overseas, it did require hard work. There were periods when I felt I wasn’t good enough to be a scientist, or that I could not write to the international level of English that is required in science. With time, hard work, stubborn persistence, and more opportunity, I went on and did my PhD. 

“When I then came back to Fiji after my PhD, there was less opportunity for me to pursue my passion for science. I also realized that peer-reviewed, published research in Fiji was largely done through foreign scientists flying in and out of my island home (a term known as ‘parachute science’). I saw over and over again Fijian scientists being left standing on the sidelines, made to feel like we can’t contribute or don’t know enough to share the same space as our international colleagues. It’s challenging to come out of that mindset, and not fall back into it since it gets reinforced in the world around us so much. Academia can be such a white, and more often male-dominated, space, so it can be very intimidating to want to pursue and stay in science unless you find allies in like-minded people who want to push back at unfair and unjust academic systems.” 

Can you expand a bit more about ‘parachute science’?

“Since COVID-19, there’s been a surge in publications where people are looking at their disciplines through a gender, equity, and inclusion lens. Consistently, the message is that the whole academic system is very skewed to advantage certain groups and disadvantage others. I get frustrated reviewing articles about research in Fiji and the Pacific when you see that they are largely dominated by foreigners, and that the local scientists were treated like low-level research assistants, or worse, labor for the research. I have also noticed that many don’t make the effort to read and quote local scientists and our academic papers. This is problematic because Pacific Island scientists are likely to be more accurate in terms of interpretation of data, especially in the social sciences. If you don’t know the history of a place, or the nuances around social and cultural systems, you don’t know enough context and knowledge to interpret results. When you read the research of ‘parachute scientists,’ it’s obvious that there are misinterpretations about a place because authors haven’t valued local knowledge or our contributions to the scientific literature.” 

On the flipside of this, how has being a woman in science felt empowering? 

“I got a Pew Fellowship a few years ago which was life-changing and career-changing. Gender in fisheries wasn’t something I studied at university, being a biologist by training. I later moved strongly into the social sciences and am largely self-taught. The shift provided an opportunity for me to do a deep dive into mainstreaming gender and human rights-based approaches into fisheries. I found that life-changing because it allowed me to not just do research, but to think about how to create research that you can then use to inform trainings, materials, and guidance documents for practitioners, with the ultimate aim of being able to better integrate gender and human rights-based approaches into the way we do fisheries. Because this is still a space where little is written, I feel empowered as a woman from the Pacific to produce research that is pushing some of those ‘glass ceilings.’” 

What are your hopes for the future?

“I’m in a really great place as a Fijian scientist because I spent a huge amount of time and investment in writing, and feel like I have colleagues who value my work and my contributions enough to be included in global collaborations. I want to do more collaborations with other people in the Global South because we have a lot of similarities in the challenge of our journeys and they have incredible passion and commitment for their countries, communities, and what they’re doing for the environment. There’s a lot we can learn from each other. I equally enjoy finding amazing allies in the Global North who are similarly committed to more fair and equitable science, and who treat you as their equal.”

And finally, what advice would you give to someone struggling to get into the marine science field?

“Be very selective of which voices you listen to. We live in a very patriarchal, Global North-dominated global community, so be careful not to listen too much to the voices stopping you from pursuing those dreams of being a scientist. Find good networks of local support to mentor you, uplift you, provide advice, and be a steadfast sounding board for your career. 

“If you can’t find mentors, perhaps create a support network with others who are going through the same struggles. See how you can work together to help pursue your dreams. It is hard, there are lots of glass ceilings, and many people who will try to keep those glass ceilings in place – but just try to persist and push through them because we need to break those glass ceilings permanently. So, my parting words are to find allies and create a movement of change.”

Frontiers is a signatory of the United Nations Publishers COMPACT. This interview has been published in support of United Nations Sustainable Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls and United Nations Sustainable Goal 14: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.

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