Published on The Water Blog

Ideas on how to break gender barriers in Colombia's water sector

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A Chibcha legend says that when there were no men on earth, the planet was covered by water. One day, Bachué, a beautiful woman with black hair, emerged from Lake Iguaque. Upon seeing her, the inhabitants of the area were amazed by her presence; she taught them to live with each other and with nature as a true family. Bachué was the mother of the first indigenous inhabitants of Colombia, who gave her the title of mother of humanity and source of life. Because she came from the water, she and all aquatic animals were especially revered. For the Chibchas, there was a direct relationship between water, women, and life.

The relationship between water and women does not come only from mythology. Since ancestral times, women have been responsible for managing water in communities, particularly for daily household activities such as cooking or washing clothes. In Colombia, for example, Wayuu women (the Wayuu are an indigenous people from the La Guajira department) often walk up to 10 kilometers a day to bring water to their families. The situation is similar in other countries of the world, where women have learned to allocate this resource very well for their domestic activities, taking into account the difficulties of access.

But if women and water are closely linked, why are there so few women working in the water sector?

The World Bank’s global study Women in Water Utilities: Breaking Barriers, part of the Equal Aqua initiative, indicates that globally only 18 percent of public utility workers surveyed are women. In Colombia, although there are no in-depth studies on the subject, a recent survey of various companies, which are now part of the Equal Aqua global database, found this figure to be around 20 percent.  It would be useful to do a more detailed study that would provide more clarity on the situation in the country.

One reason for this situation has to do with the percentage of women studying for careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Less than 40 percent of women worldwide choose careers in these fields. In Colombia, according to a recent special report entitled “Una Maratón en Tacones (A Marathon in Heels),” published by the newspaper El Tiempo, only 3 out of 20 women opt to study for STEM careers. A World Bank report on the link between water and gender notes that “the low number of women in water-related technical roles reflects their overall exclusion from such jobs.”

In order to address this issue, it is important for women currently working in the water sector to be role models, since one of the reasons why women do not pursue careers in STEM or in the water sector is that there are few women to inspire them to do so. This can be achieved by creating opportunities for women leaders to share their experiences, their challenges, and their recommendations for staying the course. A simple conversation with a student or professional seeking advice can significantly change the path of their careers.

Barriers to recruitment

Another factor that helps explain the gender gap in the sector is the recruitment barriers that women face. Many women are reluctant to apply for positions in water management institutions because the jobs are described in terms that lead them to believe that they are not “suitable” for women. 

In Colombia, there has been some progress in this regard. Nevertheless, it appears that the positions for which most women working in water institutions are hired are not technical positions that would offer them opportunities for faster professional growth and better pay. Interviews with women around the world reveal that not only is the language used in job postings an impediment, but that, during job interviews, women are made to feel nervous and insecure by the inevitable questions about their future plans, including whether they plan to have children.

There are strategies that can help narrow the gender gap in recruitment, including:

  • Changing the language in job announcements to make it more inclusive.
  • Opening up internships that make it possible to transition from universities to companies.
  • Reducing biases in the hiring process.

There are also steps that can be taken to improve the retention and advancement of women. For example, as part of the expansion of the El Salitre wastewater treatment plant in Colombia, a diversity and inclusion committee was created, flexible schedules were introduced for women with children, and courses were offered to enable all personnel, regardless of gender, to pursue further training right from the start of their employment.

It has been shown that increasing the presence of women in institutions not only contributes to gender equity, but also leads to greater innovation and yields numerous economic benefits.  Particularly in the water sector, taking into account women’s understanding of and relationship to water resources since ancient times, greater inclusion of women can help generate more appropriate and sustainable solutions and improve water conservation. In Colombia, much work remains to be done, and it is important to increase our knowledge of gender barriers in the sector in order to propose actions that will enable the country to advance equitably.


Karen Navarro

Water and Sanitation Specialist, World Bank

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