Published on The Water Blog

One single amenity can make all the difference to gender diversity in the workplace

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Malawi gender story Malawi gender story
"If our workplace introduced one single amenity – lactation rooms – we would have the opportunity to advance in our careers and compete with men on equal footing."
View expressed by multiple female employees
Lilongwe Water Board

In Malawi, as in most parts of the world, childcare tasks rest predominantly on women – in fact, Malawian women and girls above the age of 15, spend seven times more on unpaid care and domestic work than men. As long as family-friendly policies and facilities are not offered at the workplace, such gendered divisions of household tasks come in direct conflict with a woman’s career.  According to the World Bank’s ‘Women, Business and the Law’ report, one of the main barriers to women’s employment and job retention is their disproportionate role in unpaid care work. Take the case of nursing mothers. If a workplace does not have lactation rooms or other forms of childcare facilities in place, female employees with babies may not be able to work full time, or may need to leave the work premises to nurse during work hours, thus compromising their ability to work productively and unhindered. A gender assessment conducted by the World Bank at Lilongwe Water Board  found that the lack of childcare support, particularly lactation rooms, constituted one of the major perceived barriers for female employees in advancing in their careers.

Until recently, the request for childcare facilities expressed by the female employees of Lilongwe Water Board seemed like a pipe dream. The board  has historically been a heavily male-dominated organization, as has been the water sector as a whole across the world. A survey conducted in 2019 as part of a global report on gender diversity in water utilities (‘Women in Water Utilities: Breaking Barriers’) found that women in Lilongwe Water Board  were significantly underrepresented in the utility, making up only 15 percent of the total workforce. This parallels global averages, where the said report showed that women constitute only 18 percent of the total share of employees. Women were totally absent from managerial positions, with not a single woman represented in executive management.

Historically, workplace policies and practices at Lilongwe Water Board  have been unfavorable to women. The gender assessment found that other key barriers experienced by female employees included a lack of flexible work arrangements to accommodate mothers of young children; a shortage in female-friendly sanitation facilities for women’s menstrual hygiene management; a lack in leadership and management skills to feel empowered to compete against male colleagues. This is topped by deeply entrenched social norms and stereotypes that deem women as unfit for work in technical jobs, resulting in a dearth of female role models in the sector.  Malawi is not unique in holding such stereotypes. In most countries around the world, the fields of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) continue to be heavily dominated by men.

The Lilongwe Water Board  management is now bringing about seismic shifts to the long history of gender inequality in the water sector.  As part of the World Bank-funded Lilongwe Water and Sanitation Project, the board  is implementing a host of measures that foster gender diversity and inclusion in the organization. The utility has changed board composition so that women now outnumber men six to four. Where women were previously conspicuous by their absence, the Lilongwe Water Board now has women making up 26 percent in supervisory positions and 22 percent in management roles.

Most remarkably, Lilongwe Water Board  management has gone so far as to turn into reality the dream of female employees for lactation rooms – a dream that had seemed entirely unrealistic to these women merely a year earlier when the gender assessment was conducted. Since April 2020, board  employees have access to a childcare facility on premise that allows them to bring their young children and a nanny to work. This means that nursing mothers no longer need to rush home during lunch breaks or at other times to feed their babies, but can do so on site. This saves them time, enables them to work more productively, and helps them better balance work and childcare requirements. Ultimately, this allows them to compete with male colleagues on equal footing. 

The steps taken by the Lilongwe Water Board towards gender equality is a remarkable example of an organization accepting feedback from employees (from the gander assessment) and translating it into direct action.  These measures are bound to go a long way. Not only because it improves the daily reality of female employees, particularly mothers of young children, but also because it demonstrates the commitment by senior management. In fact, Lilongwe Water Board management’s dedication to gender diversity does not end here. As next steps it has committed to further expanding opportunities for women by providing scholarships to girls in technical fields; putting in place a mechanism to identify, report, investigate and address discrimination and exclusion; and recruiting more women to meet a 40:60 percent ratio.  The Lilongwe Water Board is on track in becoming an exemplary model for the water sector as a whole.


Odete Duarte Muximpua

Water Supply & Sanitation Specialist

Gaia Hatzfeldt

Social Inclusion Specialist

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