At this year’s World Water Week in Stockholm, and with its tagline ‘Water for Society: Including All,’ diversity was everywhere. Speakers and panelists from diverse backgrounds – in terms of gender, age, ethnicity, and disability status – shared their experiences and insights. Posters displaying inclusive statements, such as “Everyone is Welcome” dotted the walks and booths. And the opening plenary featured a female parliamentarian from African with a disability, a young female professional, and an Indigenous woman representing Aboriginal peoples in Canada.
But how reflective are such examples of inclusion of the water sector as a whole?
While social inclusion may be crucial to achieving the SDGs and may increasingly occupy center-stage in some areas of development discourse, evidence shows that despite concerted efforts in the right direction, the water sector still has a long way to go. A report we launched at World Water Week, Women in Water Utilities: Breaking Barriers shows just how far. It reveals that not only are women underrepresented in water utilities, they leave water jobs at higher rates than men and face significant barriers throughout their careers. This signals that the efforts and gains that have been made by the water sector to increase the representation of women at community-based organizations, such as in Water User Associations or in Village Water and Sanitation Committees, have not translated to formal water institutions.
Drawing on quantitative and qualitative sources, including survey data collected from 64 water and sanitation utilities in 28 economies, the report finds that on average, women represent less than 18 percent of a utility’s workforce. Less than one in four managers and engineers are female. Moreover, female engineers leave utilities at nearly twice the rate of their male counterparts.
It finds that by expanding the talent pool to include women, a utility can maximize its chances of recruiting the most talented candidates to address the sector’s evolving needs. Increasing women’s participation in water utilities benefits women, communities, and the organization. Women get access to more and better jobs. Communities gain better representation in water-managing bodies. And a diverse water workforce better represents the breadth and diversity of its clients. Findings from the private sector show that gender-diverse companies tend to report higher profits, benefit from more innovation, make better decisions, have more satisfied customers, and stronger governance, among other benefits outlined in the report.
So why are women underrepresented? In the report we explore the factors that impact gender diversity in water jobs by looking at four stages of a career cycle: attraction, recruitment, retention and advancement. Barriers to attracting and recruiting women to the sector include gender norms and stereotypes, occupational segregation, the low share of women graduating from technical fields, and the lack of female role models in the sector. Although many of these challenges pertain to broad societal and national-level challenges, there are, nevertheless, many concrete steps utilities can adopt to erode the social norms and stigmas against women working in the sector, and thereby contribute to increasing the supply of female professionals.
But it is not enough to attract women to the sector - we need to keep them. Women face many challenges that discourage them from remaining in these jobs. These can include lack of family-friendly policies, lower wages, discrimination and harassment in the workplace, including sexual harassment, and fewer training or networking opportunities. Childcare facilities and lactation facilities are mostly lacking across the utilities we surveyed. Ironically, water and sanitation service providers do not always provide adequate sanitation facilities for their employees - 18 percent of utilities in our sample did not have separate toilets for men and women.
There are many interventions and promising approaches that utilities can introduce to address these barriers and make their work environment more inclusive. For example, they can adopt maternity, paternity, and parental leave policies, and enforce anti-sexual harassment policies; or they can ensure separate sanitation facilities for men and women, on-site lactation rooms, or even childcare-facilities.
An increasing number of utilities are adopting some of these interventions and evidence suggests that there is an upward trend in the share of female employees in water and sanitation utilities: looking at data from the IBNET, the share grew from 13 to 23 percent between 2011 and 2016. This is a positive sign that the sector is changing and that women are becoming better represented. But a lot more needs to be done to create an enabling environment for ‘everyone is welcome’ to truly become a reality for the utilities of the present and the future.
 An international benchmarking network for water and sanitation utilities