March 30, 2016 Society

Driving Change to Encourage Gender Diversity in Zambian Utilities’ Workforce

Where are we?

Zambia has made great strides in water and sanitation services, but there are still significant challenges to making access available to all. The National Coverage for water and sewerage is 83.5 per cent and 60.4 per cent respectively. The urban water supply and sanitation sector employs a total of 3,933 staff. The proportion of staff that had basic education was 40 per cent. The proportion of staff that holds a degree or diploma is 22 per cent while Certificate holders were 40 per cent.

What does this tell us about the sector and its needs? The sector is, in general, short of professionals, and is experiencing difficulty attracting and retaining staff with the nececcary qualifications or experience due to a lack of funding, unattractive working conditions, remoteness of work areas, and a loss of workers due ill health, including from HIV and AIDs. Additionally, the sector faces severe competition from other sectors. The mining sector in particular attracts a lot of hydrologists; social development workers are attracted to working in child health and HIV/AIDS reduction; and Zambia suffers a brain drain of health workers to neighbouring and European countries [1].

Women represent 27 per cent of the urban utilities workforce, a comparably high figure, but until recently it was difficult to tell whether women truly participated in decision making, because this was reported on. Emphasis was usually put on the number of women in the sector, although this too used to not be included in the regular reports produced on the sector.

The arrival of the IWA/USAID project (2014-2015), promoting the female participation in decision making positions in the water supply and sanitation sector, brought to life the need to have employee data for the water and sewerage companies disaggregated according to gender, and further divided into levels of management.

Without such information, evaluating the results of various gender mainstreaming activities will prove to be challenging. Consequently, NWASCO – the Zambian regulator – took the progressive step to report on female participation in water utility companies. The 2015 Urban and Peri-urban Sector Water Supply and Sanitation Sector report found that, of the total staff in the sector, 83 per cent were men and 17 per cent were women.

The data showed significant differences depending upon the work role in the utilities. At managerial level, 24 per cent were women, at supervisory level, 26 per cent and only 16 per cent worked in lower levels. This scenario demonstrated that the sector was still below the 30 per cent threshold of female participation set by the sector[2]. It was shocking to discover that some utilities, such as Luapala Water and Sewerage Company, were rated highly because of higher overall numbers of female workers, despite none of them being in management positions.

What should be done?

A variety of efforts should be taken at national and local government levels, including in the education system, and also at a community level. However, there are a few direct actions needed at utility level in Zambia.

Deliberate policies

We must remember that this is a sector that is predominantly male, and if we leave it to chance, it may never change. To increase greater diversity (including in decision making positions) utilities need deliberate Human Resource Management policies. This means that when recruiting we must take specific steps to encourage women to apply, and for those who are already working in the sector to act as champions and role models.

An enabling Work floor

Creating a level playing field for women requires employers to accommodate their needs in very practical ways. A place of work must be alive to our needs if it has to be conducive and successful. It may sounds ridiculous but yes, we Zambian women water professionals, like any other women, need toilets, sanitary bins and privacy in the work place. We don’t need special treatment, just the correct facilities.

Cultural shift and Acceptability

Gender specific roles in the workplace are a thing of the past. Today there is no such thing as jobs meant only for men or for women. So let us stop this cultural stereotype in the water sector and focus on capability regardless of gender. Women get out of your shells and show what you can do and men, accept that women are necessary and valuable colleagues. The water sector faces many challenges, gender should not be one of them. Together we can make a difference.


[1] Briefing Note Zambia

[2] 2015 Urban and Peri-Urban Sector Water supply and Sanitation Sector Report