Encouraging Gender Diverity in Africa’s Urban Water Sector

One of the IWA’s strengths is in our diverse membership; from different countries, professional roles, educational backgrounds, age and gender. This mix ensures we have a balanced and representative network of water professionals who collaborate and exchange ideas, often from different perspectives, to deliver high value knowledge products and expert advice. Institutions with responsibility for water management often lack this diversity, particularly in some African countries, and their decision-making processes are weaker without it.

The argument that businesses, including water and sanitation utilities, will deliver better services if their workforce reflects the community they serve is one embraced by the world’s leading brands. A diversified workforce is more likely to be able to address the challenges, find solutions and communicate them well to the communities that are paying for those services.

Anecdotally, we know that men predominate in the water sector, but the available research also supports this claim. IWA’s recent report, An Avoidable Crisis: WASH Human Resource Capacity Gaps in 15 Developing Economies, highlights that, on average, women make up a meagre 17% of the total workforce. This should be a rallying call for the water sector to take active ownership of diversifying its workforce.

Investments in the water sector are often catalytic for raising the standard of living and promoting developments well beyond the water sector; promoting the role of women in the water sector would deliver a win-win.

The road towards encouraging gender equality

Strengthening the role for women in the urban WASH sector is one of the key recommendations coming out of the An Avoidable Crisis report. To increase female participation and encourage women to work in the sector the report proposes: a) promoting technical careers to female school and university students; b) designing recruitment procedures aimed at increasing female participation; c) encouraging WASH technical education through scholarships; d) stimulating disaggregated HR data to measure progress.

Whilst impossible to turn around societal and cultural norms, and change society’s behaviour in a day, it is possible to enable action. To do this the Women Professionals in Urban Water Sector Project, supported by USAID, developed an approach to promote gender equality and provide compelling reasons to decision-makers and stakeholders to act on the report’s suggestions,

First we asked ourselves: Why? Why should they engage more women at all levels of the urban water sector workforce? What is the added value for increased and/or improved female participation? Why should they disaggregate HR data and measure progress?

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Finding answers meant investigating the relationship between female involvement and performance of urban utilities. We approached this by gathering case studies from urban water sector organisations. For example, Chola Mbilima, a project participant from Zambia, who works for the national regulator, noticed more honest and accurate regulatory reports after the male Managing Director was succeeded by a woman. This was observed upon evaluation of reporting versus actual auditing over a 5-year timeframe.

Without an in-depth understanding of the incentives, opportunities and barriers facing women, we won’t succeed in promoting greater gender equality in the urban water sector. Using a survey and in-country semi-structured interviews we gathered additional data.

This allowed us to understand perceptions of those working in the water sector, cultural/societal barriers, the freedom to choose scientific or technical careers, and the drivers, interests and motivations that women have to work in the water sector.

Alone, we know research is not enough to inspire change. A combination of successful gender initiatives, within and beyond the water sector, coupled with policies and an evolving human resource culture, is be needed to change practices. Through desk research, the survey and semi-structured interview, we have started to bring together best practices and lessons learned.

We are now starting to analyse all of this data. Our understanding of the barriers and bottlenecks, and of how women can be encouraged and incentivized to remain within the sector, will improve. In the next few months, it will be up to us working with national governments and water companies to break down the institutional barriers to women’s education and employment in the sector; and develop action plans to deliver greater opportunities for female water professionals now and of the future.

We expect to finalise the results of the data analysis by the end of May. Stay tuned if you want to know more. On Twitter, @iwahq, on Facebook, InternationalWaterAssociation and on LinkedIn, International Water Association