August 11, 2016 Society

Five ways to crack the water sector’s glass ceiling

The shortage of skilled labour in the water sector severely hampers our ability to meet current water and sanitation needs, particularly in low- and middle-income countries. Addressing the future needs of growing populations, and rising demand for better and more accessible services, can only be addressed by a significant increase in the skilled workforce and a more diverse policy of recruitment.

Public and private water institutions struggle to maintain basic service levels. Water utility staff are stretched beyond capacity, skilled graduates are flocking to other sectors, and positions vacated by retiring males go unfilled, while females remain grossly underrepresented. Recommendations from the IWA’s new report, The Untapped Resource, shine a spotlight on how utilities can do more to encourage female professionals in the water sector. Something that will help meet the demands of a 21st century water sector workforce.

Go to school

Water utilities should boost female ‘water sector literacy’ and support entrance levels in secondary education. There, at the front end of the pipeline, water professionals should offer incentives to encourage female students to take up maths and science and provide role models to present at schools about the water sector, as well as offering field trips for all children both boys and girls. If school attendance is low due to costs, utilities can support schemes to ‘adopt a school’ or ‘adopt a girl’ and provide bursaries to females.

Adjust peoples’ attitudes

Utilities should foster gender-neutral outlooks amongst young men and women. They need to pay attention to procedures and practices regarding the creation of equal opportunities for men and women: in training, career paths, and participation in decision-making. By levelling the playing field, and encouraging men and women to work together, “utilities can help both genders achieve their full potential as powerful change agents”.

Seek professional help

Recognising the need for, and difficulty of, achieving gender equality is a step in the right direction. But success requires a coach who can take teams to the next level. Happily, there’s a new, growing resource pool to do just that: experienced facilitators. These experts master participatory methods that are designed to balance group dynamics, and ensure that the voices of some (read: alpha males) are not muted while other voices (ahem: self effacing females) are amplified.

Forge partnerships in other sectors

Just as water transcends boundaries, no individual or division can achieve gender diversity alone. The issue must be addressed at multiple levels –policy, education, organisation and society. One utility may initiate a meeting to address forecasting and planning of human resources in the sector. A second can provide evidence to advocate policy changes and multi-sectoral investments in the area. Others could organise an Open Day to which they invite schools, faith-based organisations, NGOs, CBOs etc. to showcase their work.

Feel free to show off

Utilities would benefit from highlighting the people, committees and commissions that succeed. These should focus work under the overarching theme of increasing the participation of women in the water sector. As champions emerge, and come up with and support implementation of new ways and practices, their progress should be recognised and honoured.


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The drive for diversity isn’t just about filling gaps in the workforce though. Anecdotal evidence suggests that urban water utilities perform better by increasing gender equality. Why? Some perceive that women possess the right mix of social skills and work-ethic integrity, transparency, and knowledge of what customers need most. After all, at least half of water utility customers are women, and a more diverse workforce would bring together more diverse skill sets and better reflect society.

While labour shortages are real the sector is diversifying to meet the growing demand, just not quickly enough. The Untapped Resource: Gender Diversity in the Water Workforce report addresses this by helping water utilities identify and overcome institutional barriers to women’s involvement at all levels in the sector, seizing the opportunity to transform itself.


Documents and reports attached to this page