March 4, 2016 Society

Unlocking the Untapped Resource, the Business Case for Workforce Diversity

In an era of water scarcity and rising demand, untapped water resources would be looked upon as a huge opportunity. Why then doesn’t the water sector have the same attitude to the opportunities presented by untapped human resources?

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have raised the bar for the water sector to ensure sustainable access to clean water and sanitation. They challenge us to capitalise upon a once-in-a-generation opportunity to accelerate improvements in water supply, sanitation and wastewater services; while simultaneously connecting water to the broader sustainability agenda across environment, health, energy, agriculture and industry

How we achieve this vision of a water-wise world means that, beyond increasing access to improved services and facilities, there is a need to address the root causes of serious underlying problems faced by the water sector around the globe. To make this happen, we have to transform sector-wide practices drastically.

Transformation requires resources, and this has to start with human resources, those who drive the transformaion. Human resources in the water sector are already stretched to breaking point just maintaining service levels as they stand today. IWA’s human resource assessments, as well as news and trends, highlight that in many countries the sector is confronted with serious constraints on its ability to respond to future demand: human resources shortages; a lack of professionals with the right competencies; an ageing workforce; and a failure to attract and retain professionals for critical jobs.

Women, an untapped resource

On top of human resources shortages, and the impact of retirement on the workforce in coming decades, the sector’s workforce lacks diversity. This is most clearly illustrated by the poor level of participation by women professionals; something highlighted in twelve developing countries that participated in IWA research into human resources and workforce diversity.

Diversity Graphic


In water utilities in industrialised countries, the percentage of women professionals is higher. Take for instance Suez Environnement, where women occupy 27,6 % of managerial positions[1]; or Veolia, where approximately 20% of the workforce[2] is female, although this varies from country to country with Asian (China 33%) and Central and Eastern European (Hungary 28%, Czech Republic 24%) countries having a higher percentage of women employees than the average.

Despite existing efforts, and progress made, women remain a large pool of underutilised potential.

Workforce Diversity to improve performance and address the challenges

In the commercial sector, the business case for workforce diversity has already been made. While diversity is a much broader issue than gender alone, studies highlight that increased gender diversity in leadership results in better performance of up to 30%, and that companies with three or more women on the board rated 73% higher in performance[3].

Running through a series of key current trends [4] [5] [6] that a diverse workforce can address, several seem applicable and relevant to the water sector’s current need for transformation.

  • Tap into underutilised resources: the sector faces shortages, and decreasing forecasts of workers due to an ageing workforce.
  • Represent the demographics of your customer base: to make solutions sustainable means putting our customers at the centre. Customers from the water sector are as diverse as the societies they live in, so should be the professionals delivering solutions to them.
  • Greater creativity and innovation: will be required to come up with sustainable practices for the sector, as well as continue to adapt to the changing environment.
  • Adaptive and distributed leadership: will draw upon a wider set of experiences and competencies in order to inform decision-making.

Addressing the under-representation of women in the water sector can simultaneously help close the capacity gap in the sector, address the challenges facing the water sector as the sustainability agenda is adopted, and stimulate womens’ access to education (SDG goal 4) and economic growth (SDG goal 8) around the world. It is a win-win solution in a race we cannot afford to lose.


The IWA will publish a new report on workforce diversity in the second quarter of 2016. Follow us on TwitterFacebook and LinkedIn to find out more.




[3] Catalyst. 2007. The Bottom Line: Corporate Performance and Women’s Representation on Boards (2004–2008). McKinsey & Company. 2013. Gender Diversity in Top Management: Moving Corporate Culture, Moving Boundaries. Women Matter 2013. Paris.

[4] Boston Consultancy Group –


[6] Harvey, Carol P.; M. June Allard (2012). Understanding and Managing Diversity (5th ed.). New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc. pp. xii–393. ISBN 0-13-255311-2.