December 24, 2014 Society

When it Comes to Women in the Water Sector, are we Envisioning a Problem that Doesn’t Really Exist?

This was the question that I carried with me travelling to 3 out of the 9 countries in which IWA has recently started the Women Professionals in urban water sector project. The intention of the field visit was to further investigate the relevance of the project in each country’s context, gain buy-in from organisations to provide us with information and meet potential project participants.

Indications of increasing gender diversity
In Mozambique the number of female professionals in the WASH sector have been growing. Organisations have started to implement policies to increase the numbers of female professionals, but immediate results are not obvious. One of the main utilities, AdeM, indicated that the numbers of technically qualified women is very limited and applicants to new vacancies are predominately male. AdeM have not reached their target of women making up 25% of the workforce. Even if successful, policies like this raise questions: do they address the quality of female engagement and the level of participation in decision-making positions?
Most women remain ‘siloed’ in customer care, human resources and administrative roles. What drives this situation? Are organisations or the education sector failing women?
The women I spoke with in Mozambique did not indicate that there were barriers for women’s participation in the workforce. In fact, a female engineer at FIPAG said she’d never experienced any negative reactions based on her gender, or feelings of inequality in her day-to-day job.
Having said that, when joined by a male co-worker who said that “female engineers do not work night shifts in our organisation for they are expected to go home to prepare dinner and look after the kids”, my western mind told me that there is a hidden gender inequality issue.

Going to the hotel that night, I could not let go of the question: “Are we in fact envisioning a problem that is not perceived as such by women on the ground? Or is there an issue of inequality permeating work places that needs to be addressed?”

The next day I received the answer. Speaking with a male water professional, he revealed that, “maternal issues are still prevalent to the employer”. He implied that employers are biased because women who become a mother are less flexible, will not be available after hours, and will not be able to deliver as much as their male counterparts.

This is a serious gender issue. Discussing this with my own mother, a Soroptimist –a global volunteer movement working together to transform the lives of women and girls –- she said it “will remain unresolved until obliging both parents to take an equal extent of parental leave”.
I have to agree with her. Gender equity is hard to strive for when inequity is deeply embedded in cultural and societal norms. In Zambia there has been an improvement in the number of women in the water sector workforce. When I spoke to water professionals, most – but particularly men – said that there were now enough women in the workforce. However, contrast this perceived achievement against the response I received when I spoke to a few female student engineers. Their parents and family were unsupportive of them studying engineering.

Cultural and societal norms are not always the barrier, and the perceptions of outsiders can be misleading. In South Africa I was told that there was a case where researchers in a village saw only men sitting and discussing important community issues; but before making any decisions they would always take a break and go home. Further investigation revealed that the men went to seek approval from the village women.

Keeping this principle at the forefront of the Women professionals in urban water sector project, we can, to quote my colleague Inge Wallage, contribute to “local change for global impact”.