Women’s involvement in water utilities and upper leadership roles across the globe

In an interview, Pritha Hariram discussed the increasing prevalence of women in leadership roles in the water sector, particularly as CEOs of utilities. More and more women are in leadership positions. Pritha shared what she understood of her role working across the globe with utilities. This article explores more closely the increasing representation of women in water sector leadership roles, including in utilities.

Women in water: an overview

According to the Women for Water Partnership’s 2016 report, “Globally, women only make up 17% of the paid workforce in the water sector. Despite their vast experience with water management, women have been consistently excluded from professionally entering this sector. Social and cultural barriers, and, at a more basic level, a lack of appropriate sanitation and hygiene facilities in the workplace are factors preventing women from having careers or becoming influential in the water sector.”

There is a good reason to work towards higher numbers of women working in the water sector: when women are involved in water utilities and upper leadership roles, projects are more successful.

In a Deloitte University Press article, authors Kate Thompson, Kathleen O’Dell, Sameera Syed, Hannah Kemp write: “For more than two decades, the role of women within the water sector has been examined in studies that have found that more substantial improvements in the governance, transparency, and sustainability of water supplies are achieved when men and women are involved in equal measure than when women are involved only marginally or not at all. A World Bank evaluation of 122 projects found that water projects that included women were six to seven times more effective than those that did not. Yet, women make up less than 17 per cent of the water, sanitation, and hygiene labour force and a fraction of the policymakers, regulators, management, and technical experts.”

The article states there are three main entry points for women interested in the water sector:

  • design, operation, and maintenance of water systems,
  • water distribution, both networked and non-networked, and
  • policymaking and regulation.

Closing the gender gap in the water sector

Some progressive organisations and utilities are moving in this direction, with success.

Pritha Hariram, International Water Association (IWA) program manager for the water and sanitation services program, says there is a healthy balance of the genders present and that the IWA encourages gender inclusion.

She sees the gender gap closing in the water sector throughout the Asia Pacific.

“In fact, at the last Utility Leaders Forum in Brisbane at the World Water Congress, my first panel was all female CEOs or board members,” she adds. “In Australia, quite a few water utility CEOs are female. In the Asia Pacific, the prominence of women depends on the country. In South-East Asia, there is a nice mix of women and men in senior positions. In South Asia, I’ve seen more women in senior roles in Sri Lanka and the southern part of India. In the Pacific, again a good mix of female and male, but more male there because they see water as part of traditional engineering. Australia has a good mix, as has Europe. Quite a few of the utility CEOs or utility association heads and presidents are females. The IWA has a female president: Diane d’Arras.”

Achieving Sustainable Development Goals requires addressing all 17 SDGs in a holistic manner, as they overlap and are interconnected. This will require the development of partnerships across disciplines. With more women involved in the water sector, SDG 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls, and SDG 6: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all, are more likely to be achieved.

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