An untapped resource: why the industry must target female professionals

© Paulus Rusyanto/

According to new research by the International Water Association, the shortage of skilled labour in water can be addressed by a more diverse policy of recruitment. Kirsten de Vette explains why hiring women and correcting the gender imbalance will meet the demands of a 21st century workforce

The United Nations used 22 March 2016 to set the year’s agenda for ‘Water and Jobs,’ and the sector certainly does have a lot of hard work to do. Demand for provision keeps escalating in the 21st century. Yet, today’s labour force sees water and sanitation as a comparatively uncompetitive, unrewarding and unprestigious career choice. Public and private water institutions struggle to maintain basic service levels. Staff are stretched beyond capacity, skilled graduates are flocking elsewhere and positions vacated by retiring males go unfilled, while females remain grossly underrepresented.

But there’s a silver lining within this dark forecast. Taken together, several International Water Association (IWA) human resource assessments suggest the looming global labour shortage may present a generational opportunity in disguise. By aggressively courting women now, water utilities can dramatically revitalise their institutional culture, performance, and operations from within.

The first study, An Avoidable Crisis, takes a hard look at the supply of and demand for water- and sanitationrelated jobs. The results aren’t pretty.

Twelve of the 15 nations surveyed face a shortage of human resources in the water, sanitation and hygiene sectors. The shortfall undermines progress for reasons unrelated to scarcity of money, technology, or water itself.

The report bluntly concludes: “there are not enough appropriately skilled water professionals to support the attainment of universal access to safe water and sanitation”.

It gets worse. The shortage stems from geographical, generational, economic and educational drivers. The labour gap in sanitation is even worse than in water. Rural workforces lag behind cities. Courses aren’t available, accessible, or affordable. Meanwhile, job training relies on communal knowledge or volunteers, leaving institutions hollowed out and fragile.

And the upside? Where many see only crises, a second IWA publication optimistically entitled A World of Opportunities documents that, that while labour shortages are real, the sector is diversifying and democratising to meet challenges in the profession. Demographics are not destiny. Organisations are learning to systematise their knowledge, and invest in new training methods.

What happens after experienced water professionals retire, and fewer young people are being trained to replace them? Aggressive outreach efforts vary by institution, need and place.

In Focus: Young women professionals
aruwa bendson BWAruwa Bendsen
Freshwater Programme Officer,
Nairobi, Kenya
Having grown up near contaminated runoff, and trained as an environmental chemist to remediate pollution, Aruwa became stimulated by the multidisciplinary nature of water. She saw it as a means of socioeconomic development within the carrying capacity of natural systems. “Water sits at the very core of sustainable development and is the basis of life. Ecosystems support and provide services for livelihood and human development, with water being a critical ecosystem in itself.”

In the UK, Dr Ben Tam of Anglian Water emphasises the need to attract, retain and promote engineers already in the system, while encouraging rising stars to enter the profession from below or from related fields. Sri Lanka’s free education policy, as well as its focus on water and sanitation service provision, has made enormous impacts on the sector. Senegal has developed a strategy for developing capacity from below. “The first step towards turning our utility around was generating a new company culture linked to strong values,” says Mamadou Dia of Senegalese des Eaux in Dakar.
Social values are nice but the water sector can also simply act out of naked self-interest. A third IWA study, undertaken with the US Agency for International Development (USAID), shows how and why investing in women can yield high returns. The Untapped Resource: Gender Diversity in the Water Workforce helps water utilities identify and overcome institutional barriers to women’s involvement at all levels in the sector, seizing the opportunity to transform itself.

In Focus: Young women professionals

AnaBarradinhas BWAna Barradinhas
Water & Wastewater Engineer,
Sydney, Australia
Of all the environmental sciences, Ana studied sanitary engineering as the field to which she could relate most intensely. “The effort required to deliver drinking water and provide wastewater services to populations is simply riveting,” she says. “Beside the innate ratification associated with working in the water industry, I really identify with most of the engineering roles related to the urban water cycle.”

Constraints remain both urgent and worrying: human resources shortages; a lack of appropriate skillsets; an ageing workforce; and a failure to attract and retain professionals for critical jobs. Simultaneously, IWA found a lack of female professionals in the sector, averaging 17 percent representation in twelve of the IWA assessed countries, and 20 to 30 percent in some more advanced private corporations in the developed world.

Yet such underrepresentation is an opportunity. Labourconstricted countries can fill the gap with the ‘untapped resources’ of skilled females flowing out of universities at unprecedented levels. Boosting opportunities for women in the water sector could build a bridge between job markets for newly empowered women, while creating a much-needed pipeline of skilled workers.

There are advantages beyond women filling an existing or forecasted gap. Other arguments for improved performance through gender diversity include: reflecting demographical representation of the customer base; greater creativity and innovation; and adaptive leadership that draws upon a wider set of experiences and competencies.

The commercial industry has already made the business case for workforce diversity. Diversity is of course defined by more than gender. Yet, studies repeatedly demonstrate that expanding gender diversity is good for the bottom line.

Promoting females in leadership roles improves outcomes by up to 30 percent; companies with three or more women on the board rated 73 percent higher in performance.

In the water sector, customers are as diverse as the societies they live in; so should the professionals who deliver resource solutions. The Untapped Resource report highlights this reflective power as the basis for a pipeline for women water professionals. Indeed, a World Bank study demonstrates more effective projects emerge when women take an active role in design, planning, operation and maintenance.

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.

Other evidence disputes the old assertions that men are better suited to hard, physical labour, or that women have better social skills. Yet an inescapable conclusion is that a more diverse workforce would bring together more diverse skill sets and better reflect society.

There is a compound effect to all this. “By showcasing the achievements of successful female employees,” the report concludes, “the utilities sector can also help profile strong role models, and show subsequent generations of women that there are no limits to their ability to compete equally for jobs in the scientific and technical fields”.

That highlights an interesting point: promoted women aren’t the only winners. The report frames gender diversity as a way to “help men work past existing cultural and societal norms, and be viewed not as obstructions, but as partners in support of women’s progress along their career pathways”.

After all, it may have taken many decades for the water sector to adopt paid maternity leave, in recognition of female needs. Yet this policy is often quickly matched by paid paternity leave, in recognition that male employees deserve time with their children as well.

How to crack the water sector’s glass ceiling

Five recommendations from the IWA report, An Untapped Resource

Go to school
Water may be purest at the source. 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: selfeffacing 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.