This year we are celebrating 30 years since the Rural Water Supply Network was formally founded. From very technical beginnings as a group of (mostly male) experts – the Handpump Technology Network – we have evolved to be a diverse and vibrant network of over 13,000 people and 100 organisations working on a wide range of topics. Along the way, we have earned a reputation for impartiality, and become a global convener in the rural water sector.
RWSN would not be what it is today without the contributions and tireless efforts of many our members, organisations and people. As part of RWSN’s 30th anniversary celebration, we are running a blog series on rwsn.blog, inviting our friends and experts in the sector to share their thoughts and experiences in the rural water sector.
This is a blog post from a RWSN Thematic Lead, Euphresia Luseka, from Kenya
Photo 1: Female Wastewater operators servicing a client’s Johkasou wastewater treatment plant, Kenya, 2022
“In Diversity there is beauty and there is strength”Maya Angelou
Diversity is the difference. People are the same and different by their ethnic, age, professional experience, religion, race, and gender.
Let’s agree that women’s contributions and leadership are central to providing solutions to water challenges. Consequently, the water sector needs a more diverse labour force to establish a more inclusive and equitable experience for all its practitioners. By highlighting the scale of issues facing female Water leaders, we can better understand their challenges, and galvanize action for progressive, systemic change while examining other robust potential and scalable solutions.
The current women’s underrepresentation in water sector leadership is a prominent concern. According to a World Bank publication on Women in Water Utilities, women are significantly underrepresented; less than 18% of the workforce sampled were women, one in three utilities sampled had no female engineers and 12% of utilities have no female managers. Referencing the analysis of the employment data from participating organizations in a FLUSH LLC publication that I co-authored, white males from High-Income Countries comprised over a third of all sanitation leadership positions. With regards to race, two-thirds of all sanitation leaders were white, with white leaders 8.7 times more likely to hold multiple positions across different organizations than Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC). BIPOC Women were the least represented group.
This affirms the importance of an intersectional perspective in advancing gender and racial equity in the water sector leadership.
Women and specifically BIPOC female water leaders are missing out on opportunities in the water sector that hold the promise of advancement of SDG6 targets and the rising economic security that comes with it.
Without diverse leadership, the water sector will continue to experience failure.
Are there consequences for this?
Gender diversity in the Water sector is not only a pressing political, moral and social issue but also a critical economic challenge. There are consequences for not having women in water leadership, the financial consequences are significant.
The untapped and unmeasured contribution of women is enormous. Women make up half the world’s population but generate 37% of the global GDP, reflecting the fact that they have unequal access to labour markets, opportunities, and rights. A McKinsey & Co study found that companies in the top quartile for gender or racial and ethnic diversity are more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians. Companies in the bottom quartile in these dimensions are statistically less likely to achieve above-average returns.
The business case for diversity also remains strong. Research shows when women are well represented at the top, organizations are 50% more likely to outperform their peers. Undoubtedly, organisations in Water sector that embraced diversification in terms of gender and race are positioned to meaningfully outperform their more homogeneous counterparts.
Beyond that, compared to senior-level men, senior-level women have a vast and meaningful impact on an organization’s culture; they champion racial and gender diversity more.
Unfortunately, given the high male dominance in the Water sector they are usually the “Onlys” – the only or one of the only women hence more resistance, sharper criticism especially on affirming their competence, more prejudice, and more experience to micro-aggressions.
If women leaders are not present in the workforce, women at all levels lose their most powerful champions.
Absolutely, diversity wins and here are some examples of what I mean.
Though many ambitious women in water desire to advance into leadership positions, very few have the managerial and Ally support to get and keep those positions. Though many employees perceive themselves as our Allies, they do not take enough action such as publicly advocating for racial or gender equality, publicly confronting discrimination, publicly mentoring and sponsoring them. Though women in water have the capacity to lead in the sector, there exist geographic mismatches between them and opportunities, we remain underrepresented and paid less. Though many organizations are hiring more women to entry-level positions numbers dwindle at management level, particularly for BIPOC women.
This obviously has a long-term impact on the talent pipeline; eventually, there are fewer women to hire, fewer to promote to senior managers and overall fewer women in the sector. If women continue encountering the sticky floor, a broken rung on the ladder to success, and a revolving door in entry-level jobs, we might never break the glass ceiling.
Women can never catch up with this status quo!
But why are we missing and losing women in water leadership?
We have come from so far as a sector but have moved very little on Gender parity at the workplace.
To give an illustration, the United Nations organized four outstanding world conferences for women: 1) at Mexico City in 1975; establishing the World Plan of Action and Declaration of Equality of Women and their Contribution to Development and Peace. 2) The Copenhagen conference in 1980, 3) the Nairobi Conference in my country Kenya, in 1985 4) in Beijing in 1995 which marked a significant turning point for the global agenda on gender equality with an outcome of a global policy document.
27 years later, still the water sector is investing in the same gender challenges emerging from gender norms that are stuck with us generation after generation.
On the current trajectory, the World Economic Forum reckons if progress towards gender parity proceeds at the same pace, the global gender gap will close in 132 years. The Index concludes that “no country has reached the ‘last mile’ on gender equality” on more complex issues like gender-based violence, gender pay gaps, equal representation in powerful positions, gender budgeting and public services and climate change.
Women’s dual roles and time burden affect their economic productivity however inequalities in access to education impact their growth attributing to the high rates of poor women. Therefore, the woman in water at work and society starts at a disadvantaged position.
This affirms the supposition that instead of making transformation the goal in gender and water sector leadership, how about we make it a way of doing business?
Are women better leaders than men?
As demonstrated in Eagly (2007) study, women are manifesting leadership styles associated with effective performance. On the other hand, there appears to be widespread recognition that women often come in second to men in leadership competitions. Women are still suffering disadvantage in access to leadership positions as well as prejudice and resistance when they occupy these roles. It is more difficult for women than men to become leaders and to succeed in male-dominated leadership roles. This mix of apparent advantage and disadvantage that women leaders experience reflects the considerable progress towards gender equality that has occurred in both attitudes and behaviour, coupled with lack of complete attainment of this goal. Although prejudicial attitudes do not invariably produce discriminatory behaviour, such attitudes can limit women’s access to leadership roles and foster discriminatory evaluations when they occupy such roles.
It is time for Women to take up power, are they?
The 20th-century paradigm shift championed by UN towards gender equality has not ceased as affirmed by the profound changes taking place in diversity targets in the Water sector. The trends are clear that women are ascending towards greater power and authority. The presence of more women in water leadership positions is one of the clearest indicators of this transformation.
The central question of gender equality is a question of power, we continue to live in a male-dominated world with a male-dominated culture. Power is not given, power is taken; we have to push back against the resistance to change, as advised by António Guterres, Secretary General, United Nations.
Pato Kelesitse’s call has been heard Women in Water sector Leadership is no longer just talk, it is success! There are exemplary women to draw inspiration and strength from; Global Water Intelligence 2020 released a list of water sector’s most powerful women that could be adopted for peer learning.
How do we sustain the gains?
Focus and execution discipline not only makes a big difference, it is the only thing that can sustain change. It is noteworthy that placing a higher value on diversity and implementing targeted initiatives have not closed the representation gaps for women leaders in Water and especially BIPOC Women, with most outcomes remaining elusive despite scaling up of initiatives.
- Useful data can resolve this; effective policies are informed best by evidence. We cannot change what we do not measure and we cannot measure what we do not know. Therefore, borrowing from President Biden’s approach upon issuing an executive order on advancing racial equity and support for underserved communities, I guide, assess institutional gender capacity to build a robust pipeline for women in water professionals at all levels of-management.
- Inquire what actions can influence diverse representation in the water sector leadership towards an inclusive environment where women feel supported by peers and leaders.
- Co-creation will be key in strategically prioritising interventions addressing necessary changes across the organisation, progress cannot be made in silos. Collaborative efforts galvanise collective action that will build trust across the organization. Focus should not take a gender-neutral approach; some interventions can specifically focus on men others women as a corrective measure to enhance leadership diversity. This shall move the process of change through equality to equity to justice.
- Empowering and equipping management to not only develop technical and managerial skills but advance female leaders and mainly BIPOC could follow. Use influencers to drive change. Translate allyship into action across all levels. Maintain open communication and feedback channels. Reinforce and scale what works and re-envision what does not. Measure and celebrate progress towards diversity outcomes.
I thought I would support transforming the water sector instead it transformed me. This blog is dedicated to Leslie Gonzalez, Director of Project Delivery, Africa at DAI. I acknowledge the efforts of Portia Persley Division Chief, RFS/Center for Water Security, Sanitation and Hygiene at USAID, Heather Skilling, Principal Global Practice Specialist, WASH at DAI, and Dr. Leunita Sumba, at WIWAS. History will remember your efforts in advancing women in water, working with you is like working with the change you want to see in the water sector.
Photo credits: Euphresia Luseka
About the author:
Euphresia Luseka is a Water Governance Specialist and Co-Lead of RWSN Leave No-One Behind Theme. She is a seasoned Expert with experience in leadership, strategy development, partnerships and management in WASH sector nationally, regionally and internationally. She has specialised in WASH Public Policy, Business Development Support Strategies and Institutional Strengthening of urban and rural WASH Institutions. Euphresia has several publications and research work in her field.
Did you enjoy this blog? Would you like to share your perspective on the rural water sector or your story as a rural water professional? We are inviting all RWSN Members to contribute to this 30th anniversary blog series. The best blogs will be selected for publication. Please see the blog guidelines here and contact us (ruralwater[at]skat.ch) for more information. You are also welcome to support RWSN’s work through our online donation facility. Thank you for your support.