A sit with Euphresia on Water and Diversity in its Leadership

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

Photo 2: Euphresia Luseka

“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.

Photo 3: Water Utility Staff during a Non-Revenue Water management training, Kenya, 2022

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.

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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.


Getting the basics right

I’ve just returned from Liberia, where Kerstin Danert and I, together with Caesar Hall and Jenny Schmitzer are coaching, training and mentoring staff across from government agencies to prepare the first a Sector Performance Report (SPR) for Liberia. Ultimately, this this could become an annual report for the whole WASH sector across the country. It pulls together data from different sources and provides the evidence base for making decisions decisions and prioritising at the second annual Joint Sector Review (JSR) – a two day workshop of around 200 stakeholders that will happen at the beginning of May.

Monrovia Water Point
An Afridev handpump in central Monrovia, behind the Ministry of Education (photo: S. G. Furey, Skat, 2014)

The approach, in this form, was pioneered by the Ministry of Water & Environment in Uganda ten years ago. A decade later, it is the primary mechanism for coordinating WASH actors across government, NGOs and Development Partners, and for reporting activities, outcomes and priorities for the coming year in Uganda.

This is not an easy. It has been a challenging, but rewarding, process and it has been a long journey for Uganda, and Kerstin was there, coaching and cajoling for the first seven SPRs (SSOZI, D. and DANERT, K.,2012). For this reason, the Water and Sanitation Program (WSP) invited us to Liberia to support the government as they start on this long journey.

Similar to Uganda when it started, Liberia is now a decade clear of a long and often brutal civil war. The physical and government infrastructure, which was weak to begin with, was largely destroyed and the social scars still have a rawness. Liberia has a unique history in that it was founded by American freed slaves, but resentment between Americo-Liberians and those of indigenous descent added fuel to the fire of the brutal wars that took place between 1989-96 and 1999-2003.

The current president, H. E. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, was the first woman to be elected as a head of state in Africa and she has been a unifying voice both at home and abroad. She is also the UN Goodwill Ambassador for Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) so the sector has a champion at the highest level.

However, responsibility and scarce resources for WASH are split between around nine different ministries and government agencies. Policy and strategy has been established, thanks to strong support from UNICEF, WSP and bi-laterals such as IrishAid,and USAID. There are also several other development partners in the country . However, implementation through government has been slow, for example the rural water division of the Ministry of Public Works has no budget for implementation for the current year. Stuff is happening: water and sanitations systems are being built and hygiene and CLTS is going on at quite a large scale, but it is NGOs, not government who are doing the spade work.

Is this a problem? Short term maybe not, because the needs of the people are great, but without a strong, capable government there can be no end to dependence on international aid funding international NGOs, neither of whom are directly accountable to the people or leadership of Liberia. We shouldn’t expect the private sector to ride the rescue either: where there is social and environmental responsibility, a fair, strong Government regulator is essential.

So what is needed? The basics done well.

  • Data: collection, quality control, storage, access, analysis, presentation
  • Information flows: so that stakeholders really know who is doing what, and where so that collaboration is improved and duplication avoided.
  • Writing: literacy, touch-typing, analytical thinking; articulating persuasive and logical arguments; self-critical review and proof reading.
  • Presentation: structure, content and timing, voice and body language, listening and responding.

These, and many other communication and analytical skills, seem so obvious that surely to consider them in the context of experienced, national government staff could be considered patronising. However, during the war they would have been less worried about using PowerpointPowerPoint and more worried about avoiding the likes of ‘General Butt Naked’ (CNN report). Fragile States are exactly that.

Mapping information flows in the Liberia WASH Sector with the NWSHPC
Mapping information flows in the Liberia WASH Sector with the National Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Promotion Committee (NWSHPC) – Abdul, Watara, Joseph, Kerstin (photo: S G Furey, Skat 2014)

While many of the staff we have met are knowledgeable and committed, there is need to build morale and confidence; so even they not only improve their reporting and analytical skills but also have the confidence to really commit them to paper.

So what’s the answer? Perhaps hire some international consultants to come in and write a thick report “for government”. WSP didn’t want us to do that and there was no way we going accept the task if that had been the case. The 2014 Liberia SPR will be written (mostly, though not entirely) by Liberians.

To achieve that, where capacities are low, and experience lacking we ran a four day writing course then followed up remotely, and in person, with each team of writers who were charged with creating thematic mini-reports on rural water, sanitation, hygiene, gender, urban water and sewerage, solid waste management and water resources.

This is a tough process for all involved. For the ministry staff, they have been chasing around bringing together the data and activity reports that are often scattered around their organisations or guarded. In certain cases, the process uncovered new data sources from Government officials – in particular the data collected through surveys and publishes by Liberia Institute of Statistics and Geo-Information Services (LSGIS).

For us it has been tough to resist the temptation to dive in and write it all for them. On occasion I give in where it was clear that the data analysis and presentation would take much more time than we had available and I couldn’t leave it. But as I write this, the writers were spending two days to review the entire report; and decide what to change.

However, the pleasure came from seeing the final product start to emerge and the shared sense of accomplishment.

So have we strengthened the capacity of the WASH sector to go it alone? No. Clearly not, and as I write this I still don’t know whether this approach will work, but the process so far as proved to be as valuable as, hopefully, the final report will be. The international community will still have a crucial role in tackling the chronic poverty found across Liberia, but that role needs to diminish with time as Liberian institutions take over.

From what I experienced, I saw the importance of education and mentoring to develop skills and confidence to discharge duties effectively, but that alone is not enough. Karwee Govego, Director of Rural Water, complained that their best staff get poached by NGOs. That ‘brain drain’ is inevitable as long as salaries and morale are low, management and mandates are disorganised, and career paths are determined by more than than merit.

Love it or hate it, government is essential; to build a strong, competent one in Liberia is going to take a lot of teamwork, hard graft and getting the basics right.

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Liberia is an active member of the Sanitation, Water for All (SWA) Partnership and will be presenting a new set of commitments at the High Level Meeting in Washington DC this month

Where do you throw your dirt?

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Watara Sackor (Min. Public Works / National WASH Committee), Pinky E. White (Min. Health) and James Kokro (Min. of Health / National WASH Committee) head off to interview residents of the Fiamah area of Monrovia.

So I’m in Monrovia this week running a 4 day writing course for twenty staff from across a dozen ministries and government organisations who will be working together to produce the 2014 Sector Performance Report (SPR).  Today we did some fieldwork – the group split into three and each visited a community in or near Monrovia.

We wanted to collect some data to illustrate the opportunities and challenges of data collection, presentation and analysis. The first challenge came yesterday when I asked the group to agree on three questions, which would asked to at least 20 people at each visit site.

The first question to be agreed on was “Where do you get your drinking water?”. Pretty straight forward, except that this morning when I wrote up the questions I accidentally wrote “Where do you get your water?”.   The consequence was interesting – one team asked about “water” rather than “drinking water” and they were the only ones where some of the respondents gave multiple answers: “Sometimes we get our water from the handpump, sometimes from the well, sometimes from the pipeline” said one woman, interviewed by Watara Sackor, from the Ministry of Public Works.

Continue reading “Where do you throw your dirt?”