Gari Villa-Landa, Head of International Affairs at the Spanish Association of Water Supply and Sanitation (AEAS), answers our questions about Women and Water. In her answers she touches upon all issues that affect women at work: wage differences, work-life balance, paternalism, etc.
Question: First, we would like to know in detail about your career path up to your current position.
Answer: Before I start answering the questions of this interview, I would like to thank you for this initiative, and for contacting me.
We are at a point where there is a lot of talk about the gender gap and inequality. There is the most tragic aspect of gender violence, but there is a lot more to it, such as unequal opportunities and salaries in the professional arena, everyday sexism, and stereotypes that stop girls and women.
We have to take advantage of this momentum. Today's women have the right and the obligation to talk openly about this gender gap to start building a society where men and women are equal, for ourselves and for the women of tomorrow.
I have had to show that I am a good professional being a woman, not an engineer, and young
I graduated in Molecular biology from the Autonomous University of Madrid; I have a Master's degree in Environmental Management, another one in Development Cooperation Planning and Management, and a third one, which I completed last year, on Water Law.
I had my first professional experience related to water 10 years ago. I was fortunate to work for the Spanish Directorate General for Water, at the Permanent Technical Secretariat of the Conference of Ibero-American Water Directors (CODIA). I can say I had a great start in the water sector. The three years I spent working at the CODIA were a great personal and professional experience, not only to learn about water management, but also to appreciate water as a cross-cutting issue that needs to be contemplated at all scales (local, regional, national and supranational). I was attracted to the international scale, and kept working there.
After that experience I continued to work for a while in other projects for the Directorate General for Water, dealing with regulatory issues, such as harmonising regulatory aspects of the second planning cycle of river basin management plans, among others.
About three years ago I started to work for AEAS as Head of International Affairs. It was almost a natural progression, I was bound to work on international affairs.
It is difficult to explain what my current job entails in just a few sentences. As the AEAS representative at the European Federation of National Associations of Water Services (EurEau), I monitor European directives and initiatives related to the urban water sector; I am a member of the 'Water Governance Initiative' Steering Committee of the OECD, where we work to further good water governance; in addition, I represent AEAS at the International Water Association (IWA) — AEAS is a member of its General Assembly — and, finally, I am in charge of coordinating and organising the international activities/initiatives AEAS participates in.
Today's women have the right and the obligation to talk openly about this gender gap to start building a society where men and women are equal
Q: In the water sector we continue to see an important gender gap. Why do you think this is?
A: Engineers have traditionally played a predominant role in the water sector, both in Spain and abroad. And men traditionally outnumber women in engineering degrees.
I think this has resulted in two gaps, a gender gap and a professional profile gap.
Fortunately, thanks to a more holistic approach to water issues, for a few years now different professional profiles are required in the water sector, and multidisciplinary teams are increasingly more necessary and common.
This has enabled the sector to include more women, although they tend to be non-engineering profiles.
But more and more women are studying traditionally male degrees, and as a consequence the number of women in all type of positions is increasing.
To those sector-specific reasons, we should add the gender disparities in our society (which do not just affect the world of work), that increase the gap in our sector and in every sector.
But more and more women are studying traditionally male degrees, and as a consequence the number of women in all type of positions is increasing
Women continue to bear the bulk of family responsibilities, something that stops them from accessing the labour market on equal terms. The work-life balance should be the same for men and women to allow an equal burden, thus enabling the same working conditions.
Why should women have to choose between being a mother and growing professionally? Although women have now a greater presence in the work force, there are still large differences in high level positions, senior managers, in every sector, and the water sector is no different.
And we must not forget about the salary gap between men and women. A recent published study found that if we compare the salaries of men and women doing the same job, women work unpaid one month out of every year. That should make us think.
Last year, an opinion article in the newspaper 'El País titled 'A real but invisible gap' [Una brecha real pero invisible] revealed that women' salaries are, in average, 23% lower than those of men, when doing the same job. I agree with the article when it said that it is not enough to condemn the wage discrimination women experience, it needs to be corrected through the joint action of trade unions, authorities and companies.
Women are equal before the law, but a lot remains to be done to have real equality.
Women continue to bear the bulk of family responsibilities, something that stops them from accessing the labour market on equal terms
Q: Does your entity have any programmes and/or tools to foster equality, aimed to bridge the gender gap?
A: Only 11 people work at AEAS, and even though there isn't an official programme or measures to foster gender equality, there is a real balance in the number of women and men on staff: 5 women and 6 men. Moreover, out of the women on staff at AEAS, two of us occupy positions of responsibility, my colleague Cristina Berasategui in charge of communications, and myself in charge of international affairs.
If we look at the technical committees as well as the governing bodies of AEAS, women are outnumbered: there are no women chairing committees and there are hardly any women in the General Assembly and the Steering Committee. I would like to encourage all our members to increase the participation of their female staff in the different working groups and management bodies of the association.
Q: What other measures (aside from those contemplated by companies) would be, in your view, effective to reach parity in the water sector?
A: Gender parity in the water sector, and in all sectors, needs a change in education and in the mentality of society. We have to educate our children (boys and girls) so that equality is something natural for them.
We have to foster the economic and business empowerment of women, with equal salaries and career advancement opportunities
We need policies that really enable achieving a work-life balance, both for men and for women, in order to bridge the gender gap at work. If being a mother and being a father are understood as carrying the same responsibilities, as it happens in other countries (such as countries in northern Europe), being a mother will no longer hinder the professional development of women. In addition, companies have to change their view in this regard, not frowning upon fathers who take parental leave.
Flexible working schedules, without reducing staff's responsibility, or telecommuting whenever possible, help ensure a work-life balance for everyone, not just for women.
We have to foster the economic and business empowerment of women, with equal salaries and career advancement opportunities.
Ultimately, we need a commitment from politicians, companies and society to close the gender gap. Each and every one of us has a role in this process.
Thanks to a more holistic approach to water issues, for a few years now different professional profiles are required in the water sector, and multidisciplinary teams are increasingly more necessary and common
Q: Now let us talk about your experience, what difficulties have you faced in your career because you are a woman?
A: I can say that I have been lucky in my career, although I believe that what happens in your professional life is a result of your hard work. If you are not responsible, serious, and a hard worker, you will not flourish. But as women, we have to show twice as hard that we are good at our job.
As I mentioned earlier, I started working in the water sector for the CODIA. I worked a lot in Latin America, where the gender gap is much greater. I had to show that I was a good professional even though I was a woman, young, and not an engineer (I was a lot younger than many of the men I had to work with in that region).
A job well done is eventually recognised and you earn professional respect, but it is tough to have to prove this to a greater extent than men have to.
I am a molecular biologist, I have three master's degrees, I am going to start a PhD degree and I speak four languages. I have 16 years of professional experience, 10 of them in the water sector. Unfortunately, sometimes I still have to prove that I am a good professional. I doubt many men with a similar professional background have to prove anything at this point of their career.
As other women have also noted, I have also been mistaken as a manager's assistant, or as a translator (this happened with a delegation from Tajikistan that visited Madrid a couple of years ago), and I have been asked about my future plans (not my professional plans) in a job interview.
Q: Are there any other pressing challenges that you think need to be addressed in the sector?
R. - Although in Spain we have very good urban water services, we face a series of challenges that, unless they are addressed, can put at risk our objective of improving efficiency and ensuring universal access to water services to guarantee the human right to water and meet social demands.
It is tough to have to prove this to a greater extent than men have to
It is essential to make an investment effort to maintain and upgrade water infrastructure. Water infrastructure is ageing, and that would risk the current quality of water supply and sanitation services. Furthermore, investments in new infrastructure are necessary, mainly waste water treatment facilities, to comply with the requirements of the EU Urban Waste Water treatment Directive and Water Framework Directive (WFD). Given the current economic/financial situation, we need to make some progress with regards to public-private collaboration mechanisms in order to achieve these objectives.
Also very much related to this is the need to manage assets to ensure effective, efficient and resilient water services.
According to the WFD, and to contribute to the previous objective, it is necessary to implement, effectively and efficiently, the principle of cost recovery.
We need an independent regulatory body or entity to ensure there is regulatory support for the mentioned demands. Its objectives should include harmonising service delivery and tariff structures, and foster transparency, commitment and accountability among water service providers, as well as citizen participation. In addition, it would provide legal certainty to all stakeholders. This figure ensures the advantages of the current model while introducing elements to optimise effectiveness and efficiency, sustainability and social awareness.
I have also been mistaken as a manager's assistant, or as a translator, and I have been asked about my future plans (not my professional plans) in a job interview
These technical demands should be part of a political agreement among the different parties in the parliament.
One of the main challenges in our sector is communicating with the user. Too many people still don't know why water comes out of the tap when they open it, water which is completely safe for drinking, nor do they know what happens to waste water after it leaves their homes. I think a good example of this is the problem of wet wipes being flushed down the toilet. Citizens have to become key to protect water as an essential and scarce resource, understanding that we pay a price for water services; to do this we have to inform, educate and raise awareness about the integrated water cycle.
In addition to these challenges in the urban water sector, there are other challenges that affect the broader water sector.
We have to progress from water management to water governance. Only with good governance, where all actors are involved and committed, will we be able to mitigate or overcome the water security crisis we are in, understanding water security as 'the availability of an acceptable quantity and quality of water for health, livelihoods, ecosystems and production, coupled with an acceptable level of water-related risks for people, the environment and the economy'.
Q: Conversely, what do you think are the main achievements in the sector?
A: Without a doubt, Spain is an international leader with regards to water.
We were the first country to use river basin management, a model that has been replicated all over the world. Water shortages made us innovate, not only in terms of technology, but also in terms of water management models, business models and water policy development.
In just over 30 years we have achieved universal access to drinking water, and sanitation services that guarantee human health and contribute to protecting the environment.
We are a leading country in desalination and water reuse.
And our companies are known worldwide for their knowledge and expertise with regards to water.
We just have to believe ourselves something that others already know, that worldwide we are an example to follow with regards to water (and that is not arrogance).